Farming Down

By Liz Carlisle
Amy Kumler
Timeless Seeds and the promise of regenerative organic agriculture

When Dave Oien and three friends founded Timeless Seeds in central Montana back in 1987, they had an ambitious goal: to create farming systems that could be sustained without chemical fertilizers and herbicides. At the time, monocultures of wheat and barley were the typical commodity crops in their area. Instead, Timeless wanted to diversify crops, rotating them to add nutrients back to the soil, rather than pulling out nutrients as monocrops do. 

Looking around the world for inspiration, the Timeless founders observed that most traditional farming systems rotated grain crops with either livestock or legumes—plants in the bean and pea family that enrich the soil with natural nitrogen fertilizer. Recognizing the genius of a strategy much more in tune with nature, the Timeless farmers immediately started planting legumes as soil-building rotation crops.

But they also needed an income stream. So they found a harvestable bean adapted to arid, short-season farming: lentils. 

Over 30 years later, the farmer-founded company has matured into a soil-to-fork business, and is the primary lentil source for our Lentil Soup and Savory Seeds. Dave and his growing staff travel all over the state, helping other farmers learn how to grow organic lentils and rotate them with grains and cover crops to build their soil. At harvest time, Timeless purchases these lentils, cleans them to food grade and markets them to natural-food stores around the country.

Some growers initially sought out Timeless for economic reasons: It was hard to make enough money selling commodity grain to pay for the costly chemicals and equipment required to grow it. But many farmers were also concerned about cancer in their communities, and they worried about the impact of herbicides on their families’ health. 

Many farmers and ranchers are also beginning to learn that the carbon-rich organic matter they value for soil health has another kind of value, which may be a new agricultural income stream: carbon sequestration. Globally, soils store a lot of the carbon cycling in and around the earth—about three times more than the atmosphere. And it’s not all locked up deep underground: In fact, the vast majority of the organic carbon is in the top meter of soil and is directly impacted by management.

“At Timeless, we think in terms of the whole farm system,” Dave explains. “If our growers are using cover crops for fertility, that means they’re not using synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which is a significant piece of agriculture’s greenhouse gas footprint. So yes, they’re storing carbon, but they’re also keeping us from generating so much in the first place.” 

This is the true definition of regenerative agriculture. It’s not only about storing carbon or fixing what we’ve broken. It’s also about giving back to that which gives us life. In this respect, regenerative organic farming is, at its root, a passionate argument that we humans can do better. 

Adapted from Farming Down by Liz Carlisle, originally published on Patagonia's blog The Cleanest Line.