Coastal Foodies and Montana Farmers Meet Over Lentils… and Have Lessons for the Future of Food

May 5, 2016

As a country music singer, Liz Carlisle, who grew up in Montana, says she was interested in the poetry and philosophy of farming and rural life.

"I hadn't been involved in sustainable agriculture at all," she says, "I was a country singer. I think I shared a lot of values, but I didn't really know the language of sustainable agriculture and I wasn't, quite frankly, paying enough attention to economics or to science."

Then Jon Tester, a Montana organic farmer, was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 2006 and Carlisle went to work for him. She started learning about a network of organic and conventional farmers using fewer industrial practices and other more sustainable strategies to keep their farms ecologically healthy and also profitable.

After working in Washington and then meeting some of the farmers Tester introduced her to, Carlisle decided to explore the origins of Montana's organic movement in graduate school. Her dissertation took her across Montana's plains, where she met the farmers who created Timeless Food, a company that now sells lentils, chickpeas, and other products nationwide.

Carlisle's research became the engaging book Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America. It pays homage to the combination of conditions and ideology that drew different farmers into what were seen in the 1980s variously as improbable, ridiculous or, in a few cases, last-ditch efforts to farm differently. It's a story of farmers bucking convention and moving away from monoculture.

Writing in a narrative style, Carlisle spells out the challenges these farmers faced in shifting from traditional wheat or barley production to a system that would also include an edible legume. The book offers history and then a detailed account of how these farms fared during the drought of 2012.

These decades after they began, the farmers who initially grew legumes perceived as weeds have healthy soil. When rains don't come, their fields still produce while neighboring conventional ones may not. The chemistry of a grain-legume rotation was critical to soil health, as it is in the corn-soybean rotation of Midwest farms. But the Montana farmers needed a market for their legumes, which is the perennial hurdle farmers confront when they want to try something new.

Over time and with considerable dedication to the endeavor, these farmers settled on certain types of lentils and other edible legumes and then created and nurtured food markets for their products, selling mostly to high-end grocery stores. Carlisle documents the frenzy of scrambling to meet a contract for lentils when they scarcely had the means to package and label them. The ambitious, resilient farmers also learned what happens when that one contract dries up.

The story of Lentil Underground is specific to the people and conditions of central Montana. But the lessons are both universal and potentially very applicable to farmers and consumers everywhere.

For starters, sometimes the idealistic youth of yesterday turn into the wise sages of today. And that's certainly the case for David Oien, the farmer at the heart of Carlisle's story. He left the family farm for university and stayed away some years before returning at age 27. That's when he convinced his dad to let him go his own way on a few acres, for which he took a lot of heat from his family and neighbors. His new farming ideas looked "messy" on a landscape whose minders took pride in uniformity.

During a national book tour last year, Carlisle and Oien visited Iowa and met with farmers here. She says the stakes were very different for struggling Montana farmers in the 1980s than they are for Corn Belt farmers now. For starters, Montana was never the industrial agriculture powerhouse that Iowa or Illinois is.

"[Montana's] a pretty big deal in terms of wheat," Carlisle says, "and now it's a big deal in terms of lentils." But the scale of crop agriculture there pales in comparison to the Midwest, where many more people and businesses rely on farming as it exists today.

"Industrial agriculture [companies] would miss Iowa more than they would miss Montana," Carlisle says, if farmers turned their backs on chemical inputs and high-tech seeds. But she's also hopeful because some of the techniques she found at the heart of the sustainability movement in Montana are already gaining traction here.

In fact, under pressure to stop nitrates from running off into drinking water supplies, Iowa farmers have been embracing cover crops. Cover crops are plants that keep leaves and roots in the fields when the major cash crops aren't there. In Iowa, for example, rye or clover or radishes can keep the soil and nutrients on a field between the fall harvest and spring planting, reducing both erosion and water pollution. Government cost-sharing programs have encouraged the use of cover crops, reducing the investment farmers have to make.

"You don't even have to be an organic farmer to utilize a lot of these organic practices like cover cropping," Carlisle says. "which is really dramatic--capturing nitrogen that would otherwise go into the waterways, regenerating the soil. Lots of reasons to get excited about that, even on conventional farms."

In 2015, about a half-million acres of Iowa farmland had cover crops, about half of which were supported through state or federal programs. In contrast, in 2005 government programs supported fewer than 100 acres of cover crops. Obviously, some farmers have used, and continue to use, cover crops without government programs, especially organic farmers. But the numbers reflect that change begins gradually and is already underway.

"We heard hopeful stories in the Midwest," Carlisle says. She also came to understand the layers of competing interests that make digressing from the status quo so difficult. "We heard people with sobering tales of all those constraints and people who said 'I really want to diversify. I really want to use fewer chemicals.'"

These days, Carlisle is teaching at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University and trying to bridge for her students the divide between coastal foodies and inland farmers. She says there needs to be a broadening of the conversation about where food comes from and who produces what. Growing certain foods in particular climates, for example, may ultimately be more important than focusing on how "local" your groceries are.

"What I'm trying to encourage in the food movement here is to take this next step and think about grains and legumes and domestic fair trade partnerships with people in the U.S. who grow those crops that are ecologically appropriate in certain areas," she said.

Connecting young people in California to farmers in Montana will facilitate a greater understanding of the ways they can work toward shared goals, such as "how to respond to the challenges of climate change and make sure that we can all prosper in the future," she says. "And, hopefully, see farmers as allies rather than just kind of looking at a map and imagining we just need to somehow wipe out everything that's happening that's wrong in the middle of the country."

A determined band of rugged Montana farmers got Whole Foods and Trader Joe's to buy their lentils. Carlisle seems to be asking: just imagine what more could happen if consumers on the coasts were talking directly to the families growing those lentils, or other food crops.


Excerpt: Click here to read an excerpt from Lentil Underground (PDF).