Carlisle, Liz. Lentil Underground. Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America. NY: Gotham Books, 2015.
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. The story interweaves a triple interpretative biography of the farmers, the plant varieties in ecosystems, and their struggling but ultimately successful business, Timeless Seeds. It constructs the history of this Montana organic agricultural business through the life stories of its diverse and colorful members, the new-old seeds and biodiverse agro-ecological products and practices they re-pioneered, and the collective material- and information-sharing they achieved through collective action and networking. The narrative begins in 1974 and traces a developmental, alternative agricultural path that roughly parallels the Green Revolution and its successor Green-Gene Revolution, the mainstream energy- and chemical-intensive agricultures, through 2014. The experiences of the farmers, researchers, and business interests who jointly made these organic activities happen, provide additional shining testimonies to the role of government in encouraging or discouraging a healthier, more resilient rural environment and economy in an era of Big Agriculture, big corporate lobbying interests, and big risks for farmers facing uncertain natural and economic climates that put many conventional agriculturalists out of business.
The author, a product of University of California at Berkeley’s agro-ecological, sustainable-food, and writing programs (think Miguel Altieri, Alice Waters, and Michael Pollan), dedicated three years to interviewing the principals and telling their individual, family, and networking stories. These colorful, dedicated, and resourceful characters, almost all of whom originally come from Montana farming backgrounds, include founding family farmer, Dave Oien, a philosophy and religious studies major who then contributed agroecology and business as assets to transform and manage their family farm and Jerry Habets, who backed into lentils and organic farming when he could not afford the chemicals necessary to continue conventional farming. Others are Casey Bailey, whose diverse background in music, urban studies, Liberation Theology, and counter-cultural activism, made him an excellent candidate for diversified farming and associated collective decision-making, and Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree, who combined day-jobs that paid the bills and provided medical benefits with their passion, organic farming. Their politics range from right-wing libertarian to left wing progressive and this is Carlisle’s point: there is considerable diversity in the politics of the organic farming movement. Seasoning this mix are also heroic plant breeders and ecologists, who provide biological and physical (soils) information and materials to assist and improve organic operations.
Carlisle correctly realized that careful, qualitative, investigative research could document how U.S. and state government investments and regulations at multiple levels helped or hindered a more diversified agriculture, and what farmer-led actions could contribute to sustainability — farming and livelihoods — which was everyone’s value. The additional insights she gained over the course of these interviews concern the human community and what Frances Moore Lappe, in various food writings, has termed “living democracy.” Timeless Seeds constructed its network and thrived because it made human community an integral component of its sustainability vision. Their combined collective, seed, and farmer biographies also offer an argument against the growing preference for “local” food and agriculture, as the markets that make this regional success story possible illustrate another kind of globalization — from the grass-roots. All could agree that agricultural business-as-usual was not working for farmers like them or farms like theirs, and found that they needed grassroots organizations to support and voice their collective commitment to organic, multi-crop, and pluralistic botanical and social alternatives. They also required government support for research and organic-friendly regulations to make their enterprises viable. On these government agendas they have been partly successful in winning some dedicated (rather than “bootlegged”) funding for soils and pest research that will provide an evidence base for optimal, multi-crop organic management strategies. They have also managed to acquire some farmer protection against lawsuits should licensed GMO seeds incidentally rather than intentionally sprout in their fields, and bans on GMO wheat until such time as their Asian markets agree to accept this product.
The text is beautifully crafted to let the voices of the farmer families speak for themselves, and in the process recount the sorry history and ecology of US agriculture. Some are the children of family farmers, who followed US Department of Agriculture guidelines, investing yearly in ever higher priced seeds, energy, machinery, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides but regularly losing crops to bad weather, poor soils, or evolving pests. They found the only protection temporarily rescuing them from penury was government crop insurance or payments. So long as they followed the rules (monocropping with chemicals), the government payments at least partially bailed them out. But most years, this was not a living and future prospects were bleak. Both the soils and the human beings who worked them were exhausted, their health eroding from chemical poisons. The older generation despaired of leaving their farming legacy to their offspring. This next generation, however, a group of rugged and well-read individualists, nevertheless learned to apply modern scientific understandings of their more diversified agricultural past, and also created the kind of community that shares and helps each other overcome isolation, trauma, and risks. These social as well as agri-technical developments are clearly showcased in the stories of farmers’ improvement clubs, where new farmers could present and help solve each other’s problems, and ultimately stay in business. Their stories convincingly show that American rural life might yet thrive, based on the vision and determination of these fully dedicated but for economic reasons, part-time farmers.
