East of the Rocky Mountains, Montana becomes a vast, dry prairie beneath a beguilingly Big Sky. Farming grains on these desolate plains is no easy task, even with the help of potent agricultural chemicals to inject nutrients into the ground and eradicate pesky pest plants. Yet a growing group of renegade growers are eschewing conventional methods, instead choosing to seed diverse species that nourish the soil and restore the land without herbicides or petroleum-based fertilizers.
Country singer-turned-academic Liz Carlisle wrote a book about the phenomenon: Lentil Underground, published in early 2015. The title refers to one of the edible soil-building crops these dryland farmers have taken to planting, as well as the movement’s nonhierarchical, anti-establishment bent. Lentils, like all legumes, host nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria that fertilize the land with nitrogen from the air (it’s the atmosphere’s most abundant chemical). Many organic and non-organic farmers in Montana rotate legume crops with other grains that take nitrogen from the soil, like wheat.
About a week into a transcontinental bicycle journey from Seattle to New York City, en route to Europe to study ecological economics in the coming year, I happened upon Carlisle’s book while taking a breather in Idaho’s panhandle. I devoured the story of Montana’s organic movement, and decided that my bike-travel buddy Neil and I had to see these farms and meet these ecological crop whisperers while we spent nearly two weeks pedaling across Montana’s northeast, from Glacier National Park to North Dakota’s oil country. Now I’m writing about what we learned and experienced in our exploration of the lentil underground. Each post tells the story of visiting a particular farm, focusing on a theme or question.
Separated from industrial agriculture by space and complex supply chains, we don’t tend to think 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. But the land and resources dedicated to feeding us (including feeding the animals that feed us) are mostly employed in large-scale grain production, not the boutique operations that sell delicious, funny-shaped tomatoes at the farmers market. Basically, how we manage the plains matters.
On Montana’s northern plains, farmers aiming for sustainability have to choose between farming weeds and poisoning them with chemicals. Organic growers disturb the soil and lose precious moisture by tilling, while their conventional counterparts control their fields with herbicides and petroleum-based fertilizers that threaten downstream ecosystems via nutrient pollution. There is no right or wrong answer; farming smart involves trade-offs.
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. Organic farmers in Montana experiment with ways to incorporate diverse life into large-scale agriculture, both by rotating various crops over time and growing multiple species together in a single field. At its best, biodiverse farming can make land more productive toward human needs and also beneficial to wildlife and the greater environment. In short, healthy land needs biodiversity.
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