Farms are ecosystems too

This post is the third in a series about exploring Montana’s organic farming movement as I move from Seattle to London by bicycle and boat. Read the intro my travels on Grist. 

Monoculture farmland is the concrete of rural America.

Concrete makes urban settings feel detached from ecology, as if cities were somehow not part of nature. As my friend Neil Baunsgard and I ride bikes across our great continent’s agricultural heartland, the celebrated amber waves of single-species grain create a similar effect. It may not feel like it, but both concrete and crops are really just nature that’s been transformed by people and our machines.

Humans engineer both paved surfaces and monoculture fields to dedicate pieces of land to just one function — constructing cities and feeding them, respectively — at the expense of diverse ecosystems. The specialization of land, like its better-known brother the specialization of labor, treats life itself like a mere cog in the economic machine.

Healthy land needs diversity. Have you ever seen a patch of wild nature occupied by just one species? Farmers generally recognize the value of hosting many species on their land, particularly in light of mounting evidence that greater biological diversity on the farm correlates with fewer pests.

But to make ends meet, farmers must supply commodity crops at the whims of consumers who don’t have to think about where their groceries come from. Even for folks who do try to make sustainable eating choices, supporting biodiverse grain production in lands far away often takes a back seat to buying local veggies and fruits at the farmers market. I certainly never paid much attention to the sources of barley in my beer or the lentils I buy for soup before I began this exploration of Montana’s organic farming movement and was surprised by grain growing’s immense scale.

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Walking through an organic crop of a heritage wheat variety. Some might call it a monoculture. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Two days after the first stop on our northern plains farm tour, Neil and I find ourselves at Vilicus Farms, a 4700-acre organic operation just six miles from the Canadian border. Liana Nichols, an apprentice at the farm, met us in Havre, Montana, with a pickup truck to haul our bodies and bicycles 36 miles north to the remote, agrarian home. She is our guide and host for the visit, since Anna Jones-Crabtree and her husband Doug Crabtree, who own and run the farm, are out-of-town this weekend. “The crazy part about living here is it’s incredibly isolated,” says Liana. “If I’m out on a tractor for a day, I see nobody.”

A few days before, Liz Carlisle, author of the book that inspired me to visit organic farmers in Montana, assured me that Vilicus was well worth visiting, even though it’s far off our route along U.S. Highway 2. She said it was a unique place because of its large-scale biological diversity and the level of rigor in the farming apprenticeship program — it’s like a professional graduate school. Anna Jones-Crabtree tells me they are growing 16 different crops this year, which she says is typical for Vilicus. Crops are planted in strips, each a mile or half-mile long but just 240 feet wide. Twenty-foot buffer areas separate neighboring strips.

Liana shows us colorful maps on the farmhouse wall that show what’s planted in the farm’s sixty-odd strips, along with the history of plantings that have populated each strip over the past five years. At the bottom of each plot’s map, a chart tracks what sorts of work have been done on each strip this year — dates of tillings, seeding, and empty rows below for scouting, swathing, harvesting, and more tilling. The diagrams’ red, green, blue, and yellow ribbons accentuate Vilicus Farms’ diversity.

Vibrant maps of the Villicus Farms' narrow strips display each ribbon-like field's current plantings, recent history, and task checklist. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Vibrant maps of the Villicus Farms’ narrow strips display each ribbon-like field’s current plantings, recent history, and task checklist. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Hanging out in the farmhouse at Vilicus is a cultural shift from our last two weeks on the road through rural Montana. Organic bulk goods like tulsi rose tea and white wheat berries fill neatly labeled sealed jars on wooden shelves above the kitchen counter. A bucket for food scraps to be composted sits just around the corner, and metals and paper are also separated from the rest of the waste stream, even though the Crabtrees have to take them over 200 miles to Helena for recycling. To Neil and I, it’s reminiscent of home. Liana agrees that it “feels wrong” to throw beer cans in the garbage with everything else, which we’ve had to do through much of the rest of Montana.

Just outside, newly delivered solar panels and parts wait to be installed next to the garage. There aren’t many solar arrays in the area, despite the sunny climate. Liana explains that the local electric cooperative is apprehensive about member-customers generating their own power, afraid that jobs may be lost if production decentralizes.

