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Climate change ready: Growing organically in a water stressed world

The time for debating climate change is over, says US organic farming pioneer Bob Quinn.  It’s already happening, and we need to adapt fast. That’s why he’s turned his attention to developing climate change ready organic crops that will thrive in hot, water stressed conditions, writes Michael Wale. 

Bob Quinn is an American organic agricultural pioneer. Not content with having turned his 3,400 acres Montana farm organic, he is now taking a step back from active farming and setting 600 acres aside to create a vast organic research centre.

Meanwhile he has rented the rest of the farm to his farm manager. Of his new quest Quinn says: “ First I want to help other farmers with full time crop advice. Studying the effect on soils with the organic system. There’s a lot of talk in America now about cover crops. In the future there will be little rain.  Mine will be the only research centre serving the Northern Great Plains that goes from Nebraska right up to Canada. 

Bob Quinn with Montana Department of Agriculture director, Ben Thomas, holding organic dryland onions and summer squash

“We’re just North of the Mississippi River, based in Big Sandy which is a local town of just 600 people. My family came here in 1920. I took over in 1978, so I’ve been here 40 years”.

Beside the 600 acres of farmland he is also developing his own orchard with 30 varieties of apple trees that might grow well on the prairie.

“Putting the scale of the problem of our climate change challenged future into vivid context, Quinn says that water shortage will bring bigger shock waves than the last global banking crisis”

Research may be the thrust of Bob Quinn’s latest venture, but he is quite sure already about one feature of our collective farming future: “The water crisis that is coming will make the fuel crisis look like Disneyland”.

When we met at this year’s Natural & Organic Products Europe event  in London,  he told me that it was the future shortage of water in the world that had prompted the current research focus on investigating the effects little or no water has on the growing of vegetable crops. 

As a result he has a series of experimental plots of potatoes, squash and different varieties of wheat. Squash have been planted nine feet apart, in rows also nine feet apart, allowing them room to gather water. This part of America gets around 300mm of rain a year, not far off the top end of what classifies as desert. While the yields for these crops have been a quarter to a third lower than the same crops when grown normally, Quinn says other benefits have come into play. The vegetables can be stored without special needs, and they are being sold locally, reducing transport and distribution costs.  

He is absolutely adamant that we have to learn to grow organically with less water. Not only is this likely to become a necessity in more and more parts of there world, but  vegetables grown with little irrigation on dry land “have more taste, are more nourishing and may offer additional health benefits,” he says.

Like all good experiments, Quinn’s project involves a great deal of testing and refining. He started out with no less than 42 potato different varieties, and has now brought these down to a mere five. Similarly, he began with 25 different types of squash, which have now been reduced to three. 

Several varieties of organic dryland squash and pumpkins in the foreground, organic dryland flower and sunflower seed trials in the background

Quinn’s role an agricultural innovator and global organic ambassador frequently involves him travelling the globe.  When we met he had just visited Israel. He explained: “I’m experimenting with Heritage melons. In Israel in the desert they plant immediately after the rains, then there is no rain at all. The melons weighed as much as eight pounds when harvested and had a wonderful taste, rather like pineapple.”

As soon as the winter comes Bob sets off on another world tour. He says : “ I love learning new things. Rotations. New crops. I’m gripped by the whole subject of being resilient to climate change.”

Putting the sheer scale of our climate change challenged future into context, Quinn says that coming water shortages will bring bigger shock waves than the last global banking crisis. He argues that farmers cannot debate the subject of climate change anymore, because it is happening and they must face up to it.

This is an edited extract from a longer interview with Bob Quinn that we publish in the coming weeks. 

• All imaged used with permission by  bobquinnorganicfarmer.com

 

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About the Author

Michael Wale

Writer and broadcaster on food and farming issues
Michael Wale is a writer and broadcaster with a particular interest in food and farming. He is a regular contributor on radio and TV and writes for the Financial Times and The Times.

Articles by Michael Wale
Michael Wale
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