Lessons from the Lentil Frontier—Sustainable Ag in Big Sky Country
By Tom Parker
In the waning years of the last millennium when fields turned to parchment and skies whitened to a withering glare, Montana farmer Jerry Habets teetered on the verge of losing the family farm. Divorced, bankrupt and desperate to save the homestead that had been in his family for 87 years, he turned to the Bible for answers, and when none were revealed, he sought out a psychic. The psychic proved no better.
His next move was even more desperate. Since he couldn’t afford chemicals to spray his fields, he decided to go organic.
Dr. Liz Carlisle, a Stanford University lecturer in the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, met Habets when writing “Lentil Underground,” a book on sustainable agriculture in Montana, that grew out of her dissertation research. Carlisle shared stories of the book’s compilation and her research in her discussion, “The Moral and Social Economy of Alternative Food Systems,” which was presented at the Kansas Rural Center’s 2016 Farm and Food Conference, held Nov. 18 and 19 in Manhattan, Kansas.
Habets’ unease about the organic movement had softened somewhat since its arrival in Montana during the 1970s. Not only had the movement evolved beyond its counter-cultural roots, but one of his neighbors, David Oien, was beginning to make a name for himself by growing lentils. His products were showing up on retail shelves and he had recently been mentioned by a rising Montana chef in the pages of Bon Appétit magazine. Plus, he’d seen Oien’s bumper stickers that read “I cover crops” and “Real farmers have green manure.” The state even had its own organic farming trade organization. So Habets decided to hear what they had to say. Following a meeting, he found himself at the Oien farm, convinced that this was his only recourse.
Carlisle met Habets for an update after her book was published. Drought had struck Conrad again—the worst since the Dust Bowl—but this time Habets was ready. He took Carlisle on a tour of his farm, pointing out the improvements he’d made since converting to organic. “It turned out to be the best thing I ever did,” Habets told her. “I learned to take care of my soil first, and everything followed from that.”
Habets’ story was merely the latest chapter of a narrative Carlisle had listened to since her earliest years, when she sat at her grandmother’s side listening to stories of the Dust Bowl and the Nebraska Sandhills. Other stories followed as Carlisle took to the road as a country singer, opening for such acts as LeAnn Rimes and Sugarland. She told uplifting stories of rural America, of its values and strengths, but found herself listening to stories that sometimes obliterated hers in the dawning realization that farming wasn’t as romantic as she’d thought.
Her growing disillusionment over the plight of family farmers centered on political policy and the economic structure of the food system. After meeting Montana Senator John Tester, an organic farmer, she quit her singing career and worked in Tester’s offices where she started learning the real story of the Montana farmers and ranchers he served. She returned to graduate school where her research focused on how their farms and the alternative food and farm movement had evolved.
Conrad, Montana, known for its endless, horizon-spanning waves of wheat, was the epicenter of Carlisle’s research. Known as the Golden Triangle, it had once been a diversified farming community in the early 20th century, but during the 1950s farmers were urged to specialize. “You know how it went,” she said. “Too much fertilizer, nitrates in the ground water, wildly fluctuating global wheat markets, high rates of cancer, and all the other associated problems.”
The farm crisis of the 1980s hit the state hard. By the time it had abated, most farmers were forced to either get out of the business or make drastic changes to their farming systems. Carlisle’s farming research partners were either the initiators or the inheritors of the latter group, she said.
The challenges were daunting. Montana farmers needed to work together to design a system that would replace a monoculture dependent on chemicals but still be sustainable in an arid climate, and they needed to make a living at it. Traditional forms of organic farming, often applied in wetter areas, wouldn’t be practical in Montana, so a new suite of crops had to be determined, crops that were drought tolerant, able to break up pest cycles and include a diverse mix of species to provide nitrogen to the soil.