After eating a tasty dinner of microwave-baked potatoes topped with leftover chili and collectively draining a growler of Duck Face IPA, the sweet-yet-bitter, famously sneaky nine-percent-alcohol offering from Havre’s Triple Dog Brewery, the three of us head off down the procession of narrow fields, stopping at a strip of waist-high green wheat. We’re roguing this mile-long belt of organic grain, which means weeding by hand.

A few years ago, the Crabtrees were blacklisted by one buyer of organic wheat because their crop was contaminated with rye. Many organic farmers plant rye to crowd out weeds because it’s an aggressive species, capable of taking over a field. But when that land goes back to producing high-value crops like wheat, rye itself turns into a pest plant as leftover seeds germinate among the intended crop. Rye’s assertive vigor then becomes a liability. Roguing is the only way to remove it. And roguing is a big human effort.

Now, a rare lull in the farm’s endless cycle of chores — and the presence of a couple of pairs of enthusiastic, unskilled, suburban hands — allows for hiking through the field and picking out rye grass. As the early summer sun tumbles majestically to the western edge of Montana’s truly big sky, we wade through wheat, plucking weeds from the soil and stuffing them in garbage sacks. It’s easy to spot the rascal rye plants; they stand about a foot higher than the surrounding grain. It occurs to me that we’re basically maintaining a monoculture, albeit a monoculture of chemical-free wheat.

A renegade rye sticks up out of the wheat field. Photo: Neil Baunsgard

A renegade rye sticks up out of the wheat field. Photo: Neil Baunsgard

At Vilicus Farms, monoculture is an illusion, a temporary snapshot in an evolving cycle of diversity. Even in strips inhabited by a single, reigning cash crop, like the wheat field we’re roguing, the Crabtrees rotate between a wide variety of plant species over subsequent seasons, continually experimenting with original, and often unorthodox, successions of short grains, pulses, oilseeds, and other grasses. They keep detailed records to track what works best, aiming for sequences that maintain nutrients and moisture in the soil, prevent perennial weeds from establishing, and support a healthy ecosystem of tiny life underground. Where diversity in space isn’t practical or commercially viable, diversity through time can create ecological well-being.

Elsewhere on Vilicus Farms, multiple species do inhabit a single plot of land. Flax is a common companion of khorasan wheat, an ancient variety that fellow Montanan Bob Quinn has trademarked as Kamut brand in an attempt to ensure that it’s always produced fairly and ecologically. And in the 20-foot buffer ribbons that separate the farm’s 240-foot-wide fields, a mix of flowering plants creates a nourishing environment for pollinator species, intentionally adding beneficial animals to the diverse flora. The USDA remunerates the Crabtrees to maintain this pollinator habitat through its Conservation Reserve Program, a scheme that ecological economists would call “payments for ecosystem services,” which means rewarding farmers with cash for generating environmental benefits that help everyone. No private party would pay them to dedicate a bit of land to hosting bees and other pollinating bugs, even though it will be useful to all the neighbors.

But programs like the one that pays the Crabtrees for maintaining pollinator habitat are, at this point, relatively scarce. In today’s agricultural capitalism, the ecological values of certain crops and practices seldom align with the dollar values that they earn in commodity markets. Farmers must try to keep their land healthy and fertile for the long-term while also remaining financially viable right now. They make trade-offs to balance these goals, measuring costs and benefits in two ways that often contradict each other.

To put in place more mechanisms that make it worthwhile, or even economically possible, for farmers to harvest biodiversity, there must be evidence of the environmental and agricultural advantages of multi-species systems. With substantial proof that a wide variety of life is good for the medium- to long-term productivity of a farm, growers may adopt practices that foster diversity even without additional financial incentives. Toward this end, the Crabtrees’ operation certainly does its part.

All the student-interns at Vilicus must complete a capstone project as part of their apprenticeship, much like in a degree-granting academic program. Liana tells us about her plans to analyze how the Crabtrees’ diversity of plants affects microbial diversity in the soil. She’ll extract soil samples from different strips, plate and incubate them, and then examine the sorts of enzymes that are present in each sample, using that as a proxy for what goes on below ground. This information can be used, in conjunction with the Crabtrees’ meticulous records of what’s been planted in each strip, to compare the impacts of different crop rotations and intercropping combinations on biodiversity in the soil, a characteristic closely linked to fertility. In short, Liana wants to show how diverse life aboveground fosters diverse life underground. The opportunity to apprentice at Vilicus, says Liana, is an “awesome platform for studying all sorts of things.”

