Early this March, students and faculty of the University of Montana turned out to listen to a farmer and a former country singer talk about a growing movement in America. Their message: support sustainable agriculture by eating more lentils.
David Oien is a farmer and a third-generation Montanan. He is also the CEO of Timeless Natural Food, a gourmet line of specialty grains. According to Oien, practicing sustainable agriculture means farming with the next several generations in mind and how farmers choose to manage their soil is incredibly important. Since the 1940s, farmers have planted lentils periodically to break disease cycles within their crops. The cycles happen when they plant crops like wheat or barley back to back without letting the soil rest. But unlike cereal grains, lentils have a shallow root system, so they leave an abundance of nutrients in the deeper soil for future crops. Lentils also have the ability to ‘fix nitrogen’ or capture the available nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it to a form that the plants can use. Normally farmers have to use synthetic chemicals that are incredibly hard on the environment to fertilize their crops but after lentils are harvested, residual nitrogen is left in the soil for future crop rotations. Lentils are also insect and drought tolerant and are great sources of iron and protein.
Those facts made Liz Carlisle, author of The Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America, wonder why, then, haven’t Americans embraced lentils in their diets? Carlisle, who received her Ph.D. from Berkeley and is a protégé of Michael Pollan, argues that industrial farming practices are to blame. During the 1980s, commercial farmers adopted a ‘get big or get out’ mentality when the government began subsidizing cereal crops. As a result, pesticide use skyrocketed and dramatically reduced the amount of organic matter in the soil.
“Martin Luther King never said, ‘I have a dream to squash yours,’” Carlisle said at the event held on campus, attempting to explain why commercial farming practices now dominate the food industry. This mentality is a manifestation of our American ideals of what success looks like and it comes at the expense of someone else. In this particular scenario, it’s at the expense of small-scale farmers, Carlisle said.
Indeed, it’s hard for farmers to make a living off unsubsidized crops, but adopting the practices of the lentil underground provides the agricultural community with higher value crops and also strengthens and makes communities more resilient when they have diversified crops. It pulls more farmers into the organic sphere while simultaneously protecting the environment, Oien said.
Montana is currently the leading producer of lentils in the United States, Oien said. Individually, Americans consume a staggering 170 pounds of wheat annually in comparison to the 10 ounces of lentils consumed. To support the environment, local growers and one’s own health and wellness, Oien encourages individuals to eat more of these incredible legumes.
Planting lentils forces us to think more critically about our future and how we solve the problems of the world. In a recent interview, Chérie Newman, producer of Montana Public Radio’s program, The Write Question, asked Carlisle, “If you were queen of the world, how would you tell people to buy their food?” Carlisle laughed as she said, “I would tell people to grow their food, if they can, and if you cannot grow your own food, get to know your farmer.”
Clare Menahan lives in Missoula, Montana, where she attends the University of Montana an supplements her income working as a freelance musician and seasonal ski instructor.