Liz Carlisle, how lentils changed a region and started an organic company 30 years ago

An interview with Liz Carlisle, writer of the book Lentil Underground, the amazing story about how five farmers created one of the first organic companies in the US.


A group of farmers started one of the first organic companies in the US, 30 years ago on Montana. From soil carbon to drones and from deep roots to how we can show that regenerative agriculture is more profitable than conventional chemical based agriculture.

With Liz we discussed how and why she went from country singer to writer! 
While singing for farmers she kept hearing the issues of farmers. Many farmers in the US work just as hard as before but can’t earn enough anymore to put food on the table. Which is ironic because they are supposed to be growing it.

Liz came across this story of 5 farmers in Montana who set up Timeless Food, to market organic lentils (which they were using in their organic grain rotations). But no one was eating lentils or legumes at the time, let alone organic ones. 

A few things which surprised Liz while writing the book:

  • Many farmers have a global view
  • Farmers are incredible scientists
  • They operate on very complex 10 year rotations between grains, livestock, legumes etc.
  • It takes a long time to build a solid foundation for a values based company, but when that is done you can grow faster. (Timeless grew from 15 growers in 2012 to 30 in 2017)

We discussed why Timeless Seeds started 30 years ago:

  • There was a cycle of crisis in the commodity agriculture business
  • Input costs were so high to force people to look for ways to reduce inputs (they started using legume covercrops to insert nitrogen into the soil)
  • Grain prices were so low, people were looking for outside the commodity system.

This provided the perfect storm for a new company focussed on selling the cover crop and some extra income to the farmers.

Policies are key, now they are supporting the old commodity crop input depending farming system. You can literally not make any profit on your farm and still earn a living because of the subsidies. These policies were designed almost 100 years ago after the great depression. One of the reasons we don’t see a faster conversion to regenerative agriculture is that our policy hasn’t caught up with what we know scientifically, what growers know and what consumers want. 
Biggest leverage point: Crop insurance, why don’t we give lower premiers for regenerative agriculture?

Liz’s advice for impact investors who want to get into the regenerative agriculture space:
Place based, really getting to know the local place! Regenerative agriculture is all about fitting the agricultural system to the place rather than having this one standard one opposed all over the world. Get to know the place/ecosystem really well and find the missing piece of the puzzle for a regenerative agriculture system. As an impact investor you can help to accelerate that transition which needs to come by creating those markets.

Some key organisations:
Slow money

For feedback, ideas, suggestions please contact us through Twitter @KoenvanSeijen, in the comments below or through Get in Touch on this website.

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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.

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