“Lentil Underground’’ is an account of how a diverse group of Montana farmers came to realize that the health of their soil, the health of those who eat the foods they raise, and the health of their own pocketbooks depend on radically altering almost everything they know about working the land.
At the center of the story is Dave Oien, a former philosophy student who returned to his family’s farm and, with several like-minded growers, established Timeless Seeds in 1987, a concern selling seeds for “weed crops’’ such as black medic and lentils, which actually return nutrients to the soil.
From inauspicious beginnings and against a wall of skeptical, conventional farmers, Timeless eventually gained practitioners who demonstrated both the feasibility and sustainability of the company’s founding vision.
Author and native Montanan Liz Carlisle (whose impressive resume includes a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and four years as a country singer who once opened for LeAnn Rimes) embarked on this study of organic farmers in her state after serving briefly as the legislative correspondent for agriculture and natural resources to US Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is an organic farmer.
For a couple years, Carlisle, a former student of environmentalist and food guru Michael Pollan, took off time from her doctoral program at the University of California Berkeley to crisscross her home state to interview an interesting cross section of these agricultural pioneers and learn in great detail about their struggles to create sustainable farms. A number of the personalities Carlisle encounters are refreshing in how much they defy the stereotype of the hippie, back-to-the-land organic farmer. There are the Crabtrees, so tuned to the bottom line, they’d make a banker blush, and the deeply Christian and conservative Manuel family.
Despite an earnest attempt to construct an “Against All Odds’’ drama with the individual accounts in “Lentil Underground,’’ the story is disconcertedly lacking in tension. Partly, that has to do with the structure of the book. Though Oien, the Timeless Seeds’ chief executive (and mother hen), provides some continuity by showing up in successive chapters to prop up his sometimes discouraged growers, the book reads like a collection of essays alternating between profiles and issues. The book would have been more successful as a 10,000-word essay for Modern Farmer.
The other factor contributing to the lack of tension is every farmer’s wonderfulness. Yes, the farmers are fighting against Big Ag, the weather, GMOs, and depleted soil, but the latter aren’t characters and, therefore, not adversaries who raise the stakes. There might have been some tension possible by drawing on the protagonists’ foibles, uncertainties, and dark sides, but with all the farmers’ proximity to sainthood, there’s not a lot of drama to be had.
Nevertheless, Carlisle does prove herself to be an exceptional reporter and science writer. The descriptions on how sustainable farm ecology works is the best material in the book. Carlisle also does not shy away from some of the thornier questions raised by sustainable agriculture, such as one farmer’s admission that if every farmer turned to organic agriculture, there couldn’t possibly be enough food raised to feed the world’s population. One hopes that with the experience of this book under her belt, this writer will write more compelling works on such questions in the future.
Kent Black is an editor and writer who lives in New Mexico.