Lentil Underground

February 14, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Why grow lentils? 1) Two big reasons: fertilizer and water. 2) They can cope with a wide range of weather conditions. 3) They’re delicious.

Image Removed

Last night, I headed over to Berkeley for a talk featuring a group of organic lentil farmers from Montana, the former country music singer who wrote a book about them, and Michael Pollan. At the reception afterwards, we all drank wine and talked food politics and sampled small bites made with the heirloom lentils and grains grown by the farmers.

So in many ways, it was a typical Thursday in the Bay Area food scene.

Image Removed

L to R: David Oien, co-founder and CEO of Timeless Natural Food; Liz Carlisle, author of Lentil Underground, and Michael Pollan, professor and journalist. 

Except that instead of passionate young farmers determined to shape the new agrarian revolution, the main characters of this story were passionate older farmers whose revolution began thirty-plus years ago, when they rejected industrial monoculture to grow organic lentils on their family farms.

This was before organic was commonplace, before lentils were trendy, when the farming communities and the banks that financed them had no reason to believe that they would succeed. Their story is one of years of struggle and determination and community — community most of all — that has made their “lentil underground” into the success that it is today.

Side note: Remember when Adam Roberts, the Amateur Gourmet himself, made those black chickpeas? Guess who grew them? That’s right: these guys. 

Image Removed

The yam and crimson lentil tapenade with eggplant chips was my favorite.

Why grow lentils? Two of the big reasons: fertilizer and water. Growing crops industrial-style takes a lot of fertilizer, while leaving the soil in worse shape after each season. And fertilizer is expensive, especially when commodity prices are low. Lentils make their own fertilizer by pulling nitrogen from the air, meeting their own needs and leaving excess nutrients in the soil for the next season’s crop.

Second, lentils can cope with a wide range of weather conditions, and are very drought-tolerant. This was important back then, and is even more important now, when we’re seeing more extreme weather and long-term droughts.

More importantly to you non-farmers out there: why eat lentils? Well, because lentils are delicious. Seriously, you have no idea how good they are when you make them right. And they’re healthy. And cheap. And full of protein and fiber. (To make it a complete protein, just eat some sort of grain or nut at some point on the same day.)

And yes, they’re gluten-free.

They’re also one of the most environmentally friendly protein sources out there. It turns out this is true even if you’re buying organic lentils imported from Montana — transport costs are only about 4% of the carbon footprint.

And they’re quick and easy to make — unlike beans, lentils cook in 25-45 minutes, no soaking required. There are a number of different varieties of lentil, each with its own texture and flavor. They’re versatile: like chicken, they can adapt to just about any cuisine or flavor. And seriously, they’re easier to make than boxed mac ’n’ cheese.

Image Removed

You can pick up Lentil Underground at lentilunderground.com or from AmazonImage Removed, or check the event calendar to find a reading near you. You can buy Timeless Food’s heirloom lentils, chickpeas, and grains at timelessfood.com . Claudia Krevat prepared the food for the event: find her recipes, spice mixes, and event information at claudiasmesa.com 

Reposted with permission. Suggested by Ken W. of Post Carbon. For more photos see the original article. -BA

From the book’s website:

Forty years ago, corporate agribusiness launched a campaign to push small grain farmers to modernize or perish, or as Nixon Administration Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz put it, to “get big or get out. But twenty-seven year-old David Oien decided to take a stand. When he dropped out of grad school to return to his family’s 280 acre farm, Oien became the first in his conservative Montana county to seed his fields with a radically different crop: organic lentils. A cheap, healthy source of protein, rich in fiber, folate, Vitamin B1, and amino acids, lentils are drought tolerant and don’t require irrigation. And unlike the chemically dependent grains American farmers had been told to grow, lentils make their own fertilizer and tolerate variable climate conditions, so their farmers aren’t beholden to industrial methods. Today, David Oien leads a thriving movement of organic farmers who work with heirloom seeds and biologically diverse farm systems. Under the brand Timeless Natural Food, this “lentil underground” has grown into a million dollar enterprise that sells to hundreds of independent natural foods stores, and a host of renowned restaurants.

Set in the farm belt of red state America, far from the farmer’s markets and haute cuisine of coastal cities, Lentil Underground confronts the global food system in one of the little known rural communities that will determine its fate. From the heart of Big Sky Country comes this inspiring story of a handful of colorful pioneers who have successfully bucked the chemically-based food chain and the entrenched power of agribusiness’s one percent, by stubbornly banding together. Unearthing the deep roots of this movement, Lentil Underground introduces readers to a memorable cast of characters, from gun-toting libertarians and Christian homesteaders to peace-sign-waving environmental activists. Journalist and native Montanan Liz Carlisle weaves an eye-opening and richly reported narrative that will be welcomed by readers of food and farm memoirs, as well as everyone concerned with the future of American agriculture and natural food in an increasingly uncertain world.

Also see a video and interview at UC Berkeley: "Lentils, a mighty force for improving the food system."

Claire Boudreaux

Claire Boudreaux is a photographer + food blogger Her blog: www.plantandplate.com

Tags: beans, Food