Heather Richardson, a graduating senior at Syracuse University majoring in Geography and minoring in Food Studies and Environment and Society, just produced this beautiful report summarizing the work of the Lentil Underground project over this past year. Thanks Heather! And thanks to all our hosts and collaborators for a wonderful 2015. We appreciate all your hard work to create a more just and sustainable food system.
Click on the graphic to open the report:
Welcome 2016, declared by the United Nations the International Year of Pulses.
Do your body and the planet a favor by taking the pulse pledge, to eat lentils, beans, or chickpeas at least once a week.
If you’re seeking culinary inspiration, here’s a recipe to start with.
And if you’re in Montana, don’t miss our collaborator Claudia Galofre-Krevat’s free tasting of lentil bites from her recipe book, The Pulse of the Earth, on January 6 at 5:30PM at Sola Cafe in Bozeman.
Whenever Dave Oien needs some new recruits for his revolution, he puts out a classified ad: “Wanted: ten good farmers. Commitment to soil health. Focus on quality. Dedication to crop rotations.”
Thirty-nine years ago, Oien returned to his father’s farmstead in Conrad, Montana to take up (and shake up) the family business, but in all that time his values have scarcely moved an inch. Back when the rest of the state was still worshipping its picture-perfect amber waves of grain “like a religion,” Oien had the presence of mind to see all that chemically groomed monoculture for what it really was: unsustainable.
Since then, Oien’s organic vision has blossomed into a hearty growers’ collective, which shoppers will recognize as the Timeless Seeds brand from the shelves of their local Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. So goes the story of Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America by Dr. Liz Carlisle, a recent graduate of the UC Berkeley geography department and protégée of food journalism legend Michael Pollan. The book follows a band of Montana farmers as they set out to diversify their crops and snub synthetic fertilizer, getting by with a little help from their friend, the lentil.
Lentils are a leguminous crop with a special root fungus that Carlisle aptly describes as the “Robin Hood” of agriculture. In farming, the currency is nitrogen, a nutrient necessary for plant growth that is abundant in the atmosphere—but in a chemically inaccessible form. Fortunately, special root fungi can transform atmospheric nitrogen into its biologically available versions, essentially redistributing the wealth from the nitrogen-rich atmosphere to the nutrient-starved soils. Chemical fertilizers can supply this nitrogen directly, but these require fossil fuels to produce and can pollute water supplies. Cultivating lentils instead facilitates the microbial health of the soil, thus improving water retention, preventing soil erosion, and naturally boosting yields in drought years, without negatively impacting the environment.
Yet Lentil Underground is more than just a farmers’ almanac of horticultural technicalities. The book’s content is remarkably expansive, ranging from the details of Dave Oien’s business strategy to the bureaucracy of federal agricultural policy, peppered throughout with critiques of some green-washed buzzwords. Although ambitious, the text hangs together effortlessly, each subject emerging naturally from Carlisle’s numerous interviews with the colorful cast of Timeless Seeds characters.
At its core, Lentil Underground is a book written about Montanans by a Montanan. Carlisle, a country singer-turned-agro-ecologist raised in Missoula, writes with an insider’s credibility and reverence. She calls the result a “book-length country song” to her home state—a heartfelt, hopeful story that honors authenticity and eschews judgment.
To Carlisle, Lentil Underground is “not just about growing lentils.” It’s about portraying the diversity of the organic movement, which contains liberals and libertarians alike. It’s about depicting the nuance with which Dave Oien unites these growers, demonstrating a respect for, and a willingness to learn from, the same conventional farming techniques he seeks to overthrow. And it’s about calling on everyday folks to do the same. “People are interested in people, and that can be a powerful window into something more abstract. What translates is the principle. [Lentil Underground] is really a sophisticated story about community organizing,” says Carlisle.
In an increasingly polarized era when differences and disagreements dominate the headlines, Carlisle’s narrative provides an optimistic case for a renewed commitment to the little things that bring us together, preserving them where we can and creating them where we must. Lentil Underground inspires us to work towards a future where our human communities more closely resemble the colonies of subterranean Robin Hood fungi on which we rely, and where, as Carlisle puts it, “the long haul is what really matters, and a shared prosperity is the only kind there is.
We’re honored to be in such august company!
Check out the full list here
New Ensia article from Liz Carlisle highlights Montana’s Farm Improvement Club Program:
Who’s keeping organic food honest?
November 23, 2015 — Editor’s note: This Voices piece is published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa as part of its New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems forum.
