A protégé of Michael Pollan, native Montanan Liz Carlisle shares the story of a group of renegade farmers who defied corporate agribusiness by launching a unique, sustainable farm-to-table food movement.Read more
In March of 2008, I filled up my Subaru at the cheapest gas station in Somerville, Massachusetts. Three dollars and twenty-two cents was more than I’d ever paid for a gallon of regular unleaded, even at the height of summer. But I’d scouted the marquees around town, and this was as low as I was going to get. The pump clicked off, and I stuffed the receipt into an envelope in the glove compartment without looking at the total. I knew I couldn’t afford it. And gas prices didn’t appear to be going down.
Four years into my career as a country singer, I was tired. Exhausted. At first, it had been thrilling to open for LeAnn Rimes and Travis Tritt, to record at Martina McBride’s studio in Nashville, and to sing the national anthem at an NFL game. Born and raised in Montana, I’d grown up on country radio, and I loved weaving romantic agrarian lyrics into pretty melodies. When I’d graduated from college, with a new record to sell and a full schedule of shows for the summer, it had seemed like the greatest thing in the world to travel through rural America and tell its story. But now that I’d crisscrossed the country several times in my station wagon, I knew the sobering truth. I’d been lying.
As I listened to the people who came up to chat after my shows, it dawned on me that life in the heartland was not what I’d thought. Farming had become a grueling industrial occupation, squeezed between the corporations that sold farmers their chemicals and the corporations that bought their grain. To my disappointment, I discovered that most American farmers weren’t actually growing food but rather raw ingredients for big food processors. These multinational corporations dictated everything their growers did, from the seeds they planted to the expensive fertilizers and herbicides they needed to grow them. It was a losing game for the farmers, who kept sinking further into debt as their input costs rose and grain prices fell. But the arrangement was great for the corporations, which kept right on dealing chemicals to their captive suppliers of cheap corn, soy, and wheat. Flush with marketing dollars, Big Food was working hard to convince middle America that their folksy branded products were the protectors of the family farm and its wholesome values. I thought about the companies that sponsored my shows and felt a creeping wave of guilt. I’d bought into their phony story hook, line, and sinker—and I was propagating it.
The song I always sang to open my concerts talked about corn popping up in neat rows next to a peaceful river. But in fact, the fertilizer running off America’s cornfields had so thoroughly choked the Mississippi watershed with nitrogen that farm towns were subsisting on bottled water, and the Gulf of Mexico was sporting a dead zone the size of Massachusetts. It wasn’t as if the flood of fertilizer were helping farmers. All those fossil fuel–based chemicals were sending rural households into bankruptcy, just like gas prices were crushing me. As I drove away from the pump in Somerville, I realized it was time for me to tell the real story of farming, food, and rural America. Maybe I could even help to change it. So in the spring of 2008, I quit the music business. And I joined the lentil underground.
Strictly speaking, I didn’t exactly know I was joining the lentil underground when I went to work for US senator Jon Tester in June of 2008. What I knew was that Jon was an organic farmer from a small town in my home state of Montana. He seemed to have some good ideas for fixing the problems with American agriculture, so that farmers could make a good living growing healthy food. And in the process, he was changing the face of national politics. By unseating a three-term Republican incumbent, Jon had handed senate Democrats a razor-thin majority—and a flat-topped populist poster child.
From my first week on the job as Tester’s legislative correspondent for agriculture and natural resources, I started getting calls from his equally colorful fellow farmers. They surprised me with deeply considered, homegrown policy proposals, recalling an era of our democracy so distant that I’d long since dismissed it as mythological. Was I on the phone with Franklin? Jefferson? I might as well have been, given how seriously these farmers took their civic duty to tinker, diagram, and reason their way to a better polity. Although I was dubious that I could do anything to shepherd these farmers’ unorthodox proposals to the floor of the Senate, I had to admit that my enthusiastic correspondents had some pretty good ideas. Of course, most establishment types thought Jon’s buddies were crazy. Strange crops. Messy-looking fields. “Weed farmers,” one prominent constituent told me. “They’re a bunch of damn weed farmers.”
But if these were weed farmers, I gathered, they were remarkably solvent ones. Unlike the other growers who called into the office, these organic farmers weren’t complaining about grain prices, because they didn’t sell to big corporations, and they were raising a lot more than just grain. They weren’t complaining about the cost of chemicals either, because they didn’t use them. They’d found a crop that could grow its own fertilizer: lentils.
