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.

Forty years ago, corporate agribusiness launched a campaign to push small grain farmers to modernize or perish, or as Nixon Administration Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz put it, to “get big or get out. But twenty-seven year-old David Oien decided to take a stand.  When he dropped out of grad school to return to his family’s 280 acre farm, Oien became the first in his conservative Montana county to seed his fields with a radically different crop: organic lentils.  A cheap, healthy source of protein, rich in fiber, folate, Vitamin B1, and amino acids, lentils are drought tolerant and don’t require irrigation.  And unlike the chemically dependent grains American farmers had been told to grow, lentils make their own fertilizer and tolerate variable climate conditions, so their farmers aren’t beholden to industrial methods. Today, David Oien leads a thriving movement of organic farmers who work with heirloom seeds and biologically diverse farm systems. Under the brand Timeless Natural Food, this “lentil underground” has grown into a million dollar enterprise that sells to hundreds of independent natural foods stores, and a host of renowned restaurants.

Set in the farm belt of red state America, far from the farmer’s markets and haute cuisine of coastal cities, Lentil Underground confronts the global food system in one of the little known rural communities that will determine its fate. From the heart of Big Sky Country comes this inspiring story of a handful of colorful pioneers who have successfully bucked the chemically-based food chain and the entrenched power of agribusiness’s one percent, by stubbornly banding together. Unearthing the deep roots of this movement, Lentil Underground introduces readers to a memorable cast of characters, from gun-toting libertarians and Christian homesteaders to peace-sign-waving environmental activists.  Journalist and native Montanan Liz Carlisle weaves an eye-opening and richly reported narrative that will be welcomed by readers of food and farm memoirs, as well as everyone concerned with the future of American agriculture and natural food in an increasingly uncertain world.




About the Author

Liz Carlisle is a Lecturer in the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University, where she teaches courses on food and agriculture, sustainability transition, and environmental communication.  She holds a Ph.D. in Geography from UC Berkeley and a B.A. from Harvard University, and she formerly served as Legislative Correspondent for Agriculture and Natural Resources in the Office of U.S. Senator Jon Tester.  Recognized for her academic writing with the Elsevier Atlas Award, which honors research with social impact, Liz has also published numerous pieces for general audience readers, in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Business Insider, and Stanford Social Innovation Review. Lentil Underground, which chronicles the sustainable agriculture movement in her home state of Montana, is her first book.


What People Are Saying:

“What does it take to farm sustainably–and make a living?  Liz Carlisle tells the engrossing story of the ‘audacity rich, but capital poor’ Montana farmers who thought lentils were the answer and stuck with them until proved right.  Anyone who dreams of starting a farm or wants to know how organic farmers can overcome the obstacles they face will be inspired by this book.”

Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of Food Politics

“Liz Carlisle’s new book is an absolute treasure–-actual stories of real farmers in a part of Montana, some of whom found that their industrial farming practices were a ‘losing game’ and some who discovered that locally adapted organic farming could be resilient and economically successful.  It is a must read for anyone interested in the future of food in America.”

Frederick Kirschenmann, author of Cultivating an Ecological Conscience

“These farmers demonstrate how to build democracy and build soils at the same time. What a deal!”

Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet and EcoMind

“This book tells the fascinating story from one corner of the ongoing rural renaissance–it will resonate and fascinate, and it will leave you looking for ways to get involved yourself.”

Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy

“All of civilization rests on agriculture, and so it follows that real revolutions begin in the soil, which is why the stories of real revolutions must be reported from the ground up, as Liz Carlisle has done so competently in Lentil Underground. Read it, engage the real revolutionaries and begin the understand why their work is so vital to all of us.”

Richard Manning, author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization

“Who’d have thought that a book about lentil farming could be a page-turner? With a voice as clear and powerful on the page as it is on stage, Liz Carlisle writes the struggles of Montana’s farmers as an epic. Their battles with food, finance, healthcare and modern capitalism are both inspiring, and a timely reminder that populism needn’t be a dirty word.”

Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, Research Professor at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin

“Take a chance on this dive in to an eccentric niche of the American farm industry—it has a strange attraction, especially for foodies, business innovators and entrepreneurs …. A nimble story about how one man’s revolutionary ideas changed the way we eat.”

Kirkus Reviews

“The book has everything. A group of Montana farmers turning one at a time away from “conventional” ag to organics. The saga of what it’s like to be a renegade in your own community. How political affiliation loses meaning in the face of sharing common difficulties.”

Evan Kleiman, Host of Good Food on KCRW

“Carlisle is a clear and vivid writer … an important contribution to the sustainable agricultural genre.”

Hannah Wallace, for the San Francisco Chronicle

“In Carlisle’s capable hands, this story of how a few renegade farmers bucked the prevailing culture of Big Ag is riveting and inspiring.”

Kristen Galles, for Shelf Awareness

“This combination of serious academic research and authentic human interaction is perhaps what makes Lentil Underground not only an important book but a great read. Carlisle introduces us to Oien and a plethora of other members of the Lentil Underground in a way that is accessible, personal and compelling. The writing is top notch and the reader is allowed to make his or her own conclusions about the information presented.”

Doug Mitchell, for Montana Magazine

“Clear, vivid storytelling … alive to the ordeals and satisfactions of change as people struggle to create new facts on (as well as in) the ground.”

Chris Walters, for Acres

“An in-depth profile of family farmers who are willing to take on corporate consolidation to build a better food system …”

Naomi Starkman, for Civil Eats

“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 …”

Alexis Shusterman, for Berkeley Science Review

“This book takes the reader on a journey that can help to illuminate the human side of farming. Lentil Underground serves as an engaging introduction to some of the multiple compounding challenges that are faced in the movement toward more sustainable agricultural methods, and why there is no such thing as as simple solution.”

Julia Russell Jozkow, for the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development

Lentil Underground is a book that many of us have been waiting for: a readable, journalistic rather than staid academic account of U.S. farmers’ struggle to create a mainstream organic, multi-crop alternative to conventional and genetically-engineered, monocrop agriculture.”

Ellen Messer, for the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition

“Lentil Underground  is an entertaining, moving and thought-provoking portrayal of a group of renegade farmers and ranchers in Montana who, for the past 40 years, have been ridding their land of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, turning instead to crop rotation and alternative crops in a revolutionary return to sustainable agricultural practices.”

Erin H. Turner, for Big Sky Journal

“The lessons are both universal and potentially very applicable to farmers and consumers everywhere.”

Amy Mayer, for Harvest Public Media/Iowa Public Radio

“Liz Carlisle has done organic and sustainable agriculture a huge favor …. Here is the story of a group of stubbornly independent, hard working people trying to make a living in a place they love, protect the land by working with nature not against it, and avoid the straightjacket of modern industrial farming’s dependence on fossil fuels, corporate inputs, and markets.”

Mary Fund, for Rural Papers 

“What is a lentil, and why should I care about it? you may well ask. I did — but after reading this book, I know, and so should you.”

Carole Ann Clark, for the Great Falls Tribune

“A book that celebrates ingenuity, faith, hard work, and community, presenting an inspiring model that could influence federal agricultural policy, if enough people were to pay attention.”

Amy Hassinger, for Sierra Magazine

“An incredibly inspiring and hopeful saga of grit, determination, love for the land, open-mindedness, and most of all, community.”

Hank Will, for Mother Earth News

“Carlisle’s compelling and often suspenseful storytelling leaves the reader, much like the farmers she describes, eager to discover what each next harvest might bring.”

Emily Reisman, for Peace Review