Buying organic isn’t just about local veggies

I am traveling from Seattle to London by bicycle and boat. Read the intro to my travels on Grist.

Living in the progressive cities of the U.S. coasts, connecting with our food system typically means going to the farmers market, meeting the organic veggie growers, and asking six-dollars-a-dozen egg sellers the names of their cheerful chickens. Separated from large-scale agriculture by space and complex supply chains, we don’t tend to think too much about the vast acreage where the wheat in our bread grows, or about the struggling steward of her family’s land who planted, prayed for, and harvested the lentils we simmer for soup.

Pedaling our bicycles and gear across the American West at a steady 12 miles an hour, my friend Neil and I have begun to fathom just how much land our society dedicates to growing food, particularly grains. According to the Farmland Information Center, nearly a billion U.S. acres are in farms — more than a third of the country. For a suburban kid who knows little about agriculture, slow-traveling through limitless tracts of farmland seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn about where calories come from, and meet the folks who summon sustenance from soil. As with most topics, I’m most interested in how food production interacts with the environment, and how the sharing economy interacts with both.

While spending a few “zero days” of the cross-country bike trip at my grandparents’ lake place in Idaho’s panhandle, I happened upon a just-released book called Lentil Underground, in which country singer-turned-academic Liz Carlisle tells the compelling story of Montana’s organic farming movement. In short, a growing group of farmers in remote expanses of the northern plains have taken to planting diverse crops that fertilize the soil and restore the land instead of paying big agribusinesses for chemicals and selling their produce at rock-bottom prices on international commodity markets. Neil and I decided to explore this world of ecological renegades as we cycle across Montana.

After a few phone calls with the characters in the book and the contacts they referred us to, we were loading our bikes into Rick Winkowitsch’s massive pickup truck in an Albertson’s parking lot in Cut Bank, Mont., on our way out to tour some of his fields north of town. Our timing was impeccable: Jim Barngrover, a cofounder of organic specialty grain company Timeless Seeds, was visiting the farm that same day to check up on some purple barley and black beluga lentils that Rick is raising for Timeless. After spending a week and a half frolicking through mostly vacant wilderness in Glacier National Park, our adventures in the “lentil underground” had begun in earnest.

As we drove through farmland well off the beaten path of Montana’s east-west “Hi Line,” U.S. Highway 2, Rick pointed out his neighbors’ “chemical crops.” Every organic farmer we visited along the way would do the same. But have they really figured out a better way to grow food? Is it even possible to make such a judgement?

Rick, Jim, and I standing in a field of organic garbanzos. *Photo*: Neil Baunsgard.

Rick, Jim, and I standing in a field of organic garbanzos. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Rick stands over his too-thin field of chickpeas, a nitrogen-fixing legume like lentils, sighing periodically through the gray chin patches of his full, reddish-brown beard. There are fewer than half as many chickpea plants as expected. Alfalfa, clover, and other seeds that were in the soil from previous years have sprouted up to fill the available space, along with plenty of other weeds. Not knowing what a chickpea plant looks like, I’ve been studying the ground, scribbling notes and quotes for at least fifteen minutes before I figure out which of the various plant species is the actual crop.

Rick’s rounded features have been worn by decades of caring for his family’s land while trying to produce food for finicky commodity markets, dealing with pesky weeds that on occasion run riot through his unsprayed fields. He wears a gray T-shirt that proclaims, “Freedom is not free,” and talks about how difficult it has been to farm the way he likes to farm.

“I hate chemicals,” he says, relaying stories from his childhood about spraying with shoddy equipment that dripped nasty potions all over his hands. Yet even today, not all of Rick’s farm is organic. He says that growing thousands of acres of grains and legumes without chemicals is simply too much labor for one guy to take on.

Organic farmers like Rick don’t have to pay for pesticides and fertilizers, but caring for vast tracts of earth without the luxury of giving a once-over with the sprayer means running the equipment a lot more — and making use of expensive, specialized machinery. It’s a lot more work for the farmer, a lot more diesel burned, and a lot more wear and tear on the farm machines. “You go out with a 120-foot sprayer and you can cover a 40-acre field in an hour,” says Rick. “With cultivation, it’s two days.”

