“So long as they have to operate within a cheap-food economy that externalizes its social and environmental costs, both farmers and eaters will be forced into the false choice between a healthy environment and their own bottom line. Timeless Seeds has prepared fertile ground—an incredible demonstration of what’s possible. But they can’t fix the food system alone. That’s a job for all of us.” Lentil Underground, p 251.
It’s been nearly a month since I traveled to Red Lodge for the Lentil Underground talk and tasting event on June 4. I have been nearly done with the Lentil Underground ever since then, and I wanted to finish it before I wrote this post. And I just finished it. I cannot pick my favorite quote or part about this book, but I am grateful for the way the author, Liz Carlisle, hammers down on what it is that has made the farmers in the book so successful: Community.
I realize that on its own, the above statement sounds a little precious (or a lot precious). But, perhaps it is. And that’s okay. Sometimes we need a little precious. I’m not going to give the book away (read: BUY IT NOW; IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE), but it tells the story of how these farmers changed farming systems so they have a choice in how they grow their food, giving us a choice in the quality of food we get to eat: “Dave started with the same basic principles [of farming in Montana] and tried to figure out what a Montana organic operation might look like.” Lentil Underground, p 23. With community, they were able to change systems and the minds of those supporting or running those systems, who had everything they didn’t have: money, status quo, and systems in place that make it difficult to change the way you farm, even if you wanted to. When they heard “no/impossible/can’t,” they looked for another way. “You know, if you’re not going to do what we need you to do, then we’re going to do it ourselves,” said Gene May, farmer, frustrated when MSU didn’t originally provide support for the renegade’s way of sustainable farming. Lentil Underground, p 27.
The lentil underground farmers’ successes are possible because they kept going. They have gumption, open minds, heart, forward-thinking & positive attitudes, presence, and science. It is undeniable that access to land played a key role for these farmers and their successes. Their risks made the sustainable agriculture landscape we see today, and they were able to take those risks because they worked together, on their land, sharing machines, and sharing big, unknown risks in their unchartered territory. They took a cue from nature’s successful interdependence templates:
“[t]o build biological fertility is to build community—to accept interdependence with other creatures and foster a common benefit. This way of life cultivates a new kind of awareness, a new empathy. You have to pay attention beyond this homestead. You have to pay attention beyond this season.” Lentil Underground, p 244.
On the way from Fishtail to Red Lodge
Building Community in Red Lodge, Montana
The Red Lodge Area Food Partnership Council is building that kind of community. Started by a handful of folks in the Red Lodge area, the mission of the RLAFPC is:
to vigorously promote a sustainable, local food system that encourages a better quality of life for our citizens, improves our community’s economy and self-reliance and preserves the land for generations to come.
Parting is such sweet sorrow…
The RLAFPC focuses on local food: growing it, teaching about it, and eating it. They were the sponsors of the Lentil Underground talk on June 4, 2015, bringing in Dave Oien to talk about the history of Timeless Seeds, myself from AERO, and Chef Claudia. I left the gorgeous White Deer Ranch (see previous post!), headed through Fishtail, and arrived at the Elks Lodge in Red Lodge, Montana.
The Lentil Underground is in Red Lodge!
The word was out and members of the Red Lodge Area Food Partnership Council were getting the place set up. I was greeted by founders Janet Peterson and Margie Adams, who were making the lounge ready for the crowds wanting to hear about these renegade farmers people keep talking about. The talk was taking place in the main hall, which had been rearranged to accommodate the evening’s presentations. And there were indeed elks present. Mounted on the walls were many elk heads. “We had to call the local chiropractor to come set up the sound system,” joked Janet, pointing over to the gentleman helping Martha Brown and Dave Oien get the sound system ready for Dave’s presentation later. Martha, another RLAFPC founder and also a beloved AERO board member, came over to say hi. We chitchatted and rearranged chairs to make room for tables and displays.
We headed to lunch at Cafe Regis in Red Lodge. One of the first things I noticed was the sign by the register next to beautiful, tall, sturdy green asparagus stalks, advertising their availability for purchase. Cafe Regis started growing its food before it was cool—well, for a while, at least. Not only do they serve local food, but they are making their own energy, as well. They serve breakfast and lunch, and buy local and organic as much as possible. Joining us for lunch was Margie, Dave, and Martha Brown, as well as their significant others. Janet and I sat across from each other, and to her right was Emma Fernandez, the current Food Corps member in Red Lodge. I looked at the menu and I was having a hard time choosing. Chef Martha Young sat down and informed us that she had some oyster mushrooms she was hoping to cook and offered to throw them in a dish for any of us at the table—until they ran out. Several folks ordered the famous Heaping Bowl and added the mushrooms as one of the ingredients. I saw that one of the specials was French Toast with rhubarb compote and fresh whipped cream. (Remember that rhubarb goat’s milk latte I was raving about from the Dunn’s?) Decision. Made.
