Jim Barngrover has over four decades of experience in organic gardening, regenerative farming and marketing local and fairtrade products. In 1987, he co-founded Timeless Natural Foods, a company dedicated to alternative agriculture through annual legumes like peas and lentils. What began as a venture between four friends has put Montana on the map as America’s largest producer of lentils—and to this day Timeless is the only producer of heirloom organic lentils and specialty grains in the country.
As a part time lobbyist for AERO, Alternative Energy Resources Organization, Jim was instrumental in the passage of the Montana Organic Definition Act in 1991, and was awarded AERO’s 40th Anniversary Leadership in Sustainability Award in 2014. Now as a founding board member of Helena Community Gardens, Jim focuses on the organization’s mission of developing gardens within walking distance of every neighborhood in Helena MT.
In this conversation, Jim walks us through his journey from farmer’s son to ROTC student, activist, gardener, prison horticulture director, and back to farmer. In his young adult life, he moved from Wyoming to Montana in search of a more progressive existence and serendipitously stumbled into the Feathered Pipe Ranch after meeting India Supera in Missoula. Here, he felt more connected to the Earth and the land than he ever had before, and it sparked the inspiration for a life of service both for human health and environmental health.
Jim speaks to the chemically-dependent industrial farming complex in America, the reasons why he farms with organic and regenerative practices and encourages others to do the same, the lessons that he’s learned from working in harmony with the land, and how lentils work to reduce erosion, build organic matter, and provide natural nitrogen fertilizer for other crops. He’s hopeful about how many young farmers are making the shift to more sustainable practices and emphasizes how much power consumers have in the fight to change our food systems.
Help us spread the word and leave a review here!
This program is brought you by the Feathered Pipe Foundation and its kind supporting community, who has been inspiring positive change in the world since its inception in 1975. Please consider joining us with your kind donation.
Andy Vantrease (00:17):
Welcome to the Dandelion Effect podcast, a space for organic conversation about the magic of living a connected life. Just like the natural world around us, we are all linked through an intricate web, a never ending ripple that spans across the globe. Here we explore the ideas that our guests carry through the world, remember who and what inspired them along the way, and uncover the seeds that help them blossom into their unique version of this human experience. This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, whose mission is to help people find their direction through access to programs and experiences that support healing, education, community, and empowerment.
Hi friends. Welcome back to another episode of the Dandelion Effect podcast. I’m your host, Andy Vantrease, and today I have the pleasure of speaking with Jim Barngrover. Jim has over four decades of experience in organic gardening, farming and marketing, local and fair trade products. In 1987, he co-founded Timeless Natural Foods, a company dedicated to alternative ag through annual legumes like peas and lentils. What began as a venture between four friends has put Montana on the map as America’s largest producer of lentils. And to this day, Timeless is the only producer of heirloom organic lentils and specialty greens in the country. As a part-time lobbyist for Arrow Alternative Energy Resources Organization, Jim was instrumental in the passage of the Montana Organic Definition Act in 1991, and in 2014, he was awarded Arrow’s 40th Anniversary Leadership and Sustainability Award. Now, as a founding board member of Helena Community Gardens, Jim focuses on the organization’s mission of developing gardens within walking distance of every neighborhood in Helena, Montana.
In this conversation, Jim walks us through his journey from farmer’s son to ROTC, student activist gardener, prison horticulture director, and back to farmer. He moved from Wyoming to Montana in search of a more progressive existence in his young life, and serendipitously stumbled into the Feathered Pipe Ranch just weeks after meeting founder India Supera in Missoula. Here, he felt more connected to the earth in the land than he ever had before, and it sparked the inspiration for a life of service, both for human health and environmental health. Jim speaks to the chemically dependent industrial farming complex in America, the reasons why he farms with organic and regenerative practices and encourages others to do the same. The lessons that he’s learned from working in harmony with the land and discusses how lentils work to reduce erosion, build organic matter, safe soil moisture, and provide natural nitrogen fertilizer for other crops. He’s hopeful about how many young farmers are making the shift to more sustainable practices and really emphasizes how much power we have as consumers in the fight to change our food systems for good. Please enjoy this conversation and help me welcome my new friend Jim Barngrover.
