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.