Liz Carlisle is a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at the University of California, Berkeley. She holds a Ph.D. in Geography, also from Berkeley, and a B.A. from Harvard University. Liz is a native of Missoula, Montana, and a former Legislative Aide to United States Senator Jon Tester.
I first met Liz in the fall of 2013. She told me a bit about the book project she was working on. It was the story of a group of Montana farmers, lentils and ideas that drew deeply from a rich agrarian tradition…and that were also very forward looking. That project has become a critically acclaimed book, Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America. Recently, the book was named winner in the General Nonfiction category at the Green Book Festival, which honors “books that contribute to greater understanding, respect for and positive action on the changing worldwide environment.”
If you haven’t read the book, grab a copy and dive in. It’s a remarkable read, combining scholarship with an authentic and immediate voice. Liz weaves together a compelling, resonant and incredibly important narrative.
Q: You’ve done a lot of things, including working with U.S. Senator Jon Tester. You had experiences with farmers, civic engagement, creating a better polity, and even populism. What can you share about that? How did those experiences inform your current work?
A: I grew up in Montana, surrounded by agricultural life, and fascinated by my grandmother’s stories about her childhood on a Western Nebraska farm during the Dust Bowl. I’ve always had a deep respect for people who steward land and cultivate relationships with non-human nature. When asked about what drove his process of inquiry, Albert Einstein famously said, “I want to know God’s thoughts.” Well, I want to know farmers’ thoughts! – which has always seemed to me to be an equally philosophical and spiritual undertaking. Essentially, my work has been to try to ally myself with those who are committed to realizing the true promise of agrarian democracy and contribute however I can – whether that is poetry, policy, scholarship, or some combination.
Q: What are the most important policy changes that the U.S. could make, and why?
A: Universal health care. The Affordable Care Act is a start, but we’re not there yet, and lack of access to good health care remains a major disincentive to farming and other important work that’s not connected to a major employer.
Stronger regulation of toxic agricultural chemicals. It’s currently legal to use known carcinogens on farms – in fact, it’s standard practice. This is deeply unjust to farmworkers, rural communities, and of course, to all of us who eat. There are agroecological alternatives to these chemicals, and we should support farmers who have developed and modeled these innovative alternatives. Banning toxic chemicals will create the necessary incentive for the entire agricultural industry to transition to healthier, more sustainable methods.
Q: Will food politics play a significant role in the 2016 election cycle?
A: Yes, food politics will play a significant role in the 2016 election cycle, particularly at the state and local level, at which some of the most ambitious food policy proposals are being developed. We’re going to hear a lot of candidates talking about local food purchasing, school lunch and school gardens, GMO labeling, minimum wage laws (which greatly impact the food system workforce and food access), commercial hemp – and of course, water policy.
Q: How can land-grant universities – including UC – be more helpful and relevant to farmers?
A: I think the guiding principle for land-grant universities should be science and extension in the public interest, with a recognition that the institution serves the entire public – food citizens, you might say – and not just those directly involved in agricultural production. I see the role of the land-grant as supporting the public interest in agriculture: supporting everyone in the food system – from producers to consumers – in creating a system that promotes public health, environmental sustainability, and robust local economies. Long-term, participatory, interdisciplinary research, integrating on-farm studies with work at research facilities, strikes me as a good means of addressing some of our most pressing questions: how to farm with less water, how to better utilize cover crops and rotations, how to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Q: You’re traveling around the country on a book tour. You’re speaking to a lot of student groups. What are students telling you about the food system? What are their concerns? What are their aspirations? What is needed to equip them to effect change in the food system? And how can we support their work and their success?
A: Across the country, students are flocking to degree programs focused on sustainable agriculture and food systems. Many of my colleagues are scrambling to hire enough instructors to keep up with their growing enrollment! What I hear from students is that they are deeply concerned about climate change, amazed by the complex ecological relationships among plants, animals, and people, horrified by the persistence of food insecurity and uneven access in a world with sufficient resources to meet everyone’s basic needs, and hungry for meaningful work that feels honest and builds community. They want to grow food, they want to experiment with low-carbon technologies, they want to develop cooperative businesses and residential communities, and they want to collaborate with farmers and food citizens around the world. We can support them by giving them space to farm and garden, and integrating the learning opportunities they’re looking for into the work of our universities.