I have interviewed people from the Feathered Pipe over the last few years, and your name always comes up when we’re talking about the food culture that they were trying to create there in the early days. And I heard your name and Timeless Seeds came up again when I was interviewing a local chef here in Bozeman, and he was talking all about how he really sees Montana more for the legumes and the greens than really any meat or beef or game. And he said, and I have Timeless Seeds to thank for that. So with that said, and we will of course dive into your work later, but I always begin these interviews by asking what your origin story is, and I’m gonna ask you to answer that from as personal a perspective as you can have, because I think some people tend to answer that question as the origin story of my work mm-hmm. <affirmative> and what I do now. But I’m really curious, like what’s Jim Barngrover’s origin story, you as a person.
Jim Barngrover (04:30):
All right. Well, I was born into a farm family in the mid 20th century in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming. We raised sugar beets and alfalfa, malt barley, silage corn, and sometimes navy beans. We had a milk cow chickens, and we’ve had about a thousand head of lambs in the winter. So, um, it was, you know, fairly diversified, pretty small farm, about 160 acres, which at that time was still a little on the small side. Now it’s, it’s really small for farm of its nature. I think I had a fairly typical farm upbringing, but when I was six years old, uh, my father was exposed to Parathion, which was being used as a pesticide on sugar beets. It’s also nerve toxin. And almost immediately after that exposure, he started to come down with symptoms of early onset Parkinson’s disease. For me, this became a life altering event for our family, and certainly a life shaping event for me. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, within six years, we had to sell the farm, and we moved to nearby war, and my mom became the principal, uh, breadwinner of our family. And for the next 40 years, my father slowly succumbed to Parkinson’s and eventually dementia before his passing.
Andy Vantrease (06:03):
And he was so young when he developed that, right?
Jim Barngrover (06:06):
Yeah. I think it was 29 when he was exposed.
Andy Vantrease (06:09):
Did he make that connection right away?
Jim Barngrover (06:12):
Yeah, it was something my mother especially picked up on, and she really started studying up on Parkinson’s Disease and triggers for it, and became very familiar with what treatments were available at that time, which were very limited. She really, really tried to do everything she could during his life to, um, help him out, whether it was surgery, which he had, um, one of the earlier surgeries in New York City for freezing specific locations in the brain to, um, I guess disable some of the triggering mechanisms of Parkinson’s, which may have helped a little bit, but it wasn’t significant and early drug treatment and so forth. But that was a long, hard slog
Andy Vantrease (06:59):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so what did that mean for you as a young boy in your family?
Jim Barngrover (07:07):
I continued to, uh, be involved as a worker in agriculture, uh, hoeing sugar beets, uh, stacking hay irrigating crops, um, and doing other things that helped, um, a little bit earn income for the family. Eventually, um, graduating high school, I went off to college at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, and that was during the tumultuous, most tumultuous years of the Vietnam War. So that became another seminal event in my life, and especially in that I joined Army ROTC and became a member of the Ranger Group. I was off on a whole different tangent, at least for a while, and one of the events that occurred to me that I know changed my life was between, um, my junior and senior year in college. I was at ROTC summer camp in Fort Riley, Kansas, and headed to Airborne School in Fort Benning, Georgia. When the car I was in with two other cadets from the University of Wyoming was involved in a head on collision. I was a passenger. I was knocked unconscious and suffered fractures in my jaw and cheek and concussion, and ended up in a hospital for a week or 10 days and never did get to Airborne school.
