Lentil Underground is a Montana phenomenon


Lentils are a humble and earthy food. They’re not intended for the fancy dishes that tap-dance around the table; they’re more at home in simple, nourishing foods like Indian dal or hippy mush, the kind of food that feeds villages.

Even better, lentils come from a plant that improves the land where it grows as well as the communities that cultivate it.

The benefits of lentils became clear during the height of the 1980s farm crisis, when four Montana farmers joined forces in a hunt for alternatives to the system of commodity agriculture that was destroying their land and communities. The farmers realized that the way they farmed – using expensive and ever-larger amounts of fertilizers and weed killers -- was causing the soil to lose its fertility, and as droughts became more frequent, the double whammy exacerbated the soil problem. People were going broke, crushed between rising prices for fertilizer and other additives, and lower prices at market.

The four friends were determined to farm their way out of this mess, so they began experimenting with various crops that could add fertility to the soil. One, a lentil named Indianhead, was bred as a cover crop, and they meant to plow it into the soil to add nitrogen. But when plants make nitrogen, reasoned David Oien, one of the four founders of what they called the Lentil Underground, what they were really making was nitrogen-rich protein.

"Indianheads were cheap," Liz Carlisle writes in Lentil Underground, a new book about Oien and his movement. "They were great for his soil. And since they were bred to make nitrogen, they were 24 percent protein. Why not add them to the cattle ration? Or for that matter, why not try some himself?"

Oien found the Indianhead lentils delicious, and he began eating a lot of them, though it was a while before he admitted to his neighbors that he was eating his soil-building crop. Eventually, Oien and his friends founded a company, Timeless, to market what they grew. The name, he said, came from a meeting that went way into the night when nobody knew what time it was.

Twenty-five years in, the Lentil Underground includes a widening base of organic farmers that grow for Timeless, including old hippies, young environmentalists, gun-loving rednecks, conservative Christians, Libertarians, the state's organic certification inspector, and Montana's Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. The lively, varied personalities and the "against all odds" tension of the book make it a fun read that's as much about ecology and economics as it is about lentil farming.

In addition to being an agricultural and social movement, the Lentil Underground also became a political movement. It was while working for Sen. Tester, who is also a lentil farmer, that writer Carlisle first learned of the Lentil Underground. Its members were never shy about calling their senator with ideas, she says, especially since their senator was a fellow lentil grower.

Thanks in part to the Underground’s efforts, the recent Farm Bill contains a pilot program called the Pulse School Pilot provision, pulse being the plant family that includes lentils. The Pulse School Pilot provision funds the government purchase of $10 million in lentils and other pulse legumes.

Lentils are such a nutritional powerhouse that the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies them as both a plant and a protein. And those high-protein Indianheads Oien started eating a quarter of a century ago? They’re still grown, marketed as “Black Beluga Lentils,” and increasingly popular with high-end chefs. Many other varieties of lentils in a rainbow of colors also bear the Timeless label, as well as a “Black Kabuli Chickpea,” which functions ecologically like a lentil -- and makes a striking hummus, Carlisle says.

The legumes are grown in rotation with grain and oilseed crops, and sometimes planted as pasture. The oilseed phase could be flax or sunflower or safflower. The grain phase could be one of several heritage grains like farro or purple prairie barley, marketed by Timeless. Other heritage grains, like kamut and spelt, are bought by the friendly competition, Montana Flour and Grains.

Legumes are able to build their legendary proteins, and thus supply the plant with in-house fertilizer, thanks to a symbiotic relationship between the plant's roots and a type of soil bacteria. This trans-species cooperative effort that goes on at the root level of lentils is a metaphor for the entire Lentil Underground movement. The more I learn about it, the more I feel the urge to eat some lentils.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes about food in New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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