Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

Grain and the green economy

Lecturer Liz Carlisle’s new book, Grain by Grain, examines the history of wheat with co-author and Montana farmer Bob Quinn. In this Q&A, Carlisle talks about unlikely allies in a polarized economy, explains why driving positive change in agricultural sustainability must occur in multiple systems at once, and shares why she brings rural land stewards to engage in critical, candid conversations with her Stanford students.

Liz Carlisle teaching students on the farm
Instructor Liz Carlisle, left, teaches an Earth Systems 10 class during a field trip to the farm. Photocredit Ker Than

On any given day, Stanford Earth lecturer Liz Carlisle can be found at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm teaching courses that help students understand the interface between people, society, and the natural world. She wants them to learn how to manage that relationship so that every piece of the natural world can flourish. An accomplished researcher and author of the well-received Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America, Carlisle was tasked with teaching courses for the new Sustainability Science and Practice MS/MA and developing classes for the Earth Systems Program in 2016. Since then, she has reached hundreds of undergraduates, graduate students, and community members through lectures and sessions at the educational farm.

Grain by Grain book cover

Carlisle finds some of her best material for preparing the next generation of sustainability leaders by going into the field. Her work broadly aims to gain insights from land stewards – the farmers and ranchers responsible for feeding their communities. For about 10 years, she has been working with these “frontline sustainability leaders” on questions of how they manage their lands for the future. Her latest book tells some of their stories through the history of wheat production. Grain by Grain is a narrative about American agriculture co-authored with Bob Quinn, a Montana farmer who learned to produce successful yields without pesticides through practices like cover cropping and crop rotation. Stanford Earth Matters spoke with Carlisle about her experience researching, writing, and breaking bread with unlikely allies in a polarized economy.

Who is Bob Quinn and how did you hear about him?

While I was working for U.S. Senator Jon Tester in 2008, I needed to know more about renewable energy development in Montana. My mentor just said, “Bob Quinn. You’ve got to check out Bob Quinn.” He pulled up this page on his web browser and had me look over his shoulder, and here’s this picture of a guy in a cowboy hat who’s standing in front of a wind turbine. I could see the headline: “Montana’s First Wind Farm.” He told me Bob Quinn was one of the few people that was actually serious about building a 21st-century economy. So that was my introduction to Bob Quinn, and I ran into him a lot as I was researching my first book, Lentil Underground. Then he approached me a couple years ago about writing a book that was more specifically about grain.

Bob Quinn is a lifelong farmer – the cowboy hat’s not just for show. His determination to sustain that livelihood led him to transition his farm from monocultural wheat supported by chemicals to a diverse rotation. He built a whole business based on diverse crops like heritage grains and helped other people convert to diversified farming by setting up processing and marketing. Then when he saw the power of this “green economy” approach to revitalizing his rural community, he helped start Montana’s first wind farm.

What have you learned through your research?

One thing I’ve learned that hits close to home for most people I talk to is about the rise of gluten insensitivity. I’ve discovered that the problem isn’t wheat. The problem isn’t grain. The problem is what’s happened to it and the very recent history of how we are growing, processing, and consuming it industrially. In the move to breed for higher yielding grain, we lost track of what was happening to those seeds in terms of other properties they had, including our ability to digest them. Why are people having so much gluten intolerance? What can we do to create both healthy eaters and also help the struggling farmers who grow grain?

It’s been exciting for me to realize that yes, wheat can continue to be a staple food in the human diet and can be not only high in macronutrients, but also micronutrients. It’s just a question of making those choices intentionally with the way we breed grain and the way we grow grain.

The other reason I was really compelled to work with Bob on this project is the economic dimension of sustainability and the importance of hearing from economic development leaders who have experience building good green jobs in their communities. It’s important for people to hear that it has worked in a number of places – and in poor rural areas where people are hungry for options.

What advice do you have for the next generation of sustainability leaders?

This is a really fascinating pedagogical challenge that people are wrestling with all over the country. How do you help people become systems thinkers? How do you help people learn to understand challenges in terms of not just immediate challenges or linear cause-and-effect relationships, but so you really see an ecosystem that can drive systems change?

It is overwhelming or impossible to imagine solving each of these problems in an isolated fashion, so you need to understand the interconnection. For me, ecological agriculture is one of these synergies that helps us better manage water, while also helping us improve soil health, which is helping us sequester carbon and also helping us mitigate climate change by reducing the use of fossil fuel-based inputs. It’s about finding solutions that drive positive change in multiple systems at once.

Listening and being humble are so important to doing sustainability work. Beneath the specifics about grain, an important thing Bob and I want to communicate with this book is that there is tremendous potential for us to come together as people living in this society. I do think there is more unity in the solutions than there is sometimes in our analysis of the problems. And I think our mindset needs to shift from “How does my team win?” to “What is an economy that will create opportunities for everybody?”

Where has this journey taken you personally?

Liz Carlisle
Liz Carlisle

I have really valued the opportunity – at a time where our conversations in this country are very polarized – to have some incredibly deep exchanges with people who are not socially and politically situated the same way I am. We’ve had some fascinating conversations about things like the role of women in the social life and economy in rural Montana. And we’ve come at the topic of feminism from really different social and political situations. I think what’s been surprising to me is actually how much we have in common. And that while we may see problems very differently, we can often come together when we start talking about solutions. There really is a solution in the green economy that can rally people from lots of different political and social situations.

The exciting thing about being at Stanford is to draw on the wisdom of the land stewards I’ve had the privilege of learning from and then try to connect that conversation with this next generation of sustainability leaders. Bringing in guest speakers from farming communities has been a really powerful experience, far more so than I initially realized. That connection across generations and across contexts – these rural land stewards with this group of Stanford students – can create these critical, candid conversations that will help us build a more sustainable world.

Farm hosts courses from across campus

Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

Liz Carlisle

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

Explore More