But that, that knock on the head really changed my outlook on life. And, um, that, uh, was also the year of Kent State, the, um, national guards killing students at Kent State, and Alan Ginsburg came to campus at the University of Wyoming. I really started questioning what I was doing, and eventually, as a midterm senior, went in to talk to the Commandant of Bird colonel and told him that I was gonna drop outta school because I could no longer focus on what I was doing. I had a girlfriend that wanted to get married, I didn’t, and, um, I couldn’t support the US foreign policy in Southeast Asia. And I emphasized that. Fortunately for me, I think he too saw the folly of it, and he issued me an honorable discharge, which was pretty rare thing.
Andy Vantrease (09:27):
So you get in this accident and then everything is happening with Vietnam, and you mentioned Allen Ginsburg. He’s just such a figure of that time and kind of counterculture figure. What were the ways that you recognized your mind changing? I mean, what were some of those ideologies that you were questioning and, and the new ones that you were developing at the time?
Jim Barngrover (09:52):
I really wanted to do something positive and that, you know, being involved in the Army, especially at that time, and if I were to have gone to Vietnam, I could not see how personally I was going to play a positive role, and it would be potentially very detrimental. And I wasn’t in really into wanting to kill anyone or take advantage of anyone. I, I enjoyed the activity that the Rangers had presented in terms of, you know, we did all kinds of drills and repelled outta helicopters and did activities, got up early in the morning, ran around campus and, and it was very physical and I really liked that. So I, I wanted to change, uh, what I was doing to something positive for humanity and the environment. And I did leave Laramie and worked in boom town, Rock Springs, Wyoming for some months and decided to come back and finish up my last semester of my senior year in college.
And while there, I met several people that had a big influence on me, one being Vince Arbor, who had the whole Earth Grainery Truck store, which was the first natural food store in Wyoming. And the other being Bart Kohler, who I ended up living with, working with, traveling with Bart, just finished up his master’s degree in outdoor recreation and began working for the Wilderness Society and then became director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. And, and we worked together to try to protect the natural splendor of Wyoming from all kinds of development pressures from especially oil, coal, and uranium. And at that time, politically, it was a losing battle. Montana was just a much greener pasture in which to lay a foundation for doing something more positive.
Andy Vantrease (11:47):
Really. Okay. So Montana was more progressive than Wyoming at the time?
Jim Barngrover (11:54):
Much more so. In fact, in 1972, there was a constitutional Congress in Montana that, um, was very significant. Uh, it was kind of a renaissance time, amazingly enough. Um, and, um, the, uh, preamble of the state constitution basically, uh, stipulates the right of every citizen of Montana to a clean and healthful environment, and that was very attractive to me. So in 1975, I packed up my backpack and hitchhike from Laramie to Missoula, Montana, which was quite the happening place in 1975.
Andy Vantrease (12:37):
I’ve heard that Missoula was like kind of hippy meets industrial, but very progressive little nugget <laugh> in Montana. I lived there for a couple months, um, oh, last year or 2019 to 2020. And I just love it as a community, but I, in talking with some people who, you know, are decades older than I am, they said, oh, you should have seen it in the seventies, in the eighties,
Jim Barngrover (13:07):
<laugh> <laugh>, I would say 75 was probably the, the real peak of the Renaissance with all kinds of music and places to go dancing The Black Foot Boogie, which was up the Black Foot, all kinds of bands, some of ’em that were nationally recognized, mission Mountain Wood Band, there were several thousand people, maybe half of ’em had clothes on <laugh> <laugh>, you know, it was, it was quite the scene. <laugh>, it opened my eyes. <laugh>,
Andy Vantrease (13:42):
Yeah. Small town boy from backwater Wyoming was, yes. Is that where you started to get back into farming? Because I know there’s such a rich farming and agriculture scene there. It’s like, you know, part of that banana belt that they say in Montana.
Jim Barngrover (14:01):
I didn’t in Missoula, but when I was there, I had met India through a mutual friend when she came to Missoula, and she invited me to come over to the Feathered Pipe Ranch, which I did several weeks later. I, again, hitch typed over, and, um, uh, when I came over McDonald Pass on the Continental Divide coming down towards Helena, I looked southeast and I saw these beautiful mounted hills with mountains in the background, and it just beckoned to me, calling me, this is a special place mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And, um, I came up the Gulch and spent a couple of days and then then returned to Missoula. This was in the summertime, and I stayed in Missoula until early November. And the weather changed so much, it got gloomy. And at that time in Missoula there was all kinds of wood industry products, manufacturers, and it was pretty miserable as far as the air quality and the smell and the air.