I got so curious about these farmers and their miraculous lentils that I started calling them, peppering them with questions about all the crops in their rotations. But as quickly as I’d gotten excited, I found myself frustrated again. I thought I’d happened onto a simple, technical solution to the crisis in farm country. But instead, my farmer informants kept regaling me with meandering stories that dragged long into my lunch break before I finally cut them off with a polite “Thanks for sharing your thoughts.” I was about to give up when one of the farmers leveled with me. “I know you folks out in DC are always looking for a quick fix, and I just want you to know that this isn’t it,” the farmer said. “But if you’d like to come out and visit, you’re always welcome.” I hung up the phone, grouchy. I was at work late again, vainly attempting to stay on top of the flood of e-mails about wolves, guns, and abortion. I knew the office wasn’t about to send me on a junket to Montana to check out a field of lentils. I was mad at myself for my foolish idealism, mad at myself for wasting time on a dead end.
But as I lay in bed that night, I started thinking more seriously about the farmer’s invitation. As he’d warned, this wouldn’t be a quick fix. It would take a long time to really understand what these organic growers were up to. I would need to quit my job and focus on this project full-time, probably for several years. I had a lot to learn about ecology, economics, and the real history of the agrarian West—not just the version I’d absorbed from country radio. And yet, maybe it was worth it.
The next evening, I started researching graduate schools, looking for a place where I could get the training I needed and then conduct in-depth field research. It wasn’t easy to find a doctoral program with the breadth I was looking for, since most departments focused their students on a highly specialized area of study. But the PhD at UC Berkeley’s Geography Department seemed like a good fit. In June of 2009, after thirteen months in DC, I said good-bye to Jon Tester, promising that our next visit would be at his Montana farm. And in August, I moved to Northern California to register for my first semester of classes.
By the summer of 2011, I’d made it far enough into my formal studies to venture out to Montana to meet some farmers. I picked up my parents’ station wagon in Missoula, then headed off for a part of the state I’d never been to before—the dry plains just east of the Rocky Mountains. There, in a sleepy little town named Conrad, I found the man I was looking for: Dave Oien.
Dave wasn’t the first farmer I’d spoken to when I started working in the Tester office. In fact, I’m not sure I ever talked directly to him at all. But when I asked people to tell me who had convinced them to go organic, the answer always circled back to this little Conrad farm. On these 280 acres—his parents’ homestead—Dave had done something truly radical. During the height of the 1980s farm crisis, he’d become the first in his county to plant organic lentils. Back then, Dave had been laughed off as a kook. But now he had more than a dozen other people growing for his small business, Timeless Seeds, which had gotten specialty lentils on the shelves at Whole Foods and on the menus of the nation’s finest restaurants.
When I pulled in to the Oien place, I was greeted by an unassuming man in a faded plaid work shirt and jeans. He’d tucked his spectacled eyes under a too-big ball cap, which shaded his face from the sun but also gave the impression that his head was smaller than it was. Slumping a bit as he traversed his garden, the balding farmer curled his six-foot frame toward the landscape, refusing to stand out. He answered my questions politely and factually, as if he were a repairman explaining how he’d fixed my faucet. While Dave played the common yeoman, I settled into my own performance, inspecting his soil as though that was all I was interested in. As I had explained to Dave on the phone, I was here to conduct research for my dissertation about diversified farming systems on the northern Great Plains.
Dave and I talked through each other for several minutes, as I dutifully wrote down his list of crops and the soil amendments he was using. I didn’t tell him that I’d been doing my homework on him and his lentils, and that this was more than just a short-term research project. I didn’t mention any of the uncanny parallels in our stories. The fact that I was twenty-seven, the same age he’d been when he came back to this farm. The fact that I’d come here on the same road from Missoula that he’d traversed thirty-five years before. The fact that I, too, had been trying to save the world in faraway places before realizing that I needed to start at home. I didn’t remind him that I was from Montana myself and that my “research vehicle” was my parents’ car.
But of course, my journey had been far longer than the four-hour drive from my parents’ house. I’d spent my entire adulthood combing through poetry, policy, and scholarship in search of an agrarian answer to the vexing problems of modern society. I’d consulted authorities of all stripes, from salt-of-the-earth sages in Nashville, to political gurus in Washington, to scientists and food activists in Berkeley. How could we feed the world without destroying it? After several years of searching, I knew there were important answers to this question that I couldn’t find in a high-tech lab or a high-powered policy summit, or even in popular local food movements in San Francisco and New York. But those answers might be here in Conrad, if only I could get Dave to talk.
And then he smiled. Without moving his mouth, Dave vaulted his eyebrows into his forehead and opened his eyes so wide they nearly filled the yawning lenses of his glasses. He’d noticed the number four on the far left of my license plate, which every Montanan knows as the code for Missoula. “Did you know Joseph Brown?” he asked me.