Yet it’s difficult to expect farmers to go crazy experimenting, Neil reminds us, because unlike agricultural researchers, they actually have to make sure they get a yield. The balancing act between environmental mindfulness and economic prudence gets even more complicated when results are uncertain in terms of all variables. Liana says she’s interested in how to link ecological research with real farm issues, and isn’t quite sure if that means going back to school for a graduate degree or not.

A wonderful sign on the kitchen wall in the Crabtrees' farmhouse. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

A wonderful sign on the kitchen wall in the Crabtrees’ farmhouse. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

In her debut book, Lentil Underground, Liz Carlisle writes, “Perhaps most insidious thing about monoculture is that getting out of the habit of working with other species has also gotten us out of the habit of working with one another.” For organic farmers in Montana, sharing knowledge might be the most important piece of the real sharing economy that could help make large-scale agriculture work better for both humans and the nonhuman environment. The wild experimentation and careful documentation at Vilicus Farms can contribute to a collective understanding of how to farm more sustainably.

A few days further east along Highway 2, we’ll visit Matt and Sonia Johnson, who have also had success interseeding Kamut and flax as companion crops, to grow and be harvested together. Evidently, organic farmers on the northern plains have shared knowledge about these two species’ compatibility. The flax isn’t a weed competitor at all, Matt tells me, but at least it’s growing where weeds would otherwise grow. As Anna Jones-Crabtree says: Mother Nature does not like to be naked.

It’s not easy to manage two crops in one field, however. Standard agricultural machinery isn’t made to sow, care for, and reap more than one species in a given space. “You’ve kind of got to get two plants that mature at the same time,” says Matt. After harvesting Kamut and flax together, the Johnsons separate them using a machine that was originally designed to get contaminant seeds out of conventional grain crops. This technique for segregating the bigger Kamut berries from the tiny flaxseeds addresses another impediment to farming ecosystems rather than monocultures: Buyers want single products that they can package and distribute.

The Johnsons, though, have found that they can benefit from growing multiple species in tandem even if only one is a crop for harvest. While planting wheat or another grain, a broadcast seeder scatters sweet clover seeds all over and between the neat rows of plantings. Clover, a legume, crowds out problem weeds and delivers nitrogen from air to ground. It’s also a biennial — meaning that it lives for two years — so sweet clover will become next year’s soil-building crop, either to be swathed for hay or grazed by the Johnsons’ cattle herd, whose digestive systems will turn the clover into fertilizer and deposit it directly on the field.

Matt and Sonia have established a rough outline of an eight-year rotation of cash crops, cover crops, and combination plantings, with each 400-acre block at a different point in that sequence. Matt says they’ve pared down their variety a little because growing tons of crops and storing them separately gets to be a lot of work, but planting something different each year allows, for example, a legume like lentils or clover to put nitrogen in the ground for wheat to gobble up the next year. If it’s a dry year, sometimes the Johnsons will till an entire crop into the soil instead of harvesting for hay or seed, so that moisture and organic matter is preserved for next year instead of taken from the land. It’s an example of farmers foregoing a little cash right now for the long-term health of the field, which is never an easy decision to make in a profession that operates on margins thinner than the Crabtrees’ strip fields.

What excites me about these farmers’ novel techniques for incorporating biodiversity into agriculture is not that they’ve figured out a flawless method for producing our daily bread. Heck, as I discussed in my last post, it’s not even clear that organic systems are any “better” or “sustainabler” than no-till conventional farming for raising dryland grains on the northern plains, if such distinctions can be determined at all.

What’s cool about this organic movement is that they recognize earth’s preference for heterogeneous communities of life and they are fearlessly yet respectfully exploring ways to incorporate diversity into their fields so that one day farms may begin to resemble vibrant ecosystems that spit out nutritious food instead of uniform fields monopolized by identical rows of a chosen crop.