Walking through this weed-ridden chickpea plot, the biodiverse array of greenery actually feels like a healthy prairie ecosystem. The problem is that it won’t produce enough harvestable crop to offset the costs of growing. Gazing across fields that stretch further across this flat landscape than we can see, one can imagine how some magical weed-killing and plant-feeding substances might ease the burden of raising food from such an immense section of earth.

Jim has seen a few sections of chickpeas this year that have come up sparse (Rick had to give up and plow under another 160 acres of scant garbanzos just a few weeks ago), causing him to suspect that the seeds Timeless had purchased had a lower-than-advertised germination rate. Ideally, Jim would prefer if Timeless could purchase all its own seeds directly from growers, but right now the demand for organic products is outracing what small companies like his can supply. To grow the organic market, cultivating organic growers to convert land away from chemicals is just as important as breeding an eating culture that opts for organic.

In fact, Jim, Lentil Underground’s protagonist Dave Oien, and two others began Timeless Seeds back in 1986 to sell farmers seeds that would help them establish fertile soils, an approach radically different from finding eco-conscious consumers to buy retail products with organic certification. Economists would call it a supply-side strategy for expanding sustainable agriculture, contrary to the demand-side marketing programs that maintain organic food’s status as a niche product for hippies and hipsters.

In the middle of this failing field, Rick talks lovingly about the smell of the dirt. “Over there, on the other side of the fence, it just don’t have the same smell” he says, looking at his own expanse of chemically dependent farmland.

Rick’s dad and uncle taught him about taking care of the soil. “My family always tried to farm more organically, even before we were certified,” he says. “The soil is a living organism; it’s not just dirt.”

The Winkowitsch family was able to mostly ditch chemical fertilizers back in the 1970s thanks to an operation in Colorado that extracted rich compost from mountainous terrain where an ancient sea had once covered the land. Biological matter was still actively composting at the site, millions of years later.

“My dad’s cousin owned part of the mine,” says Rick. His dad was the compost company’s top salesman in Montana before quitting because the executives got greedy. As a farmer, Rick’s dad couldn’t stand taking advantage of his peers for profit.

Over decades, Rick’s family of farmers has witnessed the slow emergence of demand for organically grown products and the institutions to carry them from seeder to combine to kitchen. “There were times I actually sold organic grain on the conventional markets because I couldn’t find a buyer,” says Rick. “Timeless is the first organic buyer that I met.”

Obligatory snapshot of the rainbow that appeared after a shower passed over Rick's farm. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Obligatory snapshot of the rainbow that appeared after a shower passed over Rick’s farm. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Rick is driving Jim, Neil, and I back to the town of Cut Bank, where we will stay the night before heading east in the morning. He’s telling us about how his neighbors sometimes just scratch their heads at his farm: “I was the first farmer to grow peas. I was the first farmer in this county to grow lentils. I was the first farmer in the county to grow canola.”

Rick is speaking about how one neighbor said he’d never grow “that stuff” when he’s interrupted by his phone ringing. He answers it: “There’s a couple of journalists from the New York Times or something with me.” Rick smiles.

“They’re doing a story on me and I was just telling them how beautiful and lovely my wife is. In fact I was just sayin’ that.”

After hanging up, Rick dives back into our conversation without a moment’s hesitation. “This is my neighbor that said he wouldn’t ever grow peas,” he says, pointing at a field of bright-green leguminous vegetation. “There’s his peas right there.”

Without a nearby community of organic growers, Rick feels like he’s on his own. He calculates that he’d need about $700,000 worth of new equipment and four hired hands to farm all his acreage organically.

Trying to prompt a quote that hints of the possibility of a real sharing economy among large-scale organic farmers, I ask if it would be possible to share equipment and the corresponding costs, provided his neighbors farmed organically, too. “It doesn’t work,” says Rick. He’s tried. Everyone needs to use machines at the same time — and organic farming is all about timing.

It’s an unsatisfying answer for me, as I search for the real sharing story behind organic farming. And yet, the real sharing economy based in caring for one another — something Neil and I have found engrained in every rural place we’ve ridden through — runs through Rick’s blood, too. He says to call him when we’re about to head out of town in the morning, and he’ll drive us down some moose hot dogs made from the meat of an eight-foot tall animal, with antlers that spanned five feet, that he’d spent eight days hunting down last winter.