Joseph Epes Brown was a legendary figure in my hometown, a professor of religious studies who’d passed away in 2000 after an illustrious but somewhat enigmatic career at the University of Montana. At age twenty-seven, he had traveled the West in an old truck, seeking Lakota elder Black Elk. When Brown finally found the elderly medicine man, in Nebraska, Black Elk was nearly blind, but he greeted his young visitor knowingly. “I’ve been expecting you,” Black Elk told Brown, who would later publish an account of their conversations at the Lakota man’s request.
Although I hadn’t mentioned it to Dave, I’d read that account. And I knew he had too. One day in the Tester office, curious about this farmer that everyone kept mentioning to me, I’d started digging around for information about Dave and discovered that he had once been a student of Joseph Brown’s at the University of Montana. In fact, if I had the dates right, it appeared Dave would’ve taken Brown’s class right before returning to this homestead. As my mind raced to find an answer to Dave’s question, my mouth settled for “Yes.”
“C’mon in the house,” Dave said. “And bring that notebook with you.”
When the summer of 2012 finally scorched its way into the record books as the worst drought since the Dust Bowl, American farmers stopped praying for rain and started filing for insurance payments. Surveying the withered crop across the farm belt, analysts warned that climate change might seriously threaten the American food supply. Local forecasters watched in grim silence as the red zone of federally declared disaster areas swelled to cover 71 percent of the national map. Already squeezed by recession, households across the United States braced for skyrocketing food prices.
Meanwhile, outside a small Montana town on the Missouri River, two dozen vehicles converged on a 3,000-acre farm. Compact hybrids sporting lefty bumper stickers pulled up next to old pickups with gun racks, and PhD engineers enthusiastically greeted college dropouts. From as far north as the Canadian border and as far east as the Dakotas they rolled in, nonchalantly hauling coolers and potluck dishes as if this were just the neighborhood block party.
The occasion was the annual field tour for Timeless Seeds, an organization that, on the surface, appeared to be a modest small business. But what Timeless and its growers were doing out here on the northern plains was nothing short of revolutionary. They’d spent the past three decades quietly but systematically bucking big agriculture, sowing the seeds of a radically different food system. Now they were about to find out whether their experiment was working.
A bit nervous about hosting a field tour just four years into his organic transition, greenhorn Timeless grower Casey Bailey wasn’t feeling particularly lucky on this Friday the thirteenth of July. The relentlessly hot weather had thoroughly baked the Baileys, who were scrambling to adjust their harvest calendars and praying their crops would come through. Casey was worried about the looming threat of hail, given the eerie humidity in the air. And as he approached his field of French Green lentils, with more than thirty guests in tow, Casey was embarrassed to discover that the one plant that appeared to love this heat was his “volunteer” stand of sunflowers. Nowhere to be seen on Casey’s farm plan, the big yellow flowers had simply blown in from the surrounding area and seeded themselves. Now they were everywhere.
“This is my only field that’s bad with weeds,” Casey told the crowd staring down at him from a hay-covered wagon. Why did his weed problem have to be such a flamboyant one? Casey brooded. And why hadn’t he come out here before the tour and thinned some of this out? Casey’s fellow growers tried to put a more positive spin on the increasingly heterogeneous Bailey farm. “It’s biodiverse,” Doug Crabtree offered in a booming baritone, as his wife nodded. “We’ve got to stop apologizing,” Anna Jones-Crabtree chimed in forcefully, extemporaneously suggesting a mantra: “Mother Nature doesn’t monocrop.” When Casey failed to look reassured by the Crabtrees’ philosophical pronouncements, Timeless CEO David Oien patted his young grower on the back, winking. “You know,” Oien said, with the carefree-but-earnest jocularity of a fifties sitcom, “it’s not that dirty for an organic lentil crop.”
Having farmed in a small Montana town his whole life, sixty-three-year-old Oien could sympathize with Casey’s anxiety about planting something so different from what his neighbors were growing. Amber waves of grain were like a religion in this part of the West. Any other plant life was labeled a weed and taken as a sign of some deep character flaw, some profound failure. Here in central Montana, the measure of a man was in plain sight, and it was calculated in bushels per acre. The trouble with all that heroic grain, however, was that it was taking a lot of nutrients and water out of the soil, without giving anything back. Sometimes farmers got away with this rather amazing faith in their land’s limitless productivity, and if wheat prices happened to be up, they could even turn a handsome profit. But not in a drought year. Mother Nature was calling foul.
