Review by Sarah White
Who are we, these people who love to read about people who start businesses, plucky Davids in a world of corporate Goliaths? Lentil Underground is the kind of book we delight to stumble upon, then wake up early or stay up past bedtime reading, and sigh when, all too soon, we turn the final page. (Really? For a book about lentils?)
No, stick with me here. There’s a good story.
Author Liz Carlisle was a country musician fed up with the discomforts of touring when she decided to return to her childhood home in the high, dry Montana farm country. Even more, she was fed up with the lies she’d been telling through her music. “I’d grown up on country radio, and I loved weaving romantic agrarian lyrics into pretty melodies,” she wrote in the Author’s Note that opens Lentil Underground. She continued…
Life in the heartland was not what I’d thought. Farming had become a grueling industrial occupation, squeezed between the corporations that sold farmers their chemicals and 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…. 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.
So disenchanted was Carlisle that, as she put it, “I quite the music business and joined the lentil underground.” She took a job with US senator Jon Tester of Montana, where her work involved communicating with farmers. Before long, a group of farmers caught her imagination. They were not complaining about the costs of chemicals or the price for commodity grains, but seeking help growing a crop that didn’t require chemical inputs or selling at fixed prices to Big Food. The crop they’d found provided its own fertilizer, and commanded premium prices in the organic foods marketplace. The magic crop? Lentils.
Carlisle quit her job, enrolled in UC-Berkeley to pursue a PhD, and made a dissertation project of studying the lentil farmers in her Montana birthplace. Many were, like her, raised on these Montana farms, but unlike her, they were looking for a way to farm their family land without being driven to bankruptcy.
And that’s where Lentil Underground begins. Over the course of 17 chapters, divided in 5 parts, Carlisle follows the courageous farmers who organize cooperatively to start the companies they need to manage harvesting, packaging, and distributing their organic lentils. (They soon expanded into heirloom wheat and other grains.) The brand they started, Timeless Natural Food, grew this “lentil underground” into a million-dollar enterprise, selling to hundreds of natural food stores and restaurants.
There are two stories here—one about growing businesses, the other about growing a movement to buck the entrenched power of agribusiness.
Two things make this book work: the memorable characters Carlisle found and the power of her writing. The talent she brought to her romantic agrarian lyrics shows here. Take this sentence, tossed off in the description of one of the farmers involved: “The man’s bearish arms emerged robustly from his sleeveless T-shirt, more like verbs than nouns.” Or this, less metaphorical but powerful in its simple clarity: “Suspended in a late-twentieth-century no-man’s-land of corporate greed, people like Dave Oien and Russ Salisbury had to dig underneath the shallow traditions of modern agribusiness, to find richer soil in which to root their visions for a workable rural society.”
The lesson I take from this combination of immersion reporting and lyrical writing is that, should you have the ambition to write long-form creative nonfiction, when you find an outstanding character to center your story on, you have found gold. Quit your job, clear your calendar, and run with it if you can.
Dave Oien is the character who leads the parade in Lentil Underground. While Carlisle is in the story reporting from her first-person point-of-view, Dave is its central protagonist. Whole chapters go by in which Carlisle is a silent shadow following Dave’s tireless work to recruit farmers to grow these new (unsubsidized) crops, create distribution networks for their products, and keep the supply and demand in balance in the face of farming’s tremendous uncertainties.
Reading Lentil Underground, I felt new respect for every journalist who sets out to learn the story of a unique tribe and bring it to an eager reading public. After reading the book, I felt newly committed to my own project, the Big MFA Adventure of writing about Glory Foods and the quest to make soul food convenient outside the south.
While the milieus of Montana lentils and southern collard greens are as different as soul food and haut cuisine, the human spirit driving both stories is the same. Let the Davids win!
© 2021 Sarah White