Over beers and greasy food that evening, Jim tells me that he has seen many farmers benefit substantially from sharing and cooperating. “Last year, when we had our Timeless summer picnic, it was almost like an old-time barter fair, if you will.” The seed company’s growers were trading equipment with one another, selling machinery they no longer needed to farmers who could make use of it, and swapping tips and anecdotes about what’s working and what isn’t working in their fields.

Liz Carlisle writes frequently in Lentil Underground that ecological farming on the northern plains can only succeed in today’s world through sharing, well, lots of things: knowledge, equipment, a collective voice. Whether we find a sharing economy among organic farmers — and whether tilling the soil instead of spraying it is a real step toward sustainability — remains to be seen.

On the road again, outside Cut Bank. Massive turbines spin in the background -- one of the few wind farms we saw in windswept northern Montana. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

On the road again, outside Cut Bank. Massive turbines spin in the distance — one of the few wind farms we saw in windswept northern Montana. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

In the morning, Neil and I load up our stomachs and bags with sugary continental breakfast from the Super 8 motel at which we shared a room with Jim. I give Rick a quick call to thank him again for the farm tour and let him know we’ll leave soon. He says he’s in a meeting and he’ll come find us on the road.

We pedal eastward on Highway 2, beginning a 98-mile day with the excitement of more organic fields to walk through and more friendly farmers to meet. I contemplate how I’ll write about the Montana movement — I want to relay the story of dryland, synthetic-free farming to people who care deeply about where their tomatoes and beer come from but visit the bulk aisle without thinking of the land from which the staples that comprise most of their caloric intake burst forth.

Eating organic food isn’t just about avoiding ingesting harmful chemicals. It’s about avoiding spraying those chemicals on big patches of good farmland, even if it’s a crop that won’t carry pesticide residue to your dinner plate.

“Unfortunately, the good-food craze sweeping American cities hasn’t been as helpful for the lentil underground as you might think,” writes Liz Carlisle in the book that inspired my exploration into organic farming. “It’s actually a tough time to be an organic lentil marketer, given the food movement’s recent turn toward locavore diets.”

Yet calculating “food miles” does not tell the full story; it’s a shallow way to measure a smart, conscious diet. Eating local doesn’t even necessarily correspond to eating climate-friendly: Transportation to market accounts for just 4 percent of the global food system’s carbon emissions.

Instead, we should focus on reducing the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers. Producing synthetic nitrogen accounts for about one percent of the world’s energy use — and one percent of global carbon emissions. Organic agriculture tends to store more carbon in the soil, but there’s evidence that leguminous plants growing their own nitrogen fertilizer can emit just as much nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with about 300 times more heat-trapping power than carbon dioxide, as crops treated with ammonia-based industrial fertilizer. Over the last five decades, agriculture has caused a dramatic rise in atmospheric nitrous oxide.  Also, when excess nitrogen runs off into rivers that flow to the ocean, it creates aquatic “dead zones” like the one that appears every summer in the Gulf of Mexico, affecting fish stocks by causes algae blooms that rob the water of oxygen. Adding nitrogen to soil by growing legumes as part of a multi-year rotation, rather than by applying chemicals, may or may not prevent the environmental pitfalls of this key nutrient for plant growth — the jury is still out on how to add nitrogen to our farmland without messing up other ecosystems.

Jim Barngrover pulls up a chickpea plant to show us the nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria on its roots. This particular plant, though, has few nodules. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Jim Barngrover pulls up a chickpea plant to show us the nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria on its roots. This particular plant, though, has few nodules. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Just as I lose myself completely to thought pedaling across Montana’s meditative north, a massive white pickup with an orange beacon on top of the cab passes us by and pulls into a turnout just ahead. Rick steps out. “You probably thought I forgot about you,” he says with a beardy grin.

He’s all out of moose hot dogs, but instead we get a five-pound stick of peppery moose salami. It’s the perfect gift for cyclists on the road: Carbs are easy to come by, but we seldom run into tasty fats and proteins to compliment meals of day-old bread or camp-stove couscous. And unlike nearly everything we eat, it’s wild food, not a product of farmed land. We’ll be munching the moose salami down little by little for weeks to come, as I post about our exploration of — and city-kid education in — the lentil underground.

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2 thoughts on “Buying organic isn’t just about local veggies

  1. Delighted that Max sent your link, Sam. Come back to Montana and meet a bunch more of these folks in late Sept for AERO annual meeting where Liz will be a keynote speaker.

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