The last time drought had struck the grain belt—in the 1980s—Oien had been a thirtysomething like Casey, worried about how to save his family farm in the face of bad weather and corporate consolidation in the food system. Most people thought the solution was bigger farms, bigger machinery, and more chemicals. That’s what Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz had told farmers like Oien’s parents. Get big or get out. Modernize or perish. Watching as their community shrank and their friends died of cancer after too many years manning a spray rig, Orville and Gudrun Oien had begged their son to follow Butz’s advice—the “get out” part. Armed with a college degree, Dave could’ve landed a good job in Seattle or Chicago. But he was too stubborn. He stayed put. He stayed small. And he planted lentils.
When Oien seeded the first organic lentil in his county, it was a radical act. For the past two generations, American farmers like him have had one job: grow more grain. In Iowa and Nebraska, that’s corn. On the northern plains, farms specialize in either wheat or barley. All other life-forms stand aside so that farmers can grow one plant, year after year, aiming to fill the bin each August. Every twelve months, bursting seed heads pack the full sum of the farmer’s human effort, modern technology, and natural endowments into the original form of stored wealth: grain.
Lentils do exactly the opposite. Instead of mining the soil for nutrients to fuel an impressive harvest, this Robin Hood of the dryland prairie gathers the abundant fertility of the aboveground world—of the air, in fact—and shares it freely beneath the earth’s surface. Inside the plant’s nodules, bacteria surreptitiously convert atmospheric nitrogen into a community nutrient supply. If wheat is the symbol of rugged individualism, then lentils embody that other agrarian hallmark too often overlooked in the Western mythos: community.
A cheap, healthy source of protein, lentils have been feeding the world since biblical times. They are drought resilient and don’t need irrigation. They are also legumes, which means they can convert atmospheric nitrogen into fertilizer. This makes lentils an ideal crop to raise in rotation—since plants grown in the same field the next year can benefit from the boost of leftover fertility. In fact, if farmers grow them as part of a diverse sequence of crops that keep weed pressure at bay, they don’t need to use chemicals at all. The plants themselves take care of the functions formerly performed by expensive industrial inputs—just like natural plant communities do in the wilderness.
To young David Oien, it had all seemed so obvious. If family farm agriculture was going to survive, if people were going to take care of the planet and still produce sufficient food, if there was still some sense to be made out of life in rural America—surely this was the way to do it. But to everyone else in his county, particularly Oien’s banker, lentils were anything but obvious. How would he sell them? How would he harvest them? And for that matter, how did he even know they would grow? No one had done this here before, and the agricultural experts at Montana State University were skeptical. Bombarded with dozens of such questions—and dirty looks from his weed-phobic neighbors—Oien realized he was trying to change something much bigger than his parents’ 280-acre homestead. He could save his farm, but not alone. To stand up against the entrenched power of the food system’s 1 percent, he would need to convince hundreds of other farmers to take the biggest risk of their lives.
A world away from the hippie communes of California and the organic food co-ops of liberal cities, Oien and his nonprofit allies started their sustainable agriculture movement modestly. They set up a series of field trials on their farms, to prove that lentils could grow on the dry northern plains. They built a network of more than 120 Farm Improvement Clubs, to learn how to do it better. Eventually, they crowd-funded a processing plant, passed legislation to make organic certification legal in Montana, and jerry-rigged equipment to clean, plant, and harvest their tiny seeds. But as Oien’s wife reminded him, the heady lentil revolutionaries still had to pay their bills. Having built an underground, they needed to set up a front operation.
In 1987, Oien and three of his friends formed a company, Timeless Seeds, to process and market their organic legumes. They started small, peddling fifty-pound bags to whatever farmer friends happened by the Oiens’ Quonset hut. Then, in 1994, they diversified into the food market, with a French Green lentil contract for Trader Joe’s. Although short-lived, the Trader Joe’s contract spurred Dave and his friends to purchase a bona fide processing facility, and within five years, they’d rolled out a full retail line and started working with gourmet restaurants. By 2012, Timeless Seeds had matured into a million-dollar business, and one of its growers was a US senator.
But now that drought had struck again, Timeless and its farmers faced a moment of truth. Oien had won over foodies in the Bay Area and New York with the story of his resilient crop, which was now being touted by renowned chefs. He’d even convinced some die-hard locavores that Montana lentils were a greener choice than conventionally fertilized local produce, given the environmental impacts and shocking greenhouse gas footprint of synthetic nitrogen. It all made sense in theory. Now that theory was about to be tested.
