"Corporations are in control at the beginning of the food chain, with the seed and with the chemicals, and they're also in control at the other end of the food chain," says Liz Carlisle. Her book, Lentil Underground, is the story of a group of farmers in Montana who broke free of the industrial farming system by growing organic lentils.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What is the lentil underground?

Liz Carlisle
Liz Carlisle (Photo: Su Evers)

Liz Carlisle: The lentil underground is a group of farmers in Montana who decided they didn't want to do commodity industrial wheat anymore. They were going to rotate speciality crops that would revitalize their soil. They hit on lentils as the key crop in this rotational organic farming system.

LRK: Why an underground? Underground indicates something you want to hide or something that is just not done.

LC: This is an underground in two senses.

It's beneath the surface, in terms of the farms. What I wanted to call attention to in this book is how important it is, what's happening literally beneath the earth on our farms in our food systems, what the roots of our crops are doing.

But then also what the roots of our societies and our communities are doing. What's happening under the surface of what we hear about in the news, or maybe in electoral politics with social movements.

LRK: What is happening under the soil?

LC: Lentils are such a great plant because they can work with bacteria to make their own fertilizer. What's happening down there is that the lentils are pulling nitrogen out of the atmosphere and they are converting it into a plant-available form. Then they exude that nitrogen into the soil, so it's available as a fertilizer both for the lentil plant itself and for the next crop. You can rotate lentils with a grain and the grain yields will be higher the next year.

LRK: What about the other meaning of underground?

LC: In terms of the social underground, I wanted people to understand how much sustainable agriculture enthusiasm there is in Middle America in farming communities. There are a lot of farmers who want to get out of the industrial food system and have really put a lot of effort and innovation into coming up with alternatives.

This is the story of a group of people in Montana. They're rotating, in some cases, up to 21 crops. What they can do as a result is use the plants to provide the surfaces for one another that would otherwise require chemicals.

LRK: You talk about the farmer today as between the proverbial rock and the hard place. What is that really about?

LC: It's really tough to be a family farmer in the U.S. today for a number of reasons. It comes down to the corporate consolidation in our food system. It means that corporations are in control at the beginning of the food chain, with the seed and with the chemicals, and they're also in control at the other end of the food chain. They're the buyers for farmers' products. In many cases, they are the only buyer available in a small town at one of these elevators.

People get stuck in a system where they have to provide a particular type of grain -- it's a proprietary seed. The inputs, the herbicides they have to use, those are proprietary as well. They're going into debt to buy all these things. They're not in control of their own market.

It's very easy to feel like you're a factory worker and no longer a farmer. That's why it's been important for this group of people in Montana to innovate their own farming systems and then develop their own markets to connect directly to eaters.

LRK: How did this all begin?

LC: I start the story of the book in the '70s when the main character, Dave Oien, comes back to his family farm and wants to convert it to organics.

It really got moving along in the late '80s because of the farm crisis around the grain belt. A number of farmers got stuck in this debt situation. The fertilizer costs were high, the grain prices were low, and because the fertilizer was tied to the fossil fuel economy, that was all dependent on global oil markets. They wanted to get out of this trap and they wanted to figure out another way.

But it also goes back to agrarian movements that date back to the beginning of the 20th century to the Farmers Union, to grain pools. This is a part of our agrarian history. I think we too often forget how deep our traditions of mutual aid, organizing and cooperating are.

LRK: Farmer Dave Oien seems to be the heart of the book.

LC: Dave Oien is a farmer in Conrad, Montana. He was born and raised there. His parents farmed. His grandparents farmed. When he was growing up, they were just starting to move to this industrial system. He didn't want to farm that way. It wasn't clear that would be viable because their farm was only 280 acres. The secretary of agriculture at that time, Earl Butz, was saying, "Get big or get out."

He went to college and he got interested in the environmental movement; he was reading Rachel Carson. He was also interested in some of the social change movements at that time. He realized that his family farm was a great place to start from in changing the world, and that he could figure out a rotation of crops so that he could farm organically. That's where the story begins, with Dave experimenting with these crops and eventually hitting on lentils.

LRK: How did the underground begin?

LC: The underground began because Dave realized that he wasn't going to be able to do this alone. He wasn't going to be able to buck the system alone. He needed to build infrastructure. He needed to have a processing plant. He needed to develop a business so that he could market these products to consumers. There was nobody who would buy organic lentils at that time from him.

He had to get together with his neighbors. They were receptive because they were having some of the same problems. They were worried they were going to go bankrupt. They had been hearing the same things about their farms not being big enough.

It's a tough area to be an industrial farmer. It's not as productive an industrial farming area as the Midwest. It doesn't get a lot of rain. The climate is volatile. The soils aren't those mollisols that you see in the Midwest.

They needed a crop that would be resilient to these conditions. They needed a farming system that worked for them both ecologically and economically.

LRK: From what I understand, in the beginning there was really no support for this. How much did they have to deal with in terms of having roadblocks put in front of them? Or were they just left alone?

LC: I think there were a lot of funny looks when Dave Oien started doing this in the middle of a relatively traditional conservative farming community. Neighbors were concerned about weeds and about the perception that their farming community wasn't clean. They also just thought it wasn't a viable business model.

I think there were a lot of snickers at the beginning, certainly from the agricultural establishment, from the professors of agriculture, from people involved in the department of agriculture in the state. This was just a really-out-of-the-box idea from what had been going on and what they thought the trajectory of modern agriculture was going to be.

But that's changed a lot as organics has become such a major industry in its own right. These days, it's not at all unusual for people to be rotating and using cover crops. It has caught on.

LRK: Where is the lentil underground now?

LC: The lentil underground developed this business, Timeless Seeds, in the late '80s -- Dave and three of his farmer friends. It's now a million-dollar business. They sell to natural-foods stores all over the country. They work with about 20-30 growers each season who grow for them. They have a retail line. They work with chefs. They're also working with farm-to-school in Montana, which is really exciting, to get more lentils in school lunches. They are also working with colleges.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.