Here in Northern California, the heart of the organic food movement, lentils are often taken for granted—a lowly shelf staple lacking the cult status of coffee, wine or artisan chocolate.
But there is much to learn from these humble legumes, insists Liz Carlisle, a former country music singer and Harvard grad who is now a doctoral student in geography at UC Berkeley. For the past few years, she has immersed herself in lentil agriculture, ecology and economics. And along the way, she has become something of a lentil evangelist.
Her passion led her to write Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America, to be published this month by Gotham Books.
The book tells the story of a small farmer on a 280-acre patch of land in the Great Plains, who dared to take a stand against agribusiness by planting what others considered weeds. David Oien led a small underground network of farmers in his conservative Montana county that investigated the wonders of lentils, demonstrating to skeptics that they enrich the soil, creating their own fertilizer, and thrive with little moisture. Years of work resulted in Timeless Natural Food, now a million dollar enterprise that sells lentils and heritage grains not only locally, but also to foodies on both coasts.
“I never thought that my life would be about lentils,” says Carlisle, sitting in the Berkeley studio apartment where she works and, most nights, consumes lentils that one of the farmers insisted on stuffing into a huge plastic bag the last time she visited. It was not something she dreamed about growing up in Missoula, where both parents are educators and everyone in the family played an instrument. When she went off to Harvard, she majored in folklore, which gave her a chance to study musicology, humanities and social science. On the side, she learned Greek dance and Korean drumming.
After college, she traveled around the country performing her own compositions, many of them romantic songs about the middle of the country. She opened for LeAnn Rimes and Travis Tritt. For a young musician, it was a heady success.
But as she traversed rural America what she noticed contrasted with her music: countryside that was devastated by drought and chemical fertilizers, and populated by struggling farmers.
Increasingly, she says, she felt she had to do something about it. In 2008, she went to work as a legislative correspondent for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, a maverick organic farmer near her hometown. It’s where she learned about the farmers who were turning their backs on wheat and corn subsidies and big agribusiness. Instead they were farming crops that other farmers disparaged as weeds: lentils.
After a little more than a year in Washington, she left for Berkeley, committed to learning more about farming in rural Montana. She spent time in formal classroom study, but also made a series of trips to meet farmers, some of whom she’d spoken to in Tester’s office. The reality of their lives sunk in, as did their stories. Far from the organic farmers on the west and east coasts—whose hip, well-off consumers craved more of anything they produced—these Montana farmers had to navigate a political system that encouraged them to sell conventional crops to big companies and a population that was not, shall we say, desperately looking for new ways to eat lentils.
Some were libertarian, conservative, deeply religious and pro-gun. But many were also educated, having returned from college to take over struggling family farms. They joined a larger movement that had once inspired their parents to join wheat pools and agrarian organizations. They wanted to take care of the land in a way that would produce a healthy economy and healthy food. Lentils, which have been grown since the beginning of agriculture (though not in Montana), seemed an ideal crop. They are cheap and high in protein. Grown in rotation with other crops, lentils, peas and other legumes would enrich the soil and didn’t need chemical fertilizer or much moisture.
In the late 1980s four farmers started Timeless Seeds, a company that for a while sold to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Carlisle found the main characters for her book among those pioneers of what she came to call the Lentil Underground. They drove her around their land in pick-ups and tractors and let her watch as they planted and organized—and fretted over finances, the weather, sales and how to nurture their crops. They told stories about their families and invited her into their homes.
Back in Berkeley, Carlisle approached Michael Pollan, the best-selling food author and also a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, to learn about writing. His classes are always full and he is used to turning students away. She was persistent, but “in the nicest way,” he says. So he made room for her.
As a native Montanan, she had an insider’s perspective and a sense of agrarian roots. She knew that Montana was not known as a hotbed of progressive thought, but she wanted to show it had its own grassroots movement, born of necessity.
“She knows how to talk to these people, perhaps in a way a food journalist from the coast might not have,” says Pollan, who allowed her to take his class a second time as she wrote and rewrote. “She understands the sociology of these farmers. They are conservative, from a place where you get a lot of grief if you differ from what others are doing, and these guys found one another.”
The book addressed what he considers an important question for the food movement: how to show that organics and sustainable farming can work in the farm belt.
When she goes on tour to promote the book, David Oein, the farmer who went to the University of Chicago and then convinced his skeptical father to let him install solar power, grow “oddball” crops and ditch chemical fertilizer, will travel with her. In fact, 25 farmers and their family members will come to a book party on February 5 in Berkeley. The event, free and open to the public, will be held at the Graduate School of Journalism, beginning at 6:30, with a reception following the includes what else?—a lentil and heritage grain tasting.
In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Carlisle argued that the organic movement should embrace products that are not grown locally because transporting them makes up only a fraction of their carbon footprint. Most of that is created by use of chemical fertilizers. She urges politically correct foodies to support organic farmers from the heartland. Doing so, she says, is key to supporting an overhaul of the food system.
Pollan says she has documented an important story, one that is a microcosm of something larger.
And, he adds, “It might just make people eat lentils.”