Humans farm somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of our planet’s land area. Some conservationists advocate producing food as intensively as possible, so that we can reduce agriculture’s footprint and devote more space to wilderness. Meanwhile, others encourage wildlife-friendly farming with lower yields, to protect species everywhere even as more land is used by humanity.

But environmental scientist Claire Kremen, of the University of California, Berkeley, recently wrote a paper arguing that this “either-or” framing isn’t very useful. Instead, research should focus on which specific agricultural practices promote biodiversity while maintaining or even increasing output. Kremen concludes that pretty much anyone concerned about the ecological impacts of feeding humanity could get behind a vision of “large protected areas surrounded by a relatively wildlife-friendly matrix of favorable land uses and corridors.” Amen.

The world could be a food forest. Growers that experiment with rotations, intercropping, mixed crop-livestock systems, and so on, like the Crabtrees and Johnsons, help get agriculture started in that direction.

Right now, most ecological research examines what’s left of the wild. On the northern Great Plains, this group of organic renegades that social scientist Liz Carlisle calls the “lentil underground” is building and sharing a body of collective knowledge about how complex communities of life interact on real, operating farms. And that’s important.

What I learned at Vilicus Farms is that fresh-ground organic Kamut flour makes for scrumptious muffins. Were a bit of rye mixed in, I’m sure they would have only tasted better, more complex, if you will.

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Taking a break from riding the beautiful, desolate road back to Havre, Montana. You didn’t think those yellow stripes in the middle of the road were twice the length of 6-foot-tall Neil, did you?

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Till or Spray? The question facing dryland grain farmers

This post is the second in a series about exploring Montana’s organic farming movement as I move from Seattle to London by bicycle and boat. Read the intro my travels on Grist. 

On Montana’s northern plains, some organic growers’ neighbors reportedly began referring to them as “weed farmers” a few decades ago. These organic pioneers had started to seed small, green plants in hopes of strengthening their soil. These little leguminous plants were nitrogen-fixers, species whose roots host nodules of bacteria that bring nitrogen from the air into the ground, converting it to a form usable by plants and thus fertilizing the soil without industrial chemicals. To conventional grain farmers, though, it seemed peculiar, perhaps pathetic, to intentionally grow plants that looked like the ones they tried to eliminate from their fields. In an agricultural culture that glorifies pure, unblemished waves of erect-standing grain, raising puny legumes and purposefully intercropping multiple species in one field appears unmanly, an affront to the dominion over nature that God has granted humanity. Or at least that’s what I learned reading Liz Carlisle’s book Lentil Underground while taking a break from bike touring.

Neil Baunsgard and I are exploring this world of organic grain farmers as we cross Montana’s north by bicycle, part of a west-to-east transcontinental journey. At our first stop, Rick Winkowitsch’s farm just north of the town of Cut Bank, the immense scale of grain production took us by surprise. How our grains are grown affects a lot bigger land area than, say, the organic veggie farms we support at the local farmers market.

But whether organic methods could make dryland grain growing truly sustainable remained unsettled, in my mind. Chemical-free farming is clearly a lot of work, both in terms of human labor and fossil-fuel burning. Leaving more variables in nature’s hands meant a lot less guaranteed success, it seemed.

And then there’s tilling. Organic farmers in Montana typically turn the soil before seeding a crop to quash whatever is currently growing there. Tilling soil exposes it to erosion, disturbs its microorganisms, and can cause moisture loss — a big deal in a region that gets just a few more inches of rain annually than a desert.

Rather than tilling, conventional grain growers can simply make a quick pass with the sprayer to exterminate weeds in preparation for planting. Applying herbicides keeps the dirt in place, preserving topsoil, moisture, and tiny life. Yet herbicides can be harmful to the farmworkers that spray them and the broader ecosystems they infiltrate. Organic and conventional systems both have upsides and downsides.

We quickly learned from Rick’s land that being an organic “weed farmer” doesn’t just mean intentionally growing species that look like weeds; it also means constantly battling weeds that really aren’t welcome, since it’s super difficult to eradicate unwanted flora from one’s fields without the help of chemical herbicides. To make matters more difficult for isolated organic growers like Rick, the weeds have evolved incredible resilience because the herbicides that the conventional-farming neighbors spray wipe out all but the very strongest weed individuals, whose progeny then populate the land. Vegetative invaders don’t pay attention to property boundaries. Visiting Rick’s farm became a guided tour of the cutting edge of chemical-free weed control in Montana.

