What an honor to receive the 2015 Montana Book Award, which recognizes “literary and/or artistic excellence in a book written or illustrated by someone who lives in Montana, is set in Montana, or deals with Montana themes or issues.”
This Tuesday, February 23, the paperback of Lentil Underground will be available in your local independent bookstore (if you don’t have a local independent bookstore, you can order from Powell’s).
And in celebration, Liz Carlisle will be on the radio nationwide. Here’s the radio tour schedule, with links for listening online. Please note that some appearances are taped for later airing, so you’ll have to check the station website for airing times:
*Special Early Bird Appearance on Monday, Feb 22*
Tuesday, Feb 23
9:00am (EST) WDYK 100.5 FM, Cumberland MD, “The Magic Morning Show” with Amanda Mangan-Rebert [Taped]
8:10am (CST) WBEL 1380 AM, Janesville WI, “Big Radio News” with Ted Ehlen [Live]
9:45am (EST) WKNY 1490 AM, Kingston NY, “Mornings with Warren Lawrence” [Live]
10:10am (EST) WNDB 1150 AM, Daytona Beach FL, “Morning Drive” with Al Smith [Taped]
10:20am (EST) WFIN 1330 AM, Toledo OH, “Good Mornings!” with Chris Oaks [Taped]
9:35am (CST) “The Green Divas Radio Show” with Megan McWilliams (online) [Taped]
8:30am (PST) Napa Broadcasting, Napa CA, “Conversations with Jeff Schechtman” [Taped]
10:00am (PST) KJAQ 96.5 FM, Seattle-Tacoma WA, “Community Matters” with Lee Callahan [Taped]
*Special Encore Appearance on Thursday, Feb 25*
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?
An informal network among farmers may be more important than federal regulation in building trust in the organic industry — and it needs greater support.
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.
By Liz Carlisle
August 26, 2015
Posted in: Review |
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.
About The Book
A protégé of Michael Pollan tells the remarkable story of an unheralded group of Montana farmers who have defied corporate agribusiness by launching a unique sustainable food movement. more
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