Q: Your book is out, and has received critical acclaim. It’s taken on a life outside of the book’s pages: the work is serving as a coalescing point for those interested in sustainability, a certain scale of production, innovation, and yes, lentils. Can you talk a little about this? Has any of what’s happened since the book’s publication been surprising to you?
A: As a researcher and storyteller, it’s my privilege to work with the vibrant movement of diversified organic farmers in Montana and across the country. I think the publisher may have been a bit surprised by how passionate and well organized these folks are, but I’m not surprised a bit. Nor am I surprised by the large numbers of people hungry to learn what these farmers have to teach us, hungry to learn more about where their food comes from and how they can have an impact as food citizens. My partner’s life work has been to build and facilitate physical spaces – gardens and farms –in which people can come together to practice forms of relating with one another and the natural world that are more just and sustainable. In writing this book and convening a series of related events, along with the main character, I hope to provide a narrative space that has those same qualities.
Q: I was struck with how the Timeless Seeds model used Farm Improvement Clubs as a means to educate, share, organize, and innovate. Why do you think this model was so effective? What are the key takeaways about the success of Timeless Seeds that might encourage other innovators?
A: The Farm Improvement Club (FIC) model is genius. It has been widely imitated, has many cousins in farmer-to-farmer and citizen science initiatives worldwide, and is ripe for further replication. For a very modest investment, the FIC program that operated on the northern Great Plains throughout the 1990s mobilized thousands of acres and hundreds of citizen scientists in a collaborative research and development effort to promote sustainable agriculture across the region. This was the gist of it: the nonprofit Alternative Energy Resources Organization gave small grants – we’re talking a couple hundred dollars – to groups of farmers that proposed a project to investigate a common interest or problem related to sustainable agriculture. Legume variety trials, for instance, or biological weed management. The farmers had to recruit a technical advisor, from the university, NRCS, BLM, or the Department of Agriculture. The stated purpose of the technical advisor was to provide support and guidance – help farmers set up split block comparisons, test their soil, that kind of thing. But what it also did was dramatically improve communication between the farm community and the research community, to their mutual benefit.
We remain hamstrung by an old model of research and extension, which imagines these two undertakings as geographically and temporally separate – first the researcher does the research, then he or she extends it to the farmer, who applies it to his or her farming. This is a frustrating fiction for everyone involved. Researchers complain that farmers won’t adopt their research and remain stuck in their ways. Farmers complain that researchers aren’t focusing on questions that matter to them and that results obtained under controlled conditions at faraway research stations aren’t applicable to their farms. The solution, as the FIC program saw it, was to integrate research and extension, such that farmers and their farms were engaged throughout the entire process, from framing research questions to developing new management practices. What the founders and participants of the FIC program discovered is that sustainable agricultural transition is as much about building relationships as about building practices, and that both of these processes must be integrated with the participatory development of knowledge rather than simply informed by already completed research.
Q: What currently keeps you up at night?
A: Honestly, nothing. My days are pretty full right now, so I sleep very soundly!
Q: What is inspiring you?
A: One of the truly enjoyable elements of the book tour is hearing about the research that students are doing. I met a student at North Carolina State University who is working with a pilot farm-to-institution project for low-income childcare facilities. One of his colleagues, a postdoc in animal science, is researching herbal alternatives to antibiotics for treating livestock diseases. And another member of their graduate student sustainable agriculture organization works with small farmers in El Salvador to better understand soil fertility management. Here at Berkeley, I know students conducting research on global seed systems, pollinator conservation, school garden programs … it’s terrific!
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Teaching! It’s such a privilege to work with students, and they keep me focused on what matters.
Q: I’m giving you a super power. You can change one thing about the food system with that super power. What change would you make?
A: I would legislate the teaching of every major religion: that no one should go hungry.
Q: I found your book to be both prophetic and particular. My final question is about the beginning of your book, which references a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh.* That has really stuck with me. What do you think might be the “next Buddha” in the food movement?
A: Thank you. I think the “next Buddha” in the food movement is already here and blossoming. It is the realization that, in order to have a more sustainable, resilient, and successful food system, what we most need to cultivate is democracy. This is not a new insight – embedded as he was in a racially unjust society, even Thomas Jefferson understood this, and of course Frances Moore Lappe has been writing about it for decades. But sometimes we need to be reminded.
*“It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living.” —Thich Nhat Hahn