Rick was particularly proud of his V-blade, a machine that cuts off weeds’ roots without turning the soil. The V-blade allows Rick to plant his grain seeds six inches deep and then run the machine over the whole crop, slicing existing plant life just two inches below the soil’s surface. The nutrients and moisture from weeds or cover crops that inhabited the field previously then return to the soil. With the right conditions, the new crop gets a head start on competition, and can bask in full sunlight and shade out competition below.

As we continue our tour across Montana’s “Hi Line,” every organic farmer we visit will want to tell us about the biggest problem weeds in their neck of the plains, and their innovative methods for dealing with them. Rick speculated about the potential to use steam or heat to kill weeds without plowing. One organic farmer featured in Lentil Underground even ordered a spider-like machine from Austria that can pull up shallow-rooted weeds right in between rows of growing grain.

Mostly, organic farmers control weeds by carefully crafting crop rotations — if you grow the same crop a few years in a row, perennial weeds will become established. Alternating nitrogen users like wheat with legumes that put nitrogen back in the soil, for example, meets one ecological need of the land, so there’s no open casting call for unwanted plants to come perform that unfilled role.

Most growers in this region also include a “summer fallow” in the multi-year cycle, when they don’t seed any crop and allow the weed seeds in a field to germinate. Then, organic farmers till these weeds back into the soil before planting the next crop, hopefully eradicating any pest plants that have established themselves. Summer fallow in dryland farming also allows the next year’s crop to have more than one year’s moisture at its disposal. With no crop sucking up water, only to be taken from the field at harvest, the soil can hold on to some of that wetness for the following growing season. Northern Montana east of the Rocky Mountains gets less than 15 inches of precipitation per year, so fully utilizing every last drop of moisture is critical.

Yet — counterproductive to the goal of preserving wetness — tillage can cause moisture loss through evaporation. And after tilling, bare ground can’t absorb rainwater as well as soil with some greenery on top. Reduced moisture is a high price to pay for trying to control weeds in an organic system.

Rick's V-blade, which undercuts weeds without fully turning the soil, which would expose it to erosion and moisture loss. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Rick’s V-blade, which undercuts weeds without fully turning the soil, which would expose it to erosion and moisture loss. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

The next evening, after about 70 miles of pedaling east along Highway 2 from Cut Bank, Montana, Neil and I meet an old-timer named Arlo at a summer picnic in a tiny town called Chester. During an engaging conversation about everything from the regional effects of climate change to Seattle’s urban planning, we learn that Arlo’s family farms winter wheat, spring wheat, peas, lentils, feed barley, and malt barley, a diversity of crops much like many of the organic growers we’re visiting in Montana.

I ask Arlo why his family started growing nitrogen fixers with their grains, expecting an answer about feeding the soil. Instead, Arlo begins an in-depth explanation of when, where, and how he injects nitrogen fertilizer into the ground with a grain crop. He stops himself after a minute or two. “What was the question again?”

“Why did your family start growing legumes?” I ask.

“Oh, the lentils get sold to India, mostly,” Arlo replies. He goes on about the grain elevator down the road that we had just biked by, how he delivers lentils there to be hauled by train to the west coast for shipment around the world. His answer is all about growing what can be sold on global markets, not about growing what’s healthy for the land or the life it sustains. And yet, growing lentils and peas for financial reasons doesn’t make their root nodules fix less nitrogen. It’s good to hear that non-organic growers are diversifying their farms, too.

Then, unprompted, Arlo tells me about “no-till” farming. Rather than tilling weeds back into the ground after summer fallow, Arlo sprays them away with a jug of Round Up — he stretches his hands wide to show me how much of the herbicide he uses.

Chester, Montana's Thursday afternoon picnic in the park, a much-needed hearty meal on a 98-mile day of cycling. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Chester, Montana’s Thursday afternoon picnic in the park, a much-needed hearty meal before the homestretch of a 98-mile day of cycling. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Neil and I ride off into — er, away from — the sunset with the perception that farming with chemicals is gross. Our liberal upbringings and environmental education has taught us that Round Up is unequivocally bad, as is its manufacturer, the agribiz giant Monsanto. Arlo served as a caricature to reinforce our bias against business-as-usual industrial agriculture.

