Q+A with Liz Carlisle
Real Food Reads Author Q&A with Liz Carlisle
In this month’s #realfoodreads selection, Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America, Liz Carlisle tells the story of a group of renegade farmers in Montana who came together to beat the odds and help forge a sustainable farm-to-table food movement. I sat down with Liz to ask her some questions about the book, her process and what’s ahead for her – read on for our conversation below!
What do lentils look like when they’re growing in the ground?
Like this! (Photos courtesy of David Oien.)
You talk a lot about the magical power of lentils to help farmers and the planet. Can you talk more about what you came to learn about the lentil?
Plants are astounding technological marvels, once you get to know them, and among those which have most wowed me are legumes: plants in the pea family that work with symbiotic bacteria to make their own nitrogen fertilizer. Lentils are part of this family of crops, as are chickpeas and most beans. This is what they do: they pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere, where it’s abundant, and work with symbiotic rhizobia bacteria (which live in their roots) to convert this nitrogen into a plant available form. So they make their own nitrogen fertilizer! Plus, they leave some behind in the soil for the next crop. This means farmers can rotate legumes into their crops instead of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, a strategy which has a number of environmental and economic advantages. On the environmental side, nitrogen fertilizer is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the food system. It’s also the reason we have dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and nitrate pollution in the water supply in many rural communities. So replacing synthetic nitrogen with biologically produced nitrogen helps us mitigate all those problems. Economically speaking, substituting legumes for synthetic fertilizer liberates farmers from buying an input that’s linked to volatile global fossil fuel markets. On top of all that, lentils can also be farmed without irrigation, and they are uniquely tolerant of climatic volatility and uncertainty. You said it best, Anna: Diet for a Hot Planet!
You titled the piece the Lentil Underground, an obvious nod to the Weather Underground. This is a story about farmers, but also about politics. Can you talk about that connection?
A French philosopher named Michel Foucault coined the word “episteme” to describe a guiding paradigm that characterizes the predominant worldview in a particular time and place, a paradigm that extends across seemingly separate professional and intellectual arenas. From my reading of history, this sort of epistemic traffic happens a lot between farming and politics. Do we value diversity, distributed resources, and broad-based resilience? Or do we value homogeneity, the concentration of resources, and the spectacular feats of a fortunate elite? The first paradigm favors diversified smallholder agriculture and a robust democracy (a connection understood by agrarian thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to Wendell Berry to Will Allen) while the second paradigm favors industrialized monoculture and a society governed by corporate elite. Lentil Underground is the story of a group of people who believe fiercely in the wisdom and necessity of the first paradigm – democracy and diversity – and are determined to realize it from the ground up.
I’m interested in the brass tacks and craft of writing: What was the recording process like? How did you capture the voices of so many different people?
I had a great luxury in writing this book: I did the research as a PhD student (in Geography, at UC Berkeley). With the support of a research fellowship to help me pay the bills, I was able to take the time to do a full season of immersive ethnographic research with this community of farmers, as well as some pre-dissertation research beforehand and a couple years of follow up after. I conducted semi-structured interviews with 52 people – these interviews lasted anywhere from an hour to 8 hours – but I also picked rocks, rode along on combines, babysat heritage turkeys, shadowed organic inspectors, and essentially tried to get a feel for what people’s work was really like on a day-to-day basis. I have reams of notebooks of profound observations and hilarious stories that I couldn’t find room for in the book. The hardest part was leaving some of those things out, so I could trim the manuscript down to a readable and publishable length.
What has surprised you most about the reception of the book?
How many people care! I can’t tell you how many literary agents told me that no one would read a book that had “lentil” in the title. But people are so much more curious than they used to be about where their food comes from, and they are digging deeper than marketing slogans.
What have the farmers in the Lentil Underground thought about the book and its impact?
The farmers in this book have been my partners throughout this project – everyone I wrote about read the book before it was published, and they were very helpful in correcting misunderstandings and inaccuracies. Twenty-five of them traveled to the Bay Area for the first week of book release events. It’s spring now, and most folks have had to get back to their farms, but the farmer at the center of the story, David Oien, is doing the entire book tour with me – about 50 cities. I’m delighted for readers to have a chance to meet these people themselves..
I think the farmers had fun with my impressions of them and their friends – it’s always hilarious to see someone you know portrayed as a character in a narrative nonfiction book, not to mention yourself. And i think they are proud, and rightly so. They are doing important work, and I’m glad to see them recognized for it. I also have the sense that it’s gratifying for many of the farmers to witness the passion among students and young people for tackling some of these issues. There’s a valuable intergenerational connection being made through this collaborative process of storytelling.
What’s the next lentil… is there some other new food on the horizon that we’ll be talking about next?
With the USDA considering new dietary guidelines that would include an environmental dimension, it’s a great time to think about foods that are good for you and good for the planet, so to speak. The particular crops and foods will be different for every context, but the question is the same: what makes sense here? What fits into this ecosystem, such that we don’t have to use a lot of chemicals and water to grow it? I’m working on a piece about this, with some examples from different places.
What was your favorite part of writing the book?
Meeting the members of the lentil underground! I’ve never met a kinder, wiser, more generous group of people. And such characters. Humor is an important part of resilience too, and they’ve got it in spades.
We hear from the Koch Brothers and other producers of synthetic fertilizer that it’s the only way to get enough fertility for our crops. This story seems to contradict that in a big way. Can you talk about what you learned about the fertilizer industry through these farmers and the almighty lentil?
The purported “yield gap” between chemically fertilized and biologically fertilized crops has been overstated (see Ponisio et al. 2014 for a great metaanalysis of this question). And this is in a world in which billions of dollars have been invested to improve and optimize the chemical approach, while less than 2% of public funding (and far less of private funding) is dedicated to research and development of the biological, agroecological approach. More fundamentally, it’s important to remember that historically speaking, it’s clear that hunger results not from lack of food but from lack of democracy. A billion people are food insecure right now, although our agriculture produces sufficient yields to meet global food needs. To solve the food security problem, we need to work on democracy and access, we need to reduce the embarrassing amount of waste in our food system, and we need to stop putting so many of our resources into feeding grain to livestock. What your mom has been saying for decades!
What’s your favorite lentil recipe?
Ethiopian Messer Wot. If you’ve ever gotten a veggie combo at an Ethiopian restaurant, you know this spicy red lentil stew, and it’s surprisingly easy to make at home. I’m talking less than 5 ingredients. It’s also a great template for all sorts of flavorful ways to cook lentils, from Latin-inspired versions with chili powder and cumin to South Asian variations with curry powder and ginger. Try it!
Can you tell us what you’re up to now?
I’m traveling with David Oien, the farmer at the center of the story, to dialogue with folks around the country about legumes, democracy, and the importance of working together in communities. It’s heartening to meet people who are working to change the food system in all types of communities and from all sorts of angles – from farm-to-institution purchasing to herbal alternatives to antibiotics for managing livestock health. Thanks for joining in the conversation!
Follow Liz + Lentil Underground
Facebook: Lentil Underground