Four years into my career as a country singer, I was tired. When I’d graduated from college, with a new record to sell and a full schedule of shows for the summer, it had seemed like the greatest thing in the world to travel through rural America and tell its story.
But now that I’d crisscrossed the country several times in my station wagon, I knew the sobering truth. I’d been lying.
As I listened to the people who came up to chat after my shows, it dawned on me that life in the heartland was not what I’d thought. Farming had become a gruelling industrial occupation, squeezed between the corporations that sold farmers their chemicals and the corporations that bought their grain.
To my disappointment, I discovered that most American farmers weren’t actually growing food but rather raw ingredients for big food processors. These multinational corporations dictated everything their growers did, from the seeds they planted to the expensive fertilizers and herbicides they needed to grow them.
It was a losing game for the farmers, who kept sinking further into debt as their input costs rose and grain prices fell. But the arrangement was great for the corporations, which kept right on dealing chemicals to their captive suppliers of cheap corn, soy, and wheat.
Flush with marketing dollars, Big Food was working hard to convince middle America that their folksy branded products were the protectors of the family farm and its wholesome values. I thought about the companies that sponsored my shows and felt a creeping wave of guilt. I’d bought into their phony story hook, line, and sinker — and I was propagating it.
The song I always sang to open my concerts talked about corn popping up in neat rows next to a peaceful river. But in fact, the fertiliser running off America’s cornfields had so thoroughly choked the Mississippi watershed with nitrogen that farm towns were subsisting on bottled water, and the Gulf of Mexico was sporting a dead zone the size of Massachusetts.
It wasn’t as if the flood of fertiliser were helping farmers. All those fossil fuel — based chemicals were sending rural households into bankruptcy, just like gas prices were crushing me. As I drove away from the pump in Somerville, I realised it was time for me to tell the real story of farming, food, and rural America. Maybe I could even help to change it.
So in the spring of 2008, I quit the music business. And I joined the lentil underground.
Strictly speaking, I didn’t exactly know I was joining the lentil underground when I went to work for US senator Jon Tester in June of 2008. What I knew was that Jon was an organic farmer from a small town in my home state of Montana.
He seemed to have some good ideas for fixing the problems with American agriculture, so that farmers could make a good living growing healthy food. And in the process, he was changing the face of national politics. By unseating a three-term Republican incumbent, Jon had handed senate Democrats a razor-thin majority — and a flat-topped populist poster child.
From my first week on the job as Tester’s legislative correspondent for agriculture and natural resources, I started getting calls from his equally colourful fellow farmers. They surprised me with deeply considered, homegrown policy proposals, recalling an era of our democracy so distant that I’d long since dismissed it as mythological.
Was I on the phone with Franklin? Jefferson? I might as well have been, given how seriously these farmers took their civic duty to tinker, diagram, and reason their way to a better polity. Although I was dubious that I could do anything to shepherd these farmers’ unorthodox proposals to the floor of the Senate, I had to admit that my enthusiastic correspondents had some pretty good ideas.
Of course, most establishment types thought Jon’s buddies were crazy. Strange crops. Messy-looking fields. “Weed farmers,” one prominent constituent told me. “They’re a bunch of d— weed farmers.”
But if these were weed farmers, I gathered, they were remarkably solvent ones. Unlike the other growers who called into the office, these organic farmers weren’t complaining about grain prices, because they didn’t sell to big corporations, and they were raising a lot more than just grain. They weren’t complaining about the cost of chemicals either, because they didn’t use them.
They’d found a crop that could grow its own fertiliser: lentils.
I got so curious about these farmers and their miraculous lentils that I started calling them, peppering them with questions about all the crops in their rotations. But as quickly as I’d gotten excited, I found myself frustrated again. I thought I’d happened onto a simple, technical solution to the crisis in farm country.
But instead, my farmer informants kept regaling me with meandering stories that dragged long into my lunch break before I finally cut them off with a polite “Thanks for sharing your thoughts.” I was about to give up when one of the farmers leveled with me. “I know you folks out in DC are always looking for a quick fix, and I just want you to know that this isn’t it,” the farmer said. “But if you’d like to come out and visit, you’re always welcome.”
I hung up the phone, grouchy. I was at work late again, vainly attempting to stay on top of the flood of emails about wolves, guns, and abortion. I knew the office wasn’t about to send me on a junket to Montana to check out a field of lentils. I was mad at myself for my foolish idealism, mad at myself for wasting time on a dead end.
But as I lay in bed that night, I started thinking more seriously about the farmer’s invitation. As he’d warned, this wouldn’t be a quick fix. It would take a long time to really understand what these organic growers were up to. I would need to quit my job and focus on this project full-time, probably for several years. I had a lot to learn about ecology, economics, and the real history of the agrarian West — not just the version I’d absorbed from country radio. And yet, maybe it was worth it.
The next evening, I started researching graduate schools, looking for a place where I could get the training I needed and then conduct in-depth field research. It wasn’t easy to find a doctoral program with the breadth I was looking for, since most departments focused their students on a highly specialised area of study.
But the PhD at UC Berkeley’s Geography Department seemed like a good fit. In June of 2009, after thirteen months in DC, I said good-bye to Jon Tester, promising that our next visit would be at his Montana farm. And in August, I moved to Northern California to register for my first semester of classes.
By the summer of 2011, I’d made it far enough into my formal studies to venture out to Montana to meet some farmers. I picked up my parents’ station wagon in Missoula, then headed off for a part of the state I’d never been to before — the dry plains just east of the Rocky Mountains. There, in a sleepy little town named Conrad, I found the man I was looking for: Dave Oien.
Dave wasn’t the first farmer I’d spoken to when I started working in the Tester office. In fact, I’m not sure I ever talked directly to him at all. But when I asked people to tell me who had convinced them to go organic, the answer always circled back to this little Conrad farm. On these 280 acres — his parents’ homestead — Dave had done something truly radical.
During the height of the 1980s farm crisis, he’d become the first in his county to plant organic lentils. Back then, Dave had been laughed off as a kook. But now he had more than a dozen other people growing for his small business, Timeless Seeds, which had gotten specialty lentils on the shelves at Whole Foods and on the menus of the nation’s finest restaurants.
Excerpted with permission from Gotham Books, from LENTIL UNDERGROUND by Liz Carlisle. Gotham Books is an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright 2015.
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