If you live in the U.S., chances are you are among the 84 percent of American consumers who purchase organic food. Whether you buy it at the grocery store or the farmers market, you trust that food marketed as organic has been raised without toxic chemicals, using farming methods that are environmentally sustainable. At a minimum, you expect organic farmers to forgo the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer responsible for the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and much of the food system’s greenhouse gas footprint. You also expect they’ll avoid common herbicides associated with cancer risk and the development of herbicide-resistant superweeds. And, a bit more ambitiously, you expect organic farmers will take proactive steps to manage for soil health and biodiversity. But how do you know?
As the organic sector has grown from its counterculture origins to a $39 billion industry, the audit and inspection process for organic foods has formalized. The definition of the word “organic” is now a matter of federal law, and any farmer or food company marketing its products as organic must keep careful records, submit to an annual inspection and refrain from using any chemicals not included on the approved list regularly updated by the Organic Materials Review Institute. This regulatory infrastructure has, rightly so, led consumers to trust the organic label.
However, equally or perhaps even more important than this regulatory structure are networks of peer review and technical assistance that serve as a source of both support and accountability for the nation’s growing population of organic farmers. This informal aspect of organic sector governance is largely invisible to consumers, but is critical to making sure the organic label lives up to its promise of environmental sustainability. To keep the organic sector honest — and robust — we need to support the farmer networks and farmer-directed research that constitute this informal layer of governance, by providing federal research and extension funding.
Over the past five years, I’ve been conducting research with a group of organic farmers in Montana who grow ancient grains that end up in organic cereal and organic lentils and chickpeas that fill natural food store bulk bins. I asked each of these farmers a straightforward question that turned out to have a complex answer: What supports you and holds you accountable in utilizing sustainable farming practices?
Since the group of people who grew and ate organic food was relatively small and tight knit, united by common ideals, there was little concern about cheating; organic certifiers were more like extension agents than conventional auditors.
These organic farmers cited multiple layers of support and accountability, and the most important thing I learned from them is that, from the farmer’s perspective, a wide variety of elements go into maintaining a successful, environmentally sound organic farm, from community support to public policy to green distribution businesses that connect conscientious consumers with farmers who are willing to go “beyond organic” with practices like pollinator-friendly vegetative borders and complex crop rotations. However, a particularly important insight was about the complementary but distinct roles of government-mandated organic audits and the non-mandated yet crucial self-governance of the organic community — or as some farmers called it, the “organic family.”
Organic’s Early Years
To understand the distinction between the formal organic certification process and the broader dynamics of the organic community, it’s helpful to roll the clock back to the 1980s. In these early years of the organic industry, no centralized standards existed: Individual certifiers such as California Certified Organic Farmers and Farm Verified Organic established their own processes for setting standards and verifying farmers were meeting them. Since the group of people who grew and ate organic food was relatively small and tight knit, united by common ideals, there was little concern about cheating; organic certifiers were more like extension agents (university-affiliated civil servants tasked with disseminating research-based farming advice) than conventional auditors. As the farmers I interviewed explained, organic certification at that time was essentially a peer review process through which farmers challenged and supported one another in improving their practices. As the industry expanded and consumers were less and less likely to have a personal connection with their farmers, demand grew for a common, federally mandated definition of organics, resulting in the establishment of the National Organic Program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal in 2000.
As I’ve found in my research, however, the federal organic law and its mandated audit process did not replace earlier, less formal methods of governing the organic sector. Rather, peer review and technical support networks have continued to develop alongside formal organic standards. Importantly, it’s these peer review and technical support networks that remain the fundamental driving force that both supports the expansion of the organic industry and keeps it true to its values.
A Responsibility to Each Other
A good example is the Farm Improvement Club program, which operated in Montana from 1990 to 2000, a time of rapid expansion in organic farming. Managed by the nonprofit Alternative Energy Resources Organization, this program was identified by many of the farmers I interviewed as the primary driver of organic conversions in the region and credited with dramatically increasing the prevalence of sustainable practices — even on noncertified farms.
Importantly, the program created a community of farmers who felt responsible to one another to uphold standards and who helped each other solve problems rather than settle for shortcuts.
