Article on Regenerative Agriculture for Patagonia

Farming Down

Liz Carlisle   |   Mar 6, 2019

The promise of regenerative organic agriculture.


“The problem is that we’re all taught to farm up,” David Oien says, leading me into a field of low-growing plants that I will later learn to recognize as lentils. I try to think of what alternative there might be to farming upward. Outward? As I puzzle over this, he startles me. “Nodules!” he exclaims, pointing to a cluster of bulbous, reddish growths on the tip of a lentil root. He’s just finished hewing the plant from the earth with a spade. Now he’s grinning. The nodules form, he explains, when a type of bacteria called Rhizobium pulls nitrogen out of the atmosphere and sets up shop in the plant’s roots. This nitrogen fixation, he says, is one of the more miraculous collaborations in history: It provides lentils with their very own fertilizer.

A graduate student in geography at University of California, Berkeley, I had come back to my home state of Montana to learn about more sustainable approaches to agriculture. My journey had led me to Timeless Seeds, a farmer-owned lentil company on a mission to spread regenerative organic agriculture—the practice of growing food without chemicals by sustaining healthy soils. This research was personal. My grandmother had lost the family farm in the Dust Bowl, and I’d recently lost faith in mainstream agribusiness after a short-lived career traveling through rural America as a country singer. It probably sounds corny, but I had a strong hunch that regenerative agriculture was more or less the secret of life.

“The good news is that this is one very significant component of climate change that appears to be well within our grasp.”

Just as I was about to ask what he meant by farming down, Dave volunteered an answer. Like most Montana farms, he said, the place where he grew up had been geared toward maximizing yields of just two cash crops: commodity wheat and barley. This narrow focus on annual wheat and barley yields had gradually shifted all the fertility of Dave’s soil upward—from the roots of the plants to their seedheads, which were exported off the farm and out of state. The short-term yields were good, but as soil fertility declined so did farm profits. So when Dave came back to the family farm in 1976, he reoriented the entire farm operation to focus on the health of the soil. That’s what he meant by “farming down.”

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Liz Carlisle