Dismounting from their perch on Casey Bailey’s hay wagon, his fellow growers inspected the young man’s rapidly drying French Green lentils. Fingering the crackly seedpods, the methodical farmers debated when Casey should pick them up with his combine. Too soon, and he would have a premature crop. But too late, and his lentils would dry up and fall off the stalk—or succumb to the ever-present possibility of a hailstorm. Picturing their own lentils baking in the blistering sun, the stoic farmers sounded the faintest notes of apprehension. They all had several thousand dollars’ worth of crops sitting in their parched fields, and they were still a couple of weeks away from squirreling them safely away in their bins. They knew lentils were supposed to be relatively drought resilient, but they couldn’t help worrying. Would they make it to harvest?
Overshadowed by the peaks of Glacier National Park, which tower Alps-like on its western horizon, the small farming town of Conrad, Montana, doesn’t particularly stand out. Much the opposite, in fact. It’s almost as if this modest community on central Montana’s dryland plains wants you to know it’s not jealous of its ostentatious neighbor. Instead of competing with Glacier’s charismatic wilderness, Conrad presents itself as primly unremarkable. Numbered streets hem manicured lawns and uniform rows of wheat and barley into a neat grid, keeping each creature in its place.
Ever since the first homesteaders arrived in Conrad at the dawn of the twentieth century, this tight-knit community on the Rocky Mountain Front has tenaciously maintained the boundary between wilderness and civilization. The mountains of Glacier National Park mark the wild side, where people incur hefty fines for so much as moving a single stone. The windswept agricultural prairie is the controlled side. When people here speak of well-managed farms as “clean,” you have the sense that they would be much happier if they could raise wheat in brushed aluminum or stainless steel—anything but the indiscriminately fecund medium of soil.
Engaged in perennial battle with weeds and pests, Conrad’s farmers find themselves stationed at the great divide, not just between the two halves of North America, but between nature and agriculture. Traditionally, that divide has been cast as a bitter conflict, a zero-sum game that pits pristine wilderness against rural livelihoods. Academics refer to this great divide as the “land-sparing” strategy: Places like Glacier are set aside to spare land for nature, supposedly taking people entirely out of the ecological equation. Meanwhile, in places like Conrad, farmers attempt near-total control over uniform fields of grain in order to “feed the world,” supposedly taking nature completely out of the equation. Across most of middle America, for most of the twentieth century, the conventional wisdom was that this neat partition was the best way to grow enough food to feed humanity without destroying the environment.
Although Conrad was never among the American heartland’s most productive communities, the land-sparing strategy seemed to be effective here. When the little farm town’s first generation of settlers arrived, during the homestead rush of 1904–18, early researchers at the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station encouraged them to plant a variety of drought-tolerant crops and further diversify their farms with livestock. But railroad baron James Hill had a different idea. In 1909, Hill hosted a Dry Farming Congress to convince farmers that it would be more efficient if they dedicated as much of their land as possible to the crop he happened to be in the business of shipping: wheat. At first, Hill’s advice seemed prudent. When farmers plowed up the native prairie and planted wheat, they were able to grow enough food to support their families and earn a good living too. True, a severe drought in 1917 devastated the crop, and 2 million acres ceased production. The Dust Bowl and the Depression sent 11,000 farmers packing and crashed half of Montana’s banks. But as modern farming developed, the homesteaders’ children regained their confidence, placing their faith in science. They learned to apply synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to increase their yields, and when the herbicide 2,4-D came along in the 1950s, it was a revelation. One pass on the spray rig, and the weeds went away. Liberated from the drudgery of the cultivating tractor, farm families could imagine taking the weekend off and heading up to the lake, or going on vacation in Glacier.
To Conrad’s stoic, largely Protestant inhabitants, these midcentury agricultural advances seemed like the work of divine providence, a reward for their pious efforts. It became customary, when passing by a tidy, productive farm, to remark that a good family must live there. Having been blessed with 2,4-D and ammonium nitrate, postwar Conrad appeared to be teeming with such upstanding citizens. In 1950, 70 percent of all the food Montanans ate was grown in state.
But in the early 1980s, as Conrad’s second generation of farmers prepared to hand off their homesteads to their own progeny, signs of trouble emerged. Their fields looked good, at least early in the season, but the “For Sale” signs popping up amid Conrad’s grain were proving a more serious menace than any weed. Behind every bankruptcy was the heartbreaking story of a good farmer undercut by drought or rising fertilizer costs or poor commodity prices. Since they weren’t in charge of the markets or the weather, Conrad’s farmers tried even harder to control what they could—spraying more herbicides, cultivating more acres. But instead of solving their problems, these efforts just sunk the desperate farmers further into debt. By 1983, US farm foreclosures would reach their highest levels since the Depression. Once again, 2 million acres of Montana farmland went out of production.
