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“Imagine I told you there was a product that could dramatically reduce the incidence of four of the top seven causes of death in the United States, lift thousands of Americans out of poverty, and fight climate change — all while slowing the growth of marine dead zones and reversing pollinator decline.

"If this were an app, venture capitalists would be falling all over themselves to fund it … But the common solution that an increasing number of people are now proposing as a response to these problems is not a new app. It’s not a gadget. Rather, it’s about revaluing something we’ve come to take for granted: our food.”

This is how the last chapter of the 2019 book “Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food,” begins. Co-authored by Bob Quinn — a Big Sandy farmer, organic food agriculture innovator, and renewable energy entrepreneur — and Liz Carlisle — Missoula native; author of “Lentil Underground”; and professor at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences — this nonfiction narrative shows readers the depth of negative impacts America’s current food system has on our lives. But it also brings forth achievable solutions and alternatives to change it for the better.

On Earth Day, Quinn and Carlisle will be at the National Center for Appropriate Technology to share their ideas from their narrative and to sign books for the Butte community.

“Our goal is not to preach to the choir but to engage people to get them to think and to have the courage to share their own stories with others,” Quinn said.

During a conference call last week, Quinn and Carlisle talked about their unique friendship and why they feel so passionately about the insights their book has to offer.

According to Carlisle, her career in sustainable agriculture started in the Office of U.S. Senator Jon Tester, where she worked as a legislative correspondent for agriculture and natural resources. Within the first week she worked in Tester’s office, she heard about Quinn, who is good friends with Tester and helped him with his own organic farm conversion.

After Quinn ran into Carlisle several times during her dissertation research and saw the success of her first nonfiction book that told the story of a Montana organic lentil farmer and the future of food in America, he said he asked Carlisle to co-author a similar nonfiction narrative using his personal experiences as an organic ancient wheat farmer and entrepreneur.

“She ended up in my pickup on a farm tour about two years ago this June, and I just popped the question,” Quinn said, referring to asking Carlisle to co-author a book with him. “I said, 'I’m not interested in a ghost writer. I’m looking for someone to cooperate with.'”

A short time after this conversation, Quinn said Carlisle agreed to the collaboration, and the two got to work on “Grain by Grain.” Carlisle described the book-writing process as something similar to how Homer worked with a scribe to craft the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.”

“By the time I started collaborating with Bob, he’d already thought really deeply about what this story really was,” Carlisle said. “So we sat down with a voice recorder, and he talked me through the story, then I worked up a written draft… We went through that draft together, and those conversations were just amazing to dialogue back and forth about the way we see issues, right down to the words we use to talk about them.”

Those issues Carlisle and Quinn discussed with each other and in their book range from how our current food system affects broad, all-encompassing problems like climate change to rural farmers through the current agricultural recession, or farm crisis — and everything related to human and ecosystem health in between.

Both Carlisle and Quinn said there's a greater correlation between our food and these issues than many people may realize. 

“We think these things (issues) can be reversed by tying, retying, and reconnecting foods to nutrition. Those have been really separated for some time now,” Quinn said. “Healthy foods come from healthy soils, and healthy soils are at the heart of sustainable, regenerative organic systems, and so we think that can be a big answer.”

But how can nutritional value be reconnected to the foods we eat? And how would that benefit farmers? That’s where Quinn and Carlisle say their readers, or food consumers, come in. Through their purchasing power and expanding the foods that make up their daily diets, consumers can buy more nutritious, locally sourced foods and in turn support their local and regional farmers.

“Montana is no different than a lot of growing states now in that we grow an enormous amount of fresh, few, and select commodities, and almost all of those are shipped out of state and overseas,” Quinn said.

He went on to explain that Montana also imports most of its food, noting that if the state kept its local food local, it could better support its farmers and reduce the cost of food overall by not having to ship it in from out of state.

“Food coming in from out of state can be grown more cheaply, but when you add those miles to it and all of the different handlings, it becomes less cheap, so we can at least compete with that and make it less expensive for regional diets,” Quinn explained.

But while Quinn and Carlisle noted that Montana is a cog in the same destructive industrial food system as the rest of the U.S., they see the Big Sky state as an organic and healthy food system leader. Montana is number one in both organic wheat and organic lentil production, has spearheaded the national FoodCorps volunteer movement, and is serving as an example for finding ways to integrate crops and livestock, Quinn and Carlisle said.

“Montana is really leading and is being watched by not just the rest of the country but by many people around the world,” Carlisle said.

The co-authors also acknowledged the success and promise of the current national organic food movement and the societal shift that’s leading consumers to think about where their foods are coming from.

But the co-authors want to see more growth and more conversation around healthy food systems, in Montana and across the U.S. And so came “Grain by Grain,” a platform to share a rural farmer’s experiences and thoughts about the food system issues affecting all facets of American society. Since the book was published just a few months ago, Quinn and Carlisle have been traveling to various places across the West and MidWest on a promotional tour to help facilitate these conversations and to better understand what U.S. food consumers want.

“Bob talks to every person who comes to the events. He’s so curious to see peoples’ experiences of their own with the food system and what we can do to help,” Carlisle said.

These people have included medical professionals, farmers, USDA officials, young adults interested in starting their own organic farms, and more, Carlisle and Quinn said.

“Many people are thinking the same way we are. They are saying that to us and thanking us for what we’ve done and putting it in writing. It’s been very enthusiastic and fun,” Quinn said.

At their Butte book talk this Monday evening, Quinn and Carlisle said they will talk about their ideas for a healthier food system, just as they’ve done over the past two months in the various other places they’ve visited.

However, they’re both especially excited about having this conversation with the Butte community on Earth Day.

“It’s a remembrance that when we talk about environmental issues and conservation, it’s not just wilderness,” Carlisle said. “Agriculture and farmers play a very important role. They are really leading environmental figures.”

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Quinn and Carlisle will give a short presentation, followed by a social reception and book signing at the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte on Monday night. The event will start at 6:30 p.m.

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