SCORECARD STORY: In Montana, many growers are diversifying their farms, resulting in a more diverse food supply. Learn about Timeless Natural Food, a farmer-managed enterprise producing lentils, chickpeas, barley, and other crops that contribute to healthy diets.
Diversifying Montana’s agriculture for farmers, eaters, and the environment
Montana farmer David Oien, co-founder of Timeless Natural Food.
Photo: Liz Carlisle.
Just one in 10 people in this country eats the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, and many of us eat too much processed food and meat. At the same time, the output of US farms also fails to reflect dietary guidelines: 59 percent of farm acres are dominated by the production of just a few commodity crops, used primarily to produce livestock feed, biofuels, and processed foods. The farming practices that produce most of these commodities—including monocropping and applying large amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—contribute to water pollution and other negative consequences for our environment and public health, especially in communities of color. And the dominance of industrial commodity crop production weakens local and regional food systems that could otherwise support healthy eating in communities.
But across the country, farmers and ranchers are beginning to diversify their farms in ways that benefit farmers, eaters, and the environment. For example, complex crop rotations that include small grains and legumes can boost farm profits, improve soil health, and reduce pollution, while also increasing the supply of healthy food.
In Montana, for example, the state’s top three crops account for just 38 percent of its cropland. That means more of Montana’s land is available to produce other crops, including legumes such as peas and lentils, which are good sources of protein, fiber, folate, and other nutrients. And these crops have another benefit: in a process called nitrogen fixation, they interact with soil microorganisms to boost soil fertility. Including such crops in crop rotations can reduce farmers’ dependence on chemical inputs and protect or even regenerate soil and water quality.
The state’s legume production has been driven by the pioneering spirit of four central Montana farmers—Bud Barta, Jim Barngrover, Tom Hastings, and David Oien. They started Timeless Natural Food to produce and market a selection of heirloom organic lentils and specialty grains, and their story is chronicled in the 2016 book Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle. “Timeless is now the largest private employer in Ulm, Montana,” Carlisle notes, “and the shift to organic and specialty crops has saved dozens if not hundreds of family farms.” But with better incentives, research, and technical assistance, more farmers around the country could jumpstart new business opportunities, protect our environment, and supply an array of crops that support healthy human diets.
For more on the positive impacts of diversified farming systems, read our 2017 report, and to learn more about lentil production in Montana, check out Timeless Natural Food and Lentil Underground.