Fieldnotes – The Chef and the Farmer

The other day I found myself driving in north-central Montana. To the south lay Square Butte – with its improbable population of mountain goats – and the Highwood Mountains. To the north was the rugged country of the Missouri River Breaks and, beyond that, the Bears Paw Mountains. This is wheat and cattle country, austere but beautiful – even on a nasty, gray winter day. There were big bunches of mule deer in the coulees, looking fat in their winter coats, and a flock of three dozen sharptail grouse sailed across the road in front of my car to settle among symmetrical rows of caragana.

When I dropped down to the Missouri River and Fort Benton, I decided to take a room for the night. I was tired of driving. I wanted to get out of the wind. And I had heard that the Grand Union Hotel had a new chef – the word was that it was some guy who had been working in fancy restaurants back East. It is not within my purview to write a restaurant review, but let’s just say I was pretty pleased with the food that appeared on my plate. When the rush had died down, I got a chance to visit with the chef, Scott Myers. Far from being effete or elite, he turned out to be more of a salt-of-the-earth, epicurean hunter-gatherer. What impressed me with Scott was his ability to see the big picture with regard to food. Not only food and our taste buds, but food and our wallets, our communities, our health, our psyches. He kept referring to the local producers who supplied him with food, and to the quality of what they provided him. One name that came up a couple of times was Bob Quinn, a grain farmer near Big Sandy. Bob is the gentleman who essentially rediscovered and reintroduced an ancient variety of wheat, now marketed under the name Kamut.

The next day I called Bob, and he agreed to meet me. I expected to find a well-run, well-organized farm – which I did. But I was completely unprepared for Bob’s personality. He was part died-in-the-wool farmer, part mad scientist, and very much a zealot of the idea of local food. Not because the idea is fashionable among foodies, but because he believes that marketing and consuming what is produced locally is the only way to stave off the slow atrophying of the farm communities of the northern Great Plains. Bob is convinced that farmers on the plains can – and must – be producing a greater quantity and diversity of crops. The more Bob talked, the more I realized that he was essentially rephrasing what I had heard Scott Myers talk about the evening before. I came away inspired by both of these fellows, and I believe you will be too.