Conrad’s grain farmers were experiencing the “cost-price squeeze,” one of several problems with industrial agriculture that gradually became apparent over the course of the 1980s. Farmers were paying so much for the sophisticated machinery and chemicals that made their extraordinary sixty-bushel grain possible that they couldn’t afford a dry year or a depressed commodity market—the margins were too tight. Meanwhile, the American heartland wasn’t just losing people; it was also losing topsoil, at the rate of 3 billion tons a year. Intensive industrial farming methods left soil vulnerable to erosion and severely taxed the fertility of what was left, making it ever more challenging for farmers to keep up. In 1981, Montana watched more soil blow away than any other state in the union. To add insult to injury, the very inputs that were causing problems for Conrad’s farms were also causing serious problems for human health and the environment: groundwater pollution, marine dead zones—and alarmingly high rates of cancer. As soil and farm chemicals ran off into the watershed and new superweeds appeared in herbicide-treated fields, Conrad’s neat partition between nature and agriculture was thrown into question. Not even Glacier was immune. Climate change, fueled in no small part by the industrial food system, was melting the national park’s namesake ice shelves, which were forecast to thaw completely as early as 2030.
For local farmers Orville and Gudrun Oien, Conrad’s problems came as a cruel, almost vindictive surprise. Born and raised on nearby homesteads, just ten days and a mile apart, Orville and Gudrun had spent their entire lives with their hands in north-central Montana earth, mixing their labor, as John Locke would say, with the soil. Since buying their own place in 1939, at the tender age of twenty-seven, the Oiens had scrupulously followed federal farm programs and state extension bulletins. They’d planted recommended varieties of grain. They’d applied recommended chemicals. And to supplement the proceeds from their harvest, the industrious pair had managed a small dairy, supplying the Conrad Creamery with fresh milk. With nothing more than this modest 280-acre homestead and their own hard work, the Oiens had raised four children, sent three of them to college, and nearly paid off the farm note. But now, just as they prepared to pass the place on to their kids, all the rules were changing.
It was the summer of 1976, and twenty-seven-year-old David Oien was going back to the land. While his shoulder-length hair meandered out the window toward the Rocky Mountains, the grad school dropout imagined growing his own food, making his own energy, and living in sync with nature. He had read enough about change. He wanted to build it.
Dave’s brown Plymouth Savoy was loaded down with the new ideas he had acquired over the past eight years. There were radical political magazines he’d picked up at the University of Chicago, where he had arrived as a wide-eyed college freshman in 1968. On top of those was a copy of Black Elk Speaks, the teachings of a Lakota holy man, which Dave had taken to heart when he transferred to the University of Montana to study philosophy and religion. And on top of that was Dave’s own vision: the plans he had drawn up for a solar energy collector. Armed with big dreams and some basic carpentry skills, he was ready to transform the world.
Dave wasn’t just following some abstract notion of “returning to the land.” He was coming home to his family’s 280-acre farm—two and a half miles northwest of the Conrad city limits. Like Dave, Conrad had undergone rapid change during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, and it was barreling headlong into a radically new world. But the future for which Conrad was headed wasn’t exactly what Dave and the counterculture had in mind.
When Dave was young, the Oien place still retained some of the trappings of a small, diversified homestead. Commodity grain had been the main event, to be sure, and yet, chickens and carrots and flowers kept the place feeling like home. But in the years since he’d left, Dave’s father had followed the dictum of Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, planting “fencerow to fencerow.” The Oien place was now one solid stand of malt barley, supported by federal farm programs and controlled with fossil fuel–based chemicals. As Dave tried to envision the place he was returning to, the pile of books in his passenger seat toppled over, depositing Rachel Carson’s shocking exposé about chemical pesticides in his lap. Dave knew his dad was using pesticides. He worried that the pond behind his parents’ house might have become a version of Carson’s Silent Spring.
Compared to harrowing Christmastime slogs through snow and ice, the summer season drive to Conrad was a breeze. From the university town of Missoula, Dave could get home in a steady four hours, in just three basic steps: east on Montana 200, up and over Rogers Pass, north on I-15. As the graduate school dropout watched his brief academic life vanish in his rearview mirror, he tried to make sense of his journey. Was he going back or forward?