The Farm Improvement Club model was simple: AERO offered grants of up to US$800 each to groups of four or more producers. Each group proposed a project to investigate a common interest or problem related to conserving resources and enhancing members’ operations. The Farm Improvement Clubs had to be farmer directed, but they also had to include a technical advisor from a university system or a government agency. This stipulation ostensibly provided farmers with access to expertise and resources, but also served to educate the clubs’ technical advisors about sustainable practices. The clubs gathered at the end of the year to share what they’d learned — and participating farmers frequently offered mid-season demonstrations as well. Over the course of a decade, AERO grants supported more than 120 clubs and 500 participating producers and technical assistance providers, and in 1994, the USDA gave the organization a US$91,000 grant to implement a training program across five states to teach its extension agents about sustainable agriculture.
As a thoroughly grassroots but institutionalized initiative, designed to connect local efforts to one another while better utilizing existing technical support infrastructure, the Farm Improvement Club program not only helped farms transition to organic, but also made sure they had staying power. Importantly, the program created a community of farmers who felt responsible to one another to uphold standards and who helped each other solve problems rather than settle for shortcuts. For many participants, the clubs’ standards of responsible farming preceded the federal definition of organic and even the organic movement as it is commonly understood, harking back to their grandparents’ participation in agrarian groups such as the Farmers Union, which promoted a fairer food system and a cooperative farm economy.
To be sure, regulation plays an important role in keeping organics honest — and could play an even larger role in improving the sustainability and fairness of the food system as a whole (given that the nonorganic segment of the food industry has fewer intrinsic incentives to pursue environmentally and socially responsible practices). But audits alone won’t uphold the organic sector. In my research, I’ve come to understand organics as what British political economist E.P. Thompson called a “moral economy”: “a popular consensus as to what are legitimate and what are illegitimate practices, grounded upon a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community.” Because this form of community governance is what organic farmers themselves recognize as their primary source of both support and accountability, we should focus organic policy on nurturing networks of peer review and technical support — by publicly funding initiatives such as the Farm Improvement Club program — rather than simply adding to and refining formal audit procedures.
In this chemically dependent era of American agribusiness, typified by President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, who admonished farmers to “get big or get out,” a group of Montana farmers got microscopic and stayed put. The microscopic Rhizo- bium bacteria broke their dependency on expensive chemical fertilizers, one of the mainstays of industrial agriculture.
Rhizobia live symbiotically in the roots of lentils and other legumes and essentially supply them with fertilizer by snatching nitrogen from the air and converting it into a form the plants can use. Just as important, we learn in Lentil Underground that if lentils are grown “as part of a diverse sequence of crops that keep weed pressure at bay,” farmers don’t need to use any chemicals. The ever-present herbicides of conventional farming aren’t necessary. Also, lentils are drought tolerant, a harvest-saving characteristic. Dave Oien, the central figure in Lentil Underground, was the first to plant organic lentils in his Montana county. It wasn’t an overnight decision nor a quick fix, but the result of a search for a way to practice sustainable agriculture on his father’s farm. According to the book’s author, Liz Carlisle, he was considered a “weed farmer” for planting a legume called black medic and then concentrating on lentils, as were his three friends who joined him in 1987 to start a business called Timeless Seeds.
Carlisle writes, “Amber waves of grain were like a religion in this part of the West. Any other plant life was labeled a weed and taken as a sign of some deep character flaw, some profound failure…. The trouble with all that heroic grain, however, was that it was taking a lot of nutrients and water out of the soil, without giving anything back.”
By 2012, Timeless Seeds was a million-dollar business that sold lentils and other organic crops, supplied by over a dozen farmers, including a U.S. Senator. Lentil Underground profiles some of the Timeless Seed farmers, their experiences and points of view.
The book started as an academic green business case study, but Carlisle came to understand “that most of what they [the Timeless farmers] were doing was tangential to the business, at least in mainstream economic terms.… I could see how their broad-based efforts were nonetheless integral to their success. As they carefully stewarded an ecosystem, a social movement, and an information network, the lentil underground had introduced me to a very different form of economy.”
Mike Reizman works as a technical writer, a freelance journalist, and is a community gardener.
Waste Not, Want Not: How to Reduce Food Waste (and Sustainably Feed the World)
Imagine a strategy that could increase the world food supply by 50% while diminishing greenhouse gas emissions by 7% and saving $400 billion. Impossible? Actually, it’s surprisingly simple. We just need to learn how to reduce food waste.
Globally, a whopping 1/3 of food is never consumed, and the numbers are about the same—perhaps even a little higher—in the United States. Recover that unused food and we could easily feed all 870 million of the world’s hungry. So what’s stopping us?
The problem is a bit more complicated than it sounds, as food is currently wasted at several points along the supply chain: from farms, to grocery shelves, to restaurants, to our own kitchens. Wasteful practices have become so routine in our industrial food system that we often don’t recognize them.
