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Lentil Underground Revolts Against Corporate Agriculture In Montana

The next time you drive through central or eastern Montana, look around. One of the farmers you see might be involved in a revolution.

Liz Carlisle is the author of a new book titled, Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America. She spent many months talking to Montana farmers about their revolt against corporate agribusiness, which has been going on for nearly three decades.

MTPR's Chérie Newman asked Liz how the Lentil Underground got its name.

LC:  The Lentil Underground is a name I came up with for an organic farming movement in Montana. It got started in the 1980s, but its roots are really quite a bit deeper in the grain pools, really, that our grandparents started in the early 20th century when they first realized that corporate agriculture was destroying their communities in many ways. And that they didn’t have the power, in that system, as it became more and more concentrated, to determine their own futures.

CN:  Finding a way to determine their own futures began with David Oy-in, a third-generation farmer near Conrad. To save his family’s farm, in the 1980s he took a big risk with a radical new crop. Organic lentils. I asked: why lentils?

DO:  Well, lentils have a lot of benefit all along the food chain. They have a great value for the farmers who grow them, because it is a soil-building crop, it replaces fossil fuel fertilizers. It’s also a tremendously versatile ingredient that can be used way beyond soup or way beyond salad. It’s a highly nutritious ingredient—very high in protein, very high in dietary fiber, it’s the highest vegetable source for folate. It’s great for diabetics, it’s a non GMO crop, it’s a non-gluten crop. And in addition, it has a very low carbon footprint, as far as the emission of greenhouse gases along the whole production chain. Part of that is due to the fact that it does manufacture its own fertilizer. But also in the growing and harvesting, it has very low environmental impact. So it’s good for the farmer, it’s good for your health, it’s good for the environment.

CN:  It seems like when you started, the production process was the problem.

DO:  It was definitely one of the big challenges we faced when we started Timeless back in the mid-80s. Once we grew them and harvested them, there was no way to get them to market. So we had to create that infrastructure, develop that infrastructure, that would take the production off our own farms, process it into food-grade quality, put it in a bag, and then find a market for those lentils. That’s part of what drove Timeless to creating this processing and packaging infrastructure.

CN:  A theory called “food miles” calls consumer attention to the environmental costs associated with our food production system.

DO: The rule of thumb is that the average ingredient, or the average food, has about 1,500 miles just in transportation, from the farm to the processor, to the manufacturer back to the grocery store, back to the home. And obviously, these days with all the concern about climate change and so forth, food miles matter. Food miles matter both in the cost of the food, it matters in the quality of the food, and it also matters in the impact on the planet.

CN:  That’s true, but Liz Carlisle says there are more factors to consider.

LC:  If you’ve seen a graph that shows how much carbon emissions comes from eating beef, or other types of meat, the main part of why those are so high is actually the grain that’s grown to feed the animal. And it’s the nitrogen fertilizer that’s used on the grain that feeds the animal. So, yeah, I’ve been encouraging people to think beyond food miles and this is part of the sort of food citizenship idea is getting to know what practices farmers are using that you’re patronizing.

CN:  If you were Queen of the World, how would you tell people to buy their food?

LC:  I would tell people to grow their food if they can. And if you cannot grow your own food, get to know your farmer.

CN:  You can get to know some Montana farmers and find lentil recipes, including lentil cookies, here. Find more information about Liz Carlisle’s book: Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America.

Chérie Newman is a former arts and humanities producer and on-air host for Montana Public Radio, and a freelance writer. She founded and previously hosted a weekly literary program, The Write Question, which continues to air on several public radio stations; it is also available online at and
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