In Dave’s experience, there were two options available to Montana farm kids: come back and inherit the home place or leave for a job in a faraway city. Dave had no interest in taking over his dad’s malt barley operation and zero experience with chemical farming. He’d learned nothing about herbicide application or commodity payments, and he didn’t want to.
So when he’d graduated from high school in 1968, Dave had gone to the University of Chicago. The farm boy’s crash course in urban youth culture had introduced him to a new phrase: “military-industrial complex.” Paging through the alternative magazines that were circulating on campus, Dave had put his disenchantment with Conrad in the context of a larger problem. Corporate control—something his hometown Farmers Union chapter was always up in arms about—seemed to be at the root of both the raging Vietnam War and the new chemical-intensive agribusiness. In both cases, wealthy big shots were profiting from death and destruction. To Dave’s amazement, the kids in Chicago were dreaming up ways to fight this power. They’d even organized a revolutionary movement: the Weather Underground.
Although Dave had been inspired by his adventure in Chicago, he’d tired of overly cerebral debates and longed to get his hands back in the dirt. For his junior year, he’d transferred to the University of Montana in Missoula, where Rachel Carson and Black Elk had gotten him a little closer to what he was looking for. But Dave was still itching to do something. So when he started graduate school at UM in the fall of 1975, the ecological philosophy student ended up spending most of his time engrossed in the handbook from his night-school class: Scott Sproull’s alternative energy workshop.
Sproull, a breezy twenty-two-year-old who had learned about methane digesters while working as the night caretaker for the local sewage treatment plant, was just the teacher Dave had been looking for. Devouring Sproull’s DIY diagrams and quirky Buckminster Fuller quotes, Dave started to formulate a plan. His final assignment was to build a solar collector and install it somewhere. His classmates had already started asking around Missoula, looking for a sympathetic homeowner who might lend them a roof. But Dave knew just where his collector was headed. Eight years after leaving Conrad, Dave was going home. Unbeknownst to Gudrun and Orville Oien, their farmhouse was about to get one heck of a retrofit.
The Oiens hugged their son, at once happy to see him and concerned about how their most free-spirited child would make a life here in Conrad. Even shrewd Orville, a self-trained certified public accountant who had followed federal commodity program incentives to a tee, couldn’t pencil out a way to make a viable living from this farm anymore. It was too small. The economics of modern agribusiness depended on a massive scale of production, which seemed to be the only way to afford the expensive package of machinery and chemicals necessary to grow the new high-yielding grain varieties. “Get big or get out,” Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz had proclaimed. Orville didn’t remember anything in that speech about solar collectors.
But instead of worrying about balance sheets and fertilizer prices, Dave was coaxing his sixty-four-year-old father on top of the house, hammer and DIY zine in hand. What the younger Oien had in mind was an extension of the north roof. The addition would create a reflective shed, large enough to accommodate the solar water-heating system he had dreamed up. Orville couldn’t argue with the cost savings of the new outfit—250 to 300 dollars a year in fuel oil plus 75 to 100 dollars a year in domestic water heating. So he grabbed some nails and joined his harebrained son.
Day after scorching day, Dave and Orville hammered away, arousing the curiosity of their neighbors. They built ninety-six square feet of liquid collectors, then installed a battery of 120-gallon water tanks in the basement. Silently sweating through their long-sleeved work shirts, the two men remembered a happy moment they had both let slip out of their memories long ago: Orville making rounds on the tractor while six-year-old Dave sat on his lap, staring up at the hawks.
Working alongside his dad in the blistering sun, Dave could touch all the pieces of his world. Chicago-style community organizing. The wisdom of elders Black Elk, Rachel Carson, and Orville Oien. The satisfaction of literally taking matters into his own hands. Dave had spent the past eight years caught between utopias that needed each other, utopias that kept moving farther apart in their pursuit of a perfect future. For the first time, he could imagine them coming together.
AGAINST THE GRAIN
When the Oien family’s solar retrofit was completed in 1977, it was the first of its kind in north-central Montana. But it was not the last. Dave lost no time climbing atop his neighbors’ roofs, hammer and gospel in hand. He stopped referring to his hometown as Conrad and instead embraced its new identity as “Sun City,” energetically assisting a number of solar conversions on the grittier side of the railroad tracks. In 1981, the same year Ronald Reagan took Jimmy Carter’s solar panels off the White House, Dave was heralding the arrival of a new renewable energy store in Sun City’s downtown. He converted not only the Presbyterian church, but also its pastor, who added 125 square feet of active solar air collectors to his own home. “Ordinary citizens are beginning to generate their own power,” Dave wrote boldly in the pages of a nonprofit newsletter, betting 100 dollars against the completion of the Montana Power Company’s proposed coal plant. “Small scale hydro and wind electric systems are sprouting up across the country . . . we’re at a point in history where we can make a difference, and we’d better do it.”
