Lessons Learned From The Lentil Underground

I spent this year’s holiday break doing something a bit unusual—reading a newly-published book about my dad’s life work. Lentil Underground tells the story of farmers in Montana who rejected the industrial, pesticide-heavy trends in agricultural and charted a new, sustainable, organic course (before organic was even a word Montana recognized). My father plays a lead role in this story as a lead recruiter of others to the cause and as CEO of Timeless Seeds, the business enterprise that the movement grew into.

Reading someone else’s chronicle of your dad could be an unusual experience at times: apparently he has the carefree-but-earnest jocularity of a fifties sitcom?!? But it did get me thinking: how much of my life can I see in my dad’s experiences? Does the Minnesota nonprofit world have much in common with some organic farmers in Montana? After a little reflection, I think it does! 

Here are a few lessons from the farmstead that I hope can offer you some insights into both the organic food business and the world of nonprofits:

Work within your environment, not against it

One of my dad’s biggest early breakthroughs was finding that a plant commonly considered a weed could instead be a great source of natural fertilizer if rotated properly in fields. Instead of artificial means that strip nutrients out of the soil every year, farmers could use what was already growing around them to restore their land—and save on fertilizer costs to boot.

This struck me as an almost uncanny analogy for nonprofit work. In so many communities nonprofits serve, the issues we seek to address are caused by outsiders coming in and upending those communities for their own needs, with little thought to the damage that could follow. If we want to lift up those communities, we have to turn to the resources within them, and stop reading from the rulebook that caused the damage to begin with.

Your allies are those who share your goal

Which isn’t necessarily the same as those who share your politics or your personal background. In some ways my dad fits the profile of someone you’d find in Berkeley, not rural Montana: he studied philosophy and religion in college, and he includes a peace symbol alongside his signature. But to spread the organic movement in Montana, he needed the help of gun-toting libertarians and those who chose to tend the family farm over going to college at all. That meant speaking their language—the right to keep pesticides off their property—nstead of his own.

Failing to put ourselves in the shoes of others is one of the most common pitfalls nonprofits face. We need to ask each other how we can work together instead of telling others how to work with us.

Sustainability is about more than soil

Timeless Seeds’ first big break came when they got a large order from a big national grocer. They built new facilities and ramped up production only to be left holding the bag when the grocery chain abruptly pulled the line without warning. It took some scrambling to avoid going under, but Timeless rebuilt and took the lesson to heart. The next time a national grocer called, they again ramped up facilities and production to meet demand, but this time put a strategy in place to make that growth count. Through better branding and outreach to smaller grocery stores and co-ops, they were ready to keep their momentum strong even when this second grocery chain also suddenly discontinued their product line.

The first part of this story probably sounds all too familiar to any nonprofit that suddenly faces a shift in priorities from a funder. The shift to building brand awareness and grassroots support can be the best answer for nonprofits and organic food peddlers alike.

In conclusion

So maybe the rural organic grain business and the urban nonprofit community do have a few things in common. I’d say what it most comes down to is a question of values. If you set out to truly do good in this world (and to do so with a good dose of humility and appreciation for the environment in which you work) there are some (ahem) timeless truths that you can take with you anywhere you go.

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