As a text for teaching, I find author Liz Carlisle and her subjects are at their best when they are assessing the tradeoffs, and sometimes the ironies of their situations. Most of these tradeoffs concern economics and politics. Slowly, these new “weed” farmers, who know Montana farming can’t continue to practice business as usual because the older generation is going broke, learn to experiment first with new cover crops and green manure species, and only later add forage, feed, and food into the mix to make their farming operations viable. Although throughout this multi-decade learning process, individual farmers and the group as a whole learn to value organic agriculture by assessing energy saved and chemical expenditures avoided, they need crops they can sell at a premium if farming households are to survive. As Timeless Seeds moves into new legumes, in new combinations, and sometimes in combination with other “heritage” seeds such as purple barley, emmer (farro), and spelt, or more common grains and livestock that have the added value that they are produced and certified organic, the instigators find they must learn business skills and spend increasing time on administration and marketing.
These learning curves, which demonstrated that Timeless needed to have multiple crops and not rely on single buyers, proved as challenging as the field and processing skills they accumulated and shared over time. The cases developing markets for “new” legumes such as French green lentils (a one-time shot with Trader Joe’s) and “Beluga” black lentils (promoted by one particular high-end chef and then marketed through his client networks) are particularly instructive. Although most participating farmers entered organic farming with idealistic values that they were going to save the land and the population’s health, they find that some of their best customers are Asian nutrition supplement businesses, who turn their high-protein legumes into biochemicals that feed highly industrialized animal operations or high-income consumers. As one farmer opines: this is not why she signed up to work hundreds of hours each week, instead of living a normal professional life with a vacation house and time.
Another trade-off concerns government payments: was the goal to get government off or on the farmers’ backs? As organic farmers sought answers to agronomic questions, could they get equal funding for organic (as compared with conventional) agriculture, or create commodity check off payments that would help educate and promote organic production and consumption? Another effort was to access crop insurance, because, while organic production helped cool and sequester moisture in soils, it did not make one immune to natural weather disasters, which include not only ferociously dry, high temperature seasons, but also untimely rain and hail that can devastate harvests. A third was access to health insurance, because health problems posed a big barrier to sustainable farmers, who usually needed one fully employed spouse with benefits to make sure medical bills were covered. Although networked farmers did very well at sharing experiences and taking care of each other, these grassroots approaches, sadly, could not solve all their problems; they still needed government assistance.
Carlisle and her sources, significantly, also raise some unanswered questions. For example, how should farmers calculate returns on crops, when there are so many different species and varieties, and some of the returns are multi-year contributions to soil structural health and fertility, or plant-community based resilience to crop-specific pests, or simply long-term human health? Is there a more complex answer to the question, can GE ever contribute to soil conservation and restoration when soils and multi-crop ecology are so complex and genetic technologies treat one gene or gene-to-gene interaction at a time? The beauty of this text as an information source and teaching tool is that these questions are raised, and suggest plenty of directions for further research and discussion. It would serve well as a basic supplementary text in U.S. agricultural and food systems and policy courses at undergraduate through graduate levels. It would also make a terrific addition to the reading library of any organic gardener or consumer. Finally, to increase comprehensibility, there is an introductory map of Montana locating all the farms, towns, and major transportation routes mentioned in the text, and a glossary, defining key environmental, economic, and social-political concepts. The book is very beautifully produced, with botanical images and easily readable type in multiple gray to black shades. There is, alas, no index.