The good news is there’s a concerted effort afoot to solve the problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently established a groundbreaking national food waste target for the first time in history, calling for a 50% reduction by 2030. California passed a law that will require large grocery stores to compost or recycle their waste, which could divert huge amounts from the landfill. And the United Nations made headlines last month by serving a unique lunch to world leaders, prepared entirely from food that would have otherwise been thrown out.
Inspired? It’s a global topic, but one region is making exceptional strides towards a solution: the Bay Area. Meet some key players that are taking a bite out of food waste, and some tips for how you can do your part—wherever you call home.
UGLY IS BEAUTIFUL
Every year, U.S. grocery stores reject 20% of the nation’s produce just because it doesn’t meet aesthetic standards. That’s right—not all tomatoes are naturally as perfectly round as the ones you see in the market. What happens to the oddballs? Believe it or not, those six billion pounds of delicious but misshapen fruit and vegetables often get thrown out. Until recently, that is.
Inspired by the “ugly fruit” movement among farmers and consumers, a California start-up called Imperfect is working to give these unique harvests a home, by delivering boxes of them directly to customers. Consumers get their produce at a 30% discount and farmers gain an additional market for crops they would otherwise throw away. Ugly produce is a win for the environment, too: Imperfect estimates that each pound saves 25 to 50 gallons of water by eliminating the need to grow another pound of (perfect-looking) produce.
CLOSING THE NUTRIENT LOOP
While Imperfect aims to reduce food waste on the farm, another Northern California company is helping grocery stores tackle the issue: by turning expired food into fertilizer. California Safe Soil, based in Sacramento, processes 3,750 pounds of supermarket food waste a day, converting it into a liquid fertilizer it calls Harvest to Harvest. Three years since its launch, the company estimates that is has already diverted 2.2 million pounds of food waste from the landfill, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 3.2 million pounds, and eliminating the need for more than 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizers. That’s dirty work—with a clean mission.
DONATING THE COMPANY LUNCH
The low-hanging fruit (so to speak) of food recovery, however, is at the downstream end of the food chain: the surplus food that consumers simply toss. Companies and event planners are particularly notorious for ordering large quantities of food, then ditching leftovers. Eager to see this food put to good use, San Francisco social entrepreneur Komal Ahmad came up with a simple solution. Ahmad’s app, Feeding Forward, makes it easier for businesses to donate their surplus to homeless shelters. Users simply enter where they are and what they’ve got, and one of Feeding Forward’s drivers comes to pick it up. Already, the San Francisco organization has recovered 728,000 pounds of food, feeding 606,000 people.
BRINGING IT HOME
So what can you do to reduce your own food waste footprint? Whether or not you live near these Bay Area food recovery fanatics, there are tons of things you can do from home. Here are a few tips:
1) Buy Less
Are you really going to use that whole bag of lettuce? The best way to reduce waste is to be more realistic about what we buy in the first place. Ideally, that means acknowledging that we’re probably not going to cook as often as we aspire to, and that bulk discounts are a false bargain when we end up buying more than we can use.
2) Buy Ugly
If you’re in the Bay Area, consider Imperfect’s ugly fruit and vegetable boxes—or buy directly from a local farmer. Have no fear of the non-spherical apple! If you’re not sure where to find a nearby producer who can sell you their “seconds,” enter your zip code at Local Harvest and search for a farmers market or a Community Supported Agriculture operation that serves your neighborhood.
3) Get Creative
Do something fun with leftovers, rather than pushing them to the back of the fridge to languish. Challenge yourself to devise a meal using the three ingredients that are most in danger of spoiling.
Recognize when you’ve got more food than you can use before it goes bad. Donate to your local food bank, which you can look up at the Feeding America website. If you regularly order food for events in the Bay Area, sign up with Feeding Forward.
To tackle many of the biggest sources of food waste, we need to look beyond our kitchens. Does your city have a food waste reduction target? Does your state require large grocery stores to compost or recycle their food waste, instead of sending it to the landfill? Team up with your neighbors to find out, and advocate for a less wasteful food system.
What are your favorite tips to reduce food waste? Tell us in the comments below.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Liz Carlisle is a Fellow at the Berkeley Food Institute and the author of Lentil Underground.
We are currently working with translator Naoko Miki, and the Japanese language version of the book will be published by Tsukiji Shokan later this year. We’ll keep you posted.
About The Book
Order Here. Design by Lynne.