David Oien wins Outstanding Agricultural Leader Award

October 16, 2017 — Jenny Lavey for the MSU News Service.  Find the story online here.

BOZEMAN – A third-generation Montana farmer with a philosophy degree who spent 30 years shepherding Montana agriculture into the forefront of organic and alternative crop production has been named the MSU College of Agriculture and Montana Agricultural Experiment Station’s 2017 Outstanding Agricultural Leader.

The public is invited to congratulate David Oien, co-founder of Timeless Seeds Inc., at a Montana-made breakfast at 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, in Shroyer Gym, located in MSU’s Marga Hosaeus Fitness Center. The breakfast is part of the college’s annual Celebrate Agriculture event scheduled for Nov. 3-4.

MSU Vice President of Agriculture Charles Boyer said Oien’s history as a respected advocate for diversifying Montana dryland production and as a lifelong proponent of sustainable, organic systems is an example for current agricultural students.

“Long before pulse crops were popular in Montana, before organic and natural foods were trendy, before ‘sustainable’ and ‘renewable’ were terms farmers regularly used, David Oien was quietly changing the landscape of Montana agriculture as one of the state’s first organic farmers,” Boyer said. “His grassroots story and life’s work in encouraging alternative, sustainable food production and a new crop frontier is something Montana agriculture owes a great debt to.”

The Outstanding Agricultural Leader award is given annually to individuals or couples who are engaged and well-respected in the state’s agricultural community. Recipients have impacted many with their accomplishments, have a lifetime of achievement in agriculture, are industry leaders or innovative producers, and are actively involved in Montana’s agricultural community.

Robert Boettcher, a Montana farmer and former Outstanding Agricultural Leader in 2003 who is a longtime friend of Oien’s, nominated Oien for the award. Supporting letters detail Oien’s years of public service and agricultural innovation. Letters were received from Alternative Energy Resources Organization, Montana Farmers Union, Montana Department of Agriculture, Montana Milling, Stanford University, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, and several current and retired MSU faculty representing agronomy, soil, land resources and health and human development fields. The letters also describe Oien’s early adoption of organic practices and his gentle, steadfast commitment to bring increased research, attention and support to alternative cropping systems and new crops to farmers in the Northern Great Plains, according to authors.

Oien is a third-generation Montana farmer whose Norwegian grandparents homesteaded in the early 1900s south of Conrad. He was raised on the family wheat farm and received a degree in philosophy and religious studies in 1976 and later returned to the family farm to transform production to an organic-based system.

Nomination letters detail the history of Timeless Seeds Inc., which Oien co-founded in 1987, together with friends and fellow farmers Bud Barta, Jim Barngrover and Tom Hastings. The trio had a goal to market a self-reseeding leguminous cover crop variety called George Black Medic, which had been developed by the late MSU agronomy and research professor Jim Simms, whom Oien considered a trusted mentor and dear friend until his passing last year.

In the beginning, Timeless Seeds Inc. consisted of a few outbuildings on Oien’s property south of Conrad: a chicken house, equipment shed and a garage, according to Boettcher. The original mission of the company was to introduce new crops to conventional Montana farming and share the benefits of lentils that provided natural nitrogen and green manure, built organic matter and conserved soil moisture.

In the 1980s in Montana agriculture, growing organic, alternative crops was counterculture to that of widely practiced conventional agriculture in wheat-fallow systems that used synthetic fertilizer. Nomination letters lauded Oien’s persistence as a risk-taker and suggested Oien’s philosophy background formed his ability to engage in contentious discussions thoughtfully and critically, forming relationships with agriculture-minded people from all walks of life.

As natural foods and cropping systems became more popular, Oien was deeply engaged in conversations, policy and advocacy work advancing the diversification of Montana dryland agriculture by encouraging farmers to replace fallow fields with pulse crops and advocating the ecological and sustainable benefits of organic-based systems.

Oien’s role in introducing farmers in the Northern Great Plains to alternative crops and organic systems and developing markets for new crops over the last 25 years was chronicled in the acclaimed book, “Lentil Underground,” by Liz Carlisle, a Montana native and Stanford University lecturer who won the 2015 Montana Book Award. Today, Timeless Seeds has transformed into Timeless Foods Inc., which supplies national grocery chains, food manufactures and food service distributors with high-quality, organic, specialized grains and is one of the largest organic lentil seed buyers and suppliers in America, according to its website. In 2016, the United Nations declared the year as the “International Year of the Pulse Crop,” and Montana celebrated its role as the country’s top producer of pulse crops with 1 million acres planted, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Throughout the years, Oien has been active on many boards and committees promoting organic agriculture and pulse crops, including charter memberships with Pondera Solar Alliance, Alternative Energy Resources Organization Ag Task Force, local organic farmer chapters, Montana Organic Certification Advisory Committee, the Montana Organic Association as well as the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center In 2008, he received a lifetime of service award from the Montana Organic Association, and AREO’s 40th Anniversary Leadership in Sustainability.

He has helped and mentored many Montana farmers as they transition crop management into organic systems and systems that use less energy and are ecologically regenerative and economically sound. He also worked closely with MSU faculty on a variety of research projects, mentored students and supported learning practicums for MSU students in the Sustainable Foods and Bioenergy Systems major.

Oien is married to Sharon and the two have three grown children; Sara, Adam and Chris.

The selection committee for the Outstanding Agricultural Leader award comprises three Montana agriculture representatives, a College of Agriculture faculty member and an MSU student. MSU’s College of Agriculture has presented Outstanding Agricultural Leader awards since 1999.