But there must be another side to the story; local extension agents, conservation groups, and government ag agencies like Natural Resources Conservation Service all support chemical farming practices. Patrick Hensleigh, Montana’s NRCS state agronomist, tells me that he believes no-till is simply a better system than what he calls “conventional tillage,” which is practiced by organic farmers. “The chem fallow certainly will hold more moisture,” he says, referring to the practice of eradicating weeds with herbicide instead of tillage during a fallow season. Moisture is clearly the all-important limiting nutrient for plant growth here on the dry plains.

Hensleigh prefers no-till practices to organic farming for more reasons than just moisture. “Every time you till, you’re affecting soil microbes, especially fungi, which take time to establish,” he says. Yet organic advocates have repeatedly insisted to me that spraying herbicides creates a sterile soil environment, which makes intuitive sense — applying a substance that’s supposed to kill living things should kill tiny living things in the ground, right?

The view over our shoulders as we pedaled away from the late-night summer sun in northern Montana. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

The view over our shoulders as we pedaled away from the late-night summer sun in northern Montana. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

We bike 28 more miles, making it our longest day on the trip thus far, and arrive in Hingham, Montana, just as dusk falls. We’re staying at a house that belongs to my Uncle Mike, who trades pulses — lentils, chickpeas, and other “grain” legumes — on global markets. A resident of Spokane, Washington, he bought the place in this gravel-road town to keep an eye on possibilities for business; the region is fast becoming a production hub for lentils and peas. In fact, Montana — far from its typical twentieth-century cycle of wheat, wheat, and fallow — is now the number one producer of pulse crops in the United States. Conventional growers have followed the organic movement toward seeding a variety of crops, with solid results both economically and environmentally.

Clark Jones, who farms a few plots of land across Montana’s north, has diversified his farm more than most farmers, growing mustard, peas, safflower, and corn in addition to the typical array of grains. Alternating between an assortment of crops with different attributes has allowed Jones to eliminate summer fallow from his rotation, a rare feat in dryland farming. Instead of letting fields sit naked, Jones allows subsurface moisture to accumulate the year before seeding a water-intensive crop by planting shallow-rooted crops that don’t require as much moisture. And keeping the ground covered ensures that when precipitation does fall, it gets absorbed into the soil rather than running off.

“It also helps with the control of weedy species: By rotating the different types of crops, from broadleaf to grassy crops, you’re able to use different chemical families to help control the weeds,” Jones says. Plus, he tells me that he is able to apply 20 to 25 percent less nitrogen fertilizer on a cereal crop following a nitrogen-fixing legume like clover or lentils, reducing the environmental (and geopolitical) impacts of producing and using synthetic nitrogen, which really screws up ecosystems when too much gets in the water.

Jones says no-till farming has virtually eliminated wind erosion and greatly reduced water erosion, too, because there’s always crop residue holding the soil in place. Despite the price of organic wheat hovering around four times that of conventional wheat in recent years, Jones hasn’t seriously considered transitioning away from chemicals. He follows the guidelines issued by university extension services to make sure he doesn’t over-apply chemicals, the same as any farmer concerned about limiting costs.

For the eco-conscious grower, the ultimate goal might be to prevent weeds instead of killing them — to create the perfectly harmonious, robust farm ecosystem that holds uninvited visitors at bay. But right now, farmers have to choose between tillage and chemicals, between farming weeds and poisoning them.

There’s no right or wrong answer; investigating the trade-offs and how farmers navigate tough decisions is the interesting part of this tour of dryland farming on the northern plains. Tools like Rick’s V-blade can help organic farmers disturb the soil less, while farming biodiversity can allow conventional growers like Clark Jones to summon more sustenance from the earth with fewer chemicals. The sharing of knowledge about farming in a smarter way may be more important than strict adherence to organic or zero-tillage standards. As my Uncle Mike texted me when I told him I was writing about organic farming in Montana: I’m still not sold on organic; most people can’t afford it. Basically, it’s complicated.