But back on the Oien farm, Dave had to admit, he was still relying on a lot of dirty energy. The farmhouse had shrunk its footprint, but the farm itself was driven by petrochemicals. It was oil that made the fertilizers, oil that made the herbicides, and oil that powered the tractor. If we can have a solar-powered house, Dave said to his dad, why can’t we have a solar-powered farm?
Orville had been afraid it might come to that.
It wasn’t a good time to experiment with risky new ways of farming, the scrupulous accountant told his son. Margins on a small farm were razor-thin these days, and the Oiens were barely making it as it was. What had kept the operation afloat (and paid for college, Orville gently reminded Dave) was the security of the federal farm program. Uncle Sam paid the Oiens to raise improved barley varieties that required chemical fertilizers and herbicides, like synthetic nitrogen and 2,4-D. The size of that government check was based on the number of acres Orville enrolled and planted as barley ground—his “base acres.” If he ripped out the malt barley and seeded something else, Orville explained, he would sacrifice those precious base acres, gambling his livelihood on the whims of both nature and markets. What would the family fall back on if the “solar farm” got hailed out or couldn’t sell its crop?
For Dave’s dad, sticking with neat rows of high-yielding cereals was about more than just economics. Orville’s reputation for tidy fields and sound decisions had been hard-won, earned with decades of stoic labor. The prospect of losing that community respect was almost as distressing to Dave’s father as losing the farm. In a small community like Conrad, it didn’t make sense to step too far out of line.
Dave didn’t care what the neighbors thought. But the philosophy and religious studies major couldn’t support himself—let alone his parents—with the modest wages from his summer construction job. So he made a compromise with his dad. The base acres would stay in wheat and barley. But the remaining 15 percent of the property would be reserved for Dave’s “oddball” crops. Starting with those two fields, Dave vowed to reorient the farm from oil to sunshine. Slowly but surely, he was determined to cut against the grain.
Dave’s idea was to convert the Oiens’ fossil fuel–based grain monoculture into a self-supporting diversified farm that ran on manure. Cow manure was a “solar” energy source, because it was the sun that grew the forage crops that fed the cattle. In principle, at least, this solar-powered manure was free, and it could replace the chemical inputs that not only offended Dave’s environmental sensibilities, but also got more expensive every time OPEC called an embargo. Manure could replace synthetic fertilizer. Manure—with the help of a methane digester and alcohol fuel still—could replace synthetic fuel. And the combination of cattle and crop diversity could eliminate the need for chemical herbicides. The animals would happily eat most weeds, but unwanted vegetation would have a tough time finding a niche anyway, given the lively mix of plants Dave envisioned.
Dave started by seeding something his dad was familiar with—alfalfa. That was the crop Orville had raised to feed to his own cattle, back when Dave was a kid. In addition to supplying hay, alfalfa also happened to be a good plant to rotate with barley, since it replenished the soil with the very nutrient cereal grains depleted: nitrogen. Maybe they wouldn’t need to use so much nitrogen fertilizer if they brought alfalfa back into the rotation, Dave wondered aloud. We’ll see, said his straight-faced Norwegian father.
Meanwhile, Orville helped his son construct an “integrated energy system” to convert cow dung into heat and fuel. Supported by a grant from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the Oiens built an 80,000-gallon methane digester, to turn manure into biogas. The idea was that this biogas would heat an alcohol fuel still, which would convert the farm’s grain waste into fuel for their trucks and tractors. To capture the heat and carbon dioxide from the alcohol process, the Oiens built a passive solar greenhouse, where they figured they could grow tomatoes and cucumbers for themselves and a few local customers. To further close the loop of the farm’s energy system, Dave planned to fertilize his produce with the methane digester’s by-product: a crude form of compost.
What Dave was trying to create with all these intersecting projects was central Montana’s version of something he had been reading about in the pages of Mother Jones and the Whole Earth Catalog: an organic farm. In places like California and Oregon, hippies had started planting vegetables on rural communes and in urban community gardens. Some of them had started marketing their produce to kindred spirits, dubbing their products “organic.” The principles of this agricultural approach were simple. Organic farms worked with natural processes to grow their food, rather than relying on the off-the-shelf inputs that had become synonymous with modern industrial farming. Organic growers focused less on the size of their crop and more on the health of their soil. They farmed down, rather than up. For children of the sixties like Dave, it was an intuitive concept: ask not what your soil can do for you, but what you can do for your soil.