Book Club! Lentil Underground - A Page Turner April 26 2017
Susanna has listened to me rave about this month’s book, Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle. Maybe I can pique your interest also. The book came out of Carlisle’s guilt after spending four years as a country singer toting her romanticized agrarian lyrics at concerts across rural America that were sponsored by the big-name agricultural companies. She learned that what her fans knew about farming didn’t square with her pretty lyrics. All they knew was fossil fuel-based chemicals and monoculture cropping systems that were bankrupting American farmers, their families, their communities, and the soil. In an about-face, Carlisle quit the music business and dug in to look for the real story of farming, food, and rural America.
Carlisle found a whopper of a story when she met a fellow native Montanan, farmer Dave Oien. In 1976 Oien had returned to his parents’ 280-acre farm near Conrad, Montana, as a 27-year-old intent on crafting an alternative to fossil fuel monoculture agribusiness and converting his parents’ farm to a self-supporting diversified farm that ran on animal and green manure/cover crops, and solar energy. He slowly brought together a diverse community of independent-minded farmers, grass-roots groups, a rogue university agronomist, a 3rd generation Montana grain farmer (now a U.S. senator), and countless others. Oien and this growing community of renegades experimented with green manures, alternative energy, crop rotation, intercropping, a farm improvement club program, and much more.
In the spring of 1983 Oien planted his first self-seeding nitrogen-fixing green manure crop, black medic, on two of the “oddball” acres his dad let him use as test plots. Jim Sims, the rogue agronomist, had long been experimenting with it as a replacement for chemical fertilizers and was looking for another test plot. Unlike alfalfa, it required little water so was a good fit for north central Montana. In 1984 Oien upped his planting to 10 acres and in 1985 convinced three farmer buddies to purchase starter seed from him and get in on this miracle plant. Even as 1985 turned into a serious drought year and the barley on Oien’s dad’s “non-oddball” acres dried up, black medic grew surprisingly well for all four farmers. This led Oien to the idea of licensing Sims’s George black medic variety and starting a company to sell the seeds to other renegade farmers itching to ditch chemical fertilizers and restore soil biology. In 1987 Oien and his three partners started their new company, Timeless Seeds.
The plot continues to thicken as this growing group of farmers in various stages of conversion from chemical to organic, sustainable farming barely hang on without government subsidies. They wear many hats to generate income, and those with families rely on their spouse’s income to support them. A fortunate encounter with a Canadian farmer acquaintance, Richard Behnke, at the 1991 agricultural trade show in Great Falls proved to be a game-changer for Oien. Behnke had just begun growing French Green lentils in Canada for the food market and knew American farmers weren’t onto it yet. He wondered if it might be a niche for Oien. Why lentils? Like black medic, they fix nitrogen and nix the need for chemical fertilizers. Lentils would also give farmers a food crop to sell just as the specialty organic market was heating up.
The story of finding a lentils market, the turning point Trader Joe’s made in Oien’s story, and countless fascinating twists and turns make up the rest of the story of Timeless Seeds, now Timeless Food. Lentil Underground gives us a front-row seat into a world most of us know little of as we source our food. It’s a book not to miss, especially if you care about the future of food.