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Organic farming

Turns Out Boring Old Lentils Are Surprisingly Radical

During the 1980s farming crisis, a group of renegade Heartland farmers radicalized conventional agriculture with one surprising crop: lentils.

Lauren Rothman

Photo via Flickr userJules

The 1970s, in America, are often remembered as a golden age of sexual, psychotropic, and musical experimentation. But the politics of the era—with Nixon taking office in 1969, an economy-devastating oil embargo in place through 1973, and the war in Vietnam slogging on into 1975—go far towards countering that free love vision, encapsulating a uniquely tumultuous, and well, fucked up chapter of American history. It's not difficult to recall the effects of the era's fallout on certain key players—Arab nations' oil-spurred surprise 1973 attack on Israel; Tricky Dick's 1974 resignation; and calamitous death tolls in Vietnam. One group whose struggles were all too real—but are now rarely remembered—was American farmers.

In 1976, David Oien's Montana farming family was being squeezed tight. After two generations of successful medium-scale agriculture in the Heartland—and before that, a history of farming that stretched back more than 500 years, to the family's Norwegian ancestors—Oien's parents found themselves fighting a losing battle. The oil embargo was making it extremely costly for them to get their hands on the fossil fuel-dependent nitrogen fertilizers that, post-World War II, had become a key ingredient in growing the farm's malt barley and alfalfa hay crops. Even more worryingly, Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, had recently told Midwest farmers to "get big or get out," urging small- and medium-scale growers to turn their farms over to the production of commodity crops such as corn in an effort to infuse the US economy with the cash these exported crops would bring in.

Oien is one of the subjects of a new book by Michael Pollan protege Liz Carlisle entitled Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America. Carlisle is a former legislative aide to Montana senator—and organic farmer—Jon Tester and a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at UC Berkeley. She first heard about Oien while working with Tester. Farmers across Montana—many of whom, like Oien's family, were struggling to stay afloat—began to spread the word that Oien had figured out a way to break free of nitrogen fertilizer dependence: he was manufacturing his own fertilizer, naturally, by planting a surprisingly efficacious crop: lentils.

In 1976, Oien was in his 20s, and had recently abandoned his studies in religion and philosophy to try to save the family farm.

"I moved back to the family farm in 1976 after attending college and came back to a farm crisis," he recalls. "I came out of the sixties' back-to-the-land movement, and had read some Native American religious thought about how the earth is our mother."

In order for his family's farm to survive a new economic and political age, Oien said, he became convinced that it had to go totally organic.

"I put a lot of pieces together and said, 'We need to get off this chemical treadmill, we need to get off the commodity treadmill,'" Oien remembers. "'We need to think about agriculture in a different way. If this farm is to survive, agriculture has to be more earth-friendly.'"

But Oien had to convince his parents—who over time had converted their once-diversified farm into a strictly two-crop operation, growing barley for the beer industry and hay for their farm animals—to stop using chemicals. That was no easy feat, in spite of the fact that, Oien says, nearby farmers around his father's age were increasingly dying of lymphatic cancer, now linked to the use of the herbicide 2,4-D.

"When I moved back to the farm, it was a pretty typical conventional operation, with the use of synthetic fertilizers, the use of herbicides," Oien says. "So it was a bit of a challenge and a paradigm shift for my father to embrace this idea, because the industrial model had really become a fairly successful tool for him. It's not surprising that that the thought of abandoning those tools would be a challenge to him and his generation."

When this group of farmers got started in the 80s it was radical to suggest that you could farm productively without chemicals.

After conducting a ton of research, reading about the findings of various agriculturalists who promoted planting diverse crops and rotating them seasonally, Oien happened upon the work of Dr. James Sims, a Montana State researcher who had discovered that legumes traditional to the Middle East were particularly well suited to the semi-arid growing conditions of the Great Plains. Best of all, considering the skyrocketing prices of chemical fertilizers? These legumes—including all varieties of lentils—naturally make their fertilizer.

"These are legumes that make their own nitrogen, with their symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the soil. They're able to actually pull nitrogen out of the air, for the plant and also for" whatever crop will next be planted in that soil, Oien says. And though at the time lentils were primarily being used as a "manure crop"—planted and then plowed under into the soil to fertilize it, without ever being harvested, Oien recognized their value as a food crop, too.

"It became clear to farmers including myself and my neighbors that as important as they were as green manure crops, the lentils offered the opportunity for an additional cash crop if they were harvested, processed and sold into the food market."

That new knowledge was the genesis of Timeless Seeds, an organic farming cooperative and, eventually, a food brand that Oien started in 1987. Working with three other farmers in central Montana, Oien and his partners all planted lentils and other pulses. In addition to creating their own fertilizers, these crops also proved their ability to replenish Great Plains soil, which, after decades of monocropping, was dry and devoid of nutrients. Growing legumes reduces erosion, builds organic matter, and saves soil moisture—the latter being especially important in a time of widespread drought in America. Initially, the cooperative—which now also produces organic barley, farro, and kamut and has been renamed Timeless Food—produced a couple of thousand pounds of lentils per season. Today, its annual lentil crop is closer to two million pounds, Oien says, and is distributed to stores all over the country, including Whole Foods.

Lentil Underground author Carlisle doesn't see it as a reach to deem the work of Oien and his peers radical.

"When this group of farmers got started in the 80s it was radical to suggest that you could farm productively without chemicals," she says. "It was a really radical thing to suggest in Montana, because the response from pretty much anyone in a legitimate position—whether they were a researcher or a banker or a public office holder—was that's just not going to generate enough food to feed the world, or provide an income for your family. 'We really need these chemicals, that's modern agriculture, you don't want to send us back to the Stone Age without our modern tools.' And this group of farmers kept saying, 'Well, actually we think the really sophisticated technologies are plants. We're not getting the deleterious effects of these chemicals, and we're getting all of the benefits.' And that was just a really radical thing to suggest: it flew in the face of rural life and the rural economy. It meant not going to the fertilizer dealer that everybody else did."

As the market for organics in the US continues to grow, Oien says, so does awareness of and demand for the types of ancient legumes and grains grown at Timeless Foods. He says that in 1987, when the company began, the average American ate about three ounces of lentils per year—less than one serving. Today, that figure has more than doubled, to eight ounces per person per year. That's still not a ton, but Oien is hopeful that it indicates that lentils are finally overcoming their crunchy, hippie-food status.

And as for Oien? He never gets sick of lentils, even though he eats them at least four times a week.

"The beautiful thing about lentils is they are so versatile: I mean everything from appetizers, dips, to soups, to salads, the main course," he says. "I've even got a great recipe for lentil chocolate cake."