Trial and error led a group of determined Montana farmers them to a standard four-year rotation practice, with cover crops the first year, grain the second, a legume the third and buckwheat or flax the fourth. Year three posed a problem, she said. Another round of cover crops would have been more efficient but not economically feasible. They needed a crop that would both feed the soil and be harvestable. Because the climate wouldn’t support soybeans, they looked at places around the world with similar conditions.
“That’s when they found lentils,” Carlisle said. Humans had grown lentils for 10,000 years, and they were totally adapted to a semi-arid climate. Lentils were drought tolerant and frost hardy, fixed nitrogen in the soil, shallow-rooted, short in stature to shade the ground and prevent evaporation, and, in theory, a crop you could earn a profit on. But it all was all theoretical, because there wasn’t a grain elevator in the state that could handle lentils.
This little glitch was discovered once they had lots of lentils to sell and no way to sell them, Carlisle said.
Realizing that they needed to create their own processing, distribution and marketing infrastructure, the group created Timeless Seeds in 1987. Its purpose was to market ecologically-appropriate rotation crops—edible legumes, for starters—in a state where most people wouldn’t know a legume from a weed. Clearly, they needed to expand beyond the state’s borders where buyers understood lentils. Their first big break came at an expo in California when a buyer from Trader Joe’s offered to purchase 400,000 pounds.
They had a market, now they needed a processing and distribution system. Their second break came when they found an old elevator in Conrad that could be leased for $40,000. The town’s banker only had two questions for them: what was organic farming, and what was a lentil. He denied the loan.
A crowd sourcing effort funded by 12 friends and family members and six farmers raised the money, and they were able to meet Trader Joe’s orders. It was a lucrative deal, but it had two flaws—there was only one customer, and when that customer no longer needed lentils, there had no customers, which is exactly what happened.
It was a lesson that markets, like crops, needed diversification. After regrouping, the company now works with regional distributors rather than a single retail outlet. The lentil movement had achieved success. Timeless Seeds is now the town’s largest employer, and its products are marketed in about 500 natural food stores across the country, Carlisle said.
She had everything she needed to wrap up her dissertation except for the most important part.
“All I’ve told you so far is the story of this business,” she said. “That’s what I thought I was studying when I did my dissertation. But what’s underneath the story of that success? The double entendre of the “lentil underground” is that just like underneath a successful crop there is an active soil ecology, and underneath a successful business there is an active social ecology, or a moral economy, as I call it. The human communities are as important as the environmental communities.”
In developing these new farming systems, these Montana farmers had the foresight not just to create a business that would be sustainable within the existing parameters, but to actually move those parameters so that they aligned with their values and the kind of economy they wanted to have, she said. They created markets, they created institutions that could support the businesses that they wanted, and other businesses grew out of it.
It was more than just selling lentils, she said—it was about creating a new paradigm of community life. Just as Habets had made the change from growing grains to feeding the soil, the people had started feeding their human systems.
“John Wayne was what the American West was all about,” she said. “Rugged individualism plays a huge part in our regional and national mythos, and that’s what I saw happening in these movements with the lentil plant. It wasn’t as sexy, but what makes real westerners strong is that they collaborate and make their communities strong. It’s not a John Wayne thing, it’s a community thing. That’s the way we do it.”
“Biological fertility is more than a different nutrient approach,” Carlisle went on. “To build biological fertility is to build community. This kind of life cultivates a new sense of awareness, a new empathy. You have to pay attention beyond this homestead; you have to pay attention beyond this season. Planting lentils becomes who you are, what you’re conscious of, how you see the world, and it softens the borders of the self. This is the great irony of the lentil underground, or, perhaps, its secret: what rugged individualism brought together, only a community can sustain.”
Over 200 people attended the KRC conference where Carlisle spoke. The conference featured keynote speakers on topics such as agrochemical threats to pollinators, soil health and biodiversity, and the state of the Kansas budget, plus 15 workshop sessions spanning practical information for farmers and ranchers to policy analysis and issues. You can view some of the presentations at KRC’s website at: www.kansasruralcenter.org/krc-farm-food-conference-2016-presentations/.