I am traveling from Seattle to London by bicycle and boat. Read the intro to my travels on Grist.
On Montana’s northern plains, some organic growers’ neighbors reportedly began referring to them as “weed farmers” a few decades ago. These organic pioneers had started to seed small, green plants in hopes of strengthening their soil. These little leguminous plants were nitrogen-fixers, species whose roots host nodules of bacteria that bring nitrogen from the air into the ground, converting it to a form usable by plants and thus fertilizing the soil without industrial chemicals. To conventional grain farmers, though, it seemed peculiar, perhaps pathetic, to intentionally grow plants that looked like the ones they tried to eliminate from their fields. In an agricultural culture that glorifies pure, unblemished waves of erect-standing grain, raising puny legumes and purposefully intercropping multiple species in one field appears unmanly, an affront to the dominion over nature that God has granted humanity. Or at least that’s what I learned reading Liz Carlisle’s book Lentil Undergroundwhile taking a break from bike touring.
Neil Baunsgard and I are exploring this world of organic grain farmers as we cross Montana’s north by bicycle, part of a west-to-east transcontinental journey. At our first stop, Rick Winkowitsch’s farm just north of the town of Cut Bank, the immense scale of grain production took us by surprise. How our grains are grown affects a lot bigger land area than, say, the organic veggie farms we support at the local farmers market.
But whether organic methods could make dryland grain growing truly sustainable remained unsettled, in my mind. Chemical-free farming is clearly a lot of work, both in terms of human labor and fossil-fuel burning. Leaving more variables in nature’s hands meant a lot less guaranteed success, it seemed.
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