This book review was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 25th.
Lentil Underground author Liz Carlisle
A series of books over the past decade has extolled the environmental benefits of sustainable agriculture and how delicious it can taste. Michael Pollan's groundbreaking “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” popularized grass-fed beef and eggs from pastured chickens. Dan Barber’s “The Third Plate” celebrates free-range foie gras and heirloom wheat. But no writer has devoted a whole book to the lowly lentil. Until now.
In “Lentil Underground,” Liz Carlisle (a Pollan protégé and fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Diversified Farming Systems) elevates the oft-ignored legume to heroic game-changer. In the late 1980s, a scrappy group of four Montana farmers discover that “this Robin Hood of the dryland prairie” robs fertility from aboveground, sharing it freely in the soil. Lentils are what agroecologist Miguel Altieri call a “green manure” — they fix nitrogen in the soil, obviating the need for chemical fertilizers. The farmers, already disenchanted with the fossil-fuel-based grain monoculture of the Great Plains — which not only depletes the soil of nitrogen but also offers razor-slim profit margins — form a company called Timeless Seeds.
Today, it’s not unusual to find farmers who spurn herbicides and chemical fertilizers and employ a diverse rotation of crops. But back in 1987, when David Oien and three others launched Timeless, wheat was king in Montana. “Amber waves of grain were like a religion in this part of the west,” Carlisle writes. “Any other plant life was labeled a weed and taken as a sign of some deep character flaw.” Puzzled by their unkempt fields of black medic (another potent nitrogen-fixer that some might call a weed), wheat farmers ridiculed their lentil-growing neighbors, calling them “a bunch of damn weed farmers!”
Carlisle embeds herself with these pioneering organic growers — sometimes even waking up for breakfast at their farms — and chronicles their setbacks and successes. It’s a typical story of being ahead of the curve. In the late ’80s, Oien and his fellow lentil farmers struggled to make a profit. But by the mid-’90s, lentils — especially the French green lentils and Black Belugas that Timeless grows — were increasingly in demand at natural food stores and high-end restaurants. Timeless got lucrative contracts with Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, both of which amped up production and profits, and chefs at high-end restaurants promised to put Black Belugas on every plate.