Montana Lentil Farmers Go In opposition to the Grain to Construct Thriving Natural Enterprise

David Oien doesn’t seem to be a renegade. He’s a pleasant, down-to-earth, third-generation Montana farmer. However Oien and his fellow farmers at Timeless Seeds are renegades. In Montana, a state dominated by standard wheat, Oien and Timeless Seeds went towards the grain by rising natural lentils and different specialty crops in a area the place that they had by no means been grown earlier than. And so they’ve been profitable doing it whereas constructing wholesome soils on 1000’s of acres in Montana and serving to to revive rural communities.

‘We Wanted to Construct Soil Well being’

Again within the late Eighties, Oien and his three fellow natural farmers, Bud Barta, Jim Barngrover, and Tom Hastings, had no plans to construct a enterprise rising and promoting natural lentils for meals. They simply needed to construct soil well being.

Timeless Seeds’s founding natural farmers (from left) Bud Barta, David Oien, and Jim Barngrover.

Wheat is king in Montana with 12 million acres of it grown every year. The state’s farmers develop wheat after which let their fields lay fallow, uncovered to the weather. This, mixed with years of tillage, badly eroded Montana’s soils. Soil natural matter, an indicator of soil well being, had been 5 to 7 p.c when Montana was native prairie, however after a few years of rising wheat, that quantity had fallen to 1.5 p.c, in response to Oien.

“We would have liked to rebuild fertility, soil well being, natural matter, and organic exercise,” Oien says.

The 4 farmers related with Jim Sims, an agronomist at Montana State College, who had performed analysis on the soil-building properties of legumes, resembling lentils and peas. Sims developed a self-reseeding leguminous cowl crop known as George Black Medic. In 1987, the farmers launched Timeless Seeds, aiming to develop and promote Black Medic as a means to assist farmers rebuild Montana’s soils. However standard farmers who have been used to utilizing artificial nitrogen fertilizers didn’t take to the quilt crop. The 4 farmers thought they may additionally promote Black Medic to the state’s natural farmers. However again then, they have been few and much between.

“It was a horrible enterprise mannequin,” Oien says. “Any rational particular person may have seen that. Nevertheless it needed to be carried out as a result of cowl crops have been wanted.”

‘Zero Pulse Crops Grown in Montana’

To maintain their enterprise going, the farmers turned to rising natural lentils for meals, which nobody else in Montana was doing.

Protein-rich lentils have been a meals supply for 1000’s of years. Lentils are drought-resistant, making them a perfect crop to develop in Montana’s dry local weather. As a legume, lentils take nitrogen from the environment and convert it to a nutrient supply within the soil to feed crops grown after them. When grown in rotation with different crops, lentils additionally assist to manage weeds, lowering the necessity for chemical herbicides.

Regardless of the crop’s benefits, lentils have been unknown in Montana. “Again within the Nineteen Nineties, there have been zero pulse crops grown in Montana; west of the Rockies, there might need been a number of farms. However nobody grew lentils organically,” Oien says.

In 1994, Timeless landed a contract to provide French inexperienced lentils to retail grocery chain Dealer Joe’s, which might promote them underneath their very own model.

“I didn’t know who they have been,” Oien says. “I assumed the title was funky.”

With Dealer Joe’s as a buyer in addition to a rising variety of pure meals shops, Timeless Seeds wanted to broaden right into a processing facility. A grain elevator in Conrad, Montana, was out there to lease. Oien went to his financial institution to get a mortgage to lease the ability.

“The financial institution requested ‘What’s natural?’ and ‘What’s a lentil?’” he says. The financial institution turned them down, so the farmers included the enterprise and bought shares to household and buddies to lift cash to lease the ability.

Sadly, the Dealer Joe’s contract was short-lived, however Oien noticed it as a studying expertise.

“To have any hope of our survival, we wanted extra management and a line of merchandise underneath our personal model,” he says.

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