I had to get a bit of work done on budgeting and securing funding for marketing of AERO’s updated and upgraded Abundant Montana Directory, Montana’s comprehensive online source for sustainable agriculture and sustainably-produced food. I headed over to Honey’s Cafe for a place to work and a treat. There is some construction being done on the roads around Red Lodge, and I waited behind one of the workers clad in a bright yellow fluorescent vest as he paid for the Kombucha (a pro-biotic drink) he selected out of the cooler. Welcome to Red Lodge: We Love (Y)Our Guts.
I met up with several folks, including Martha Brown and Dave Oien, at Red Lodge Books and Tea where Dave Oien was signing Lentil Underground books. It was here that I met a man who travels internationally to help impoverished communities grow their own food. He got his start at an AERO Annual Meeting with two seeds given to him by an AERO member. Just two seeds to feed people, and teach how to feed people. It’s that simple.
Lentil Underground in Red Lodge
The room was packed. The lighting was soft. The elk were watching. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Martha Brown opened the event with a few thank yous and introductions. She invited Chef Claudia Galofre-Krevat of Claudia’s Mesa, to take the microphone to describe the dishes she made and do her demonstrations. Volunteers walked around the room with a sample of each dish on plates for the audience to try. She’s been working with Timeless Seeds to craft Latin-inspired fusion dishes featuring their products and she’s also at work on a cookbook, tentatively titled Pulse of the Earth: Local Food Global Flavors, which has already been signed by Liz Carlisle’s agent, Jessica Papin of Dystel & Goderich Literary.
Dave Oien of Timeless Food went up next and went through the history of Timeless Seeds, the abbreviated and more humble version of what you will get in the book (a must-see if you haven’t already). It is humbling and moving, and inspirational, to hear Dave talk about how much of an influence AERO and the Farm Improvement Clubs had on the successes of Timeless.
Martha Brown, Dave Oien, and me at the Elks Lodge in Red Lodge, Montana.
I went up next and briefly talked about the work AERO is doing, but also the work we want to do. I talked about my tour and how I am traveling to talk with communities to learn more about the sustainability work folks are doing and how they want to see their futures develop, and find ways AERO can help.
Martha Young of Cafe Regis went next. She described the dessert she made and thanked everyone for coming. And then she went in on a moving pitch for supporting the RLAFPC. I won’t be able to do her words justice, but she talked about the history of the RLAFPC and how impressed she was in the amount of change this group had been able to accomplish in the short amount of time they’ve been in existence. I got the impression she wasn’t someone who impressed easily. She emphasized the hard work of the founding members, how they worked transparently and collaboratively with the community, and how they’ve moved mountains to get local food moving in Red Lodge. But she also emphasized how they needed help. Community change doesn’t happen with just a few, but it certainly can get started that way. Her call for financial support and engagement with the RLAFPC was genuine and compelling.
In the Lentil Underground, Liz uses the term “radical humility” to describe how the Lentil Underground Renegade Farmers “refused the enduring myth of the lone ranger.” She goes on to say that they know this myth is false because they tried to live it, and although they “managed to carve out some of the independence they were looking for,” they did not do this by themselves and were “intimately aware of their reliance on communities larger than themselves.” AERO has and continues to be a medium to help Montanans create these communities. AERO is here to help your community start its own food partnership council, grow your food partnership council, or aid in whatever your next steps are in growing your local food system, even it if is simply figuring out what that next step, or first step, is.
I’m traveling around Montana this summer and I hope to see many of you. I know it’s a busy time for farms and ranches, so feel free to put me to work! I’m serious. I want to talk about issues affecting you and your communities: “What are the issues you face?”; “What are the solutions?”; and “How can AERO help to create this change?” As Casey Bailey said in the book, the main thing he has learned is that “you can’t do it alone.” These farmers are part of a movement and are in it to change our food system. As Liz notes at the end of the chapter, they can’t do that alone: it’s up to all of us.
“As long as more people rare moving in that direction,” Bud Barta said, “I’m happy. I mean, that’s why we did it.” Lentil Underground, p 244.
Here are some cute lambs for your Feelings.
Coming soon…guest post by Corrie Williamson, AERO Communications and Membership Director, the new hard-working and savvy member of the AERO team, and an AERO old soul, through and through (read more about Corrie here). Corrie will write about her visit to the Lasilla Farm on the Montana Organic Association (MOA) farm tour, and look out for my upcoming post about visiting Jess Alger’s ranch on another MOA tour!