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So I again, came back over to the Feathered Pipe Ranch in early November. I had a skill that was in demand that I knew how to use a chainsaw <laugh> along with an ax for splitting wood. And aside from Tom Ryan and possibly Vijay, India’s sister, who may have run a chainsaw, I’m not certain <laugh>. Anyway, I could see that I was one of the principal sawyers on upper Colorado Gulch. Um, and that winter it came in really handy because even though we had a propane furnace in the lodge, there was not enough money to fill up the propane tank. So I ended up basically that first winter sleeping in the main lodge on the floor near the large wood burning stove. And I would get up and the fire at night to keep the chill off and things from freezing up. And one of the things that I really remember fondly was that I had a companion there that would join me most nights, and that was Tuffy Ananda, who was India’s favorite cat, and Tuffy liked to spread out across my upper chest or neck while we slept. That was, the first winter was really interesting. And in many ways, heartwarming time, finding a positive place that people really had values that I was attracted to.
Andy Vantrease (16:41):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what were some of those values that you were looking for in, in other people and also in an organization that lined up for you?
Jim Barngrover (16:51):
First of all, I would say that the Feathered Pipe was an exploration in human dimensions and looking at what the potential is for humans in many different ways. Basically, we were just getting going with programs, but there was a lot of talk in how we were gonna do it, and there were interesting people coming by. I ended up inheriting some bedding plants, uh, vegetable bedding plants from another person who was briefly there at the ranch that started them. I decided, well, I would love to do a garden at the ranch. And we decided that the best place to do it would be near the caretaker’s cabin down on the lower part of the ranch. And then I’d also just read a gardening book called How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons, and it’s about the double digging method of making garden beds. And I ended up double digging 4,000 square feet of raised beds for the garden that spring. I would say by necessity, I’ve evolved less backbreaking methods of growing garden since then.
Andy Vantrease (18:04):
Yeah. What’s the double digging about?
Jim Barngrover (18:06):
Well, you basically dig one level and you, you move it forward, um, and then you go down and dig another level, so you’re going down maybe 18, 20 inches. That really was a productive garden right off by doing that. Um, I do wanna share one memory from that. That of course was especially, uh, important to me, and it was in late May. It was a warm night and there was a full moon, and I was out digging in the garden after dark, and the frogs were singing in the nearby creek, and crickets were chirping, and I had to shovel. And then I just felt this is absolutely the most connected I’ve ever felt to the earth and to living organisms. That was an epiphany, and it was my reintroduction or being reconnected to the soil and to all creation.
Andy Vantrease (19:07):
Hmm. What a beautiful image.
Jim Barngrover (19:09):
I carried that with me and since then have started numerous gardens in my adult life and still avidly doing gardening. Uh, but it, I think it laid a foundation in terms of knowing that I was connected to the soil, but that was the real base essence of who I was, that all life, at least land, life springs from the soil without soil, we would not be here. So it was pretty profound.
Andy Vantrease (19:44):
What can you share about the ways that you all were carrying that out at the ranch? Because there’s such a rich conversation to be had around understanding that not only are we in service to the earth when we’re gardening and farming and, and working with our hands and working with plants, but it’s that realization that we are the earth. And I’m just curious of how that played into what the Ranch’s mission was at the time, or what you remember from what you all were trying to create and to accomplish.
Jim Barngrover (20:21):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I do remember there were numerous workshops with people that were just amazing to me, uh, that I hadn’t experienced before. Some of them came down to the garden and spent some time in the garden. Some of the guests came down and actually helped out in the garden. A lot of the food that was served at the ranch, it certainly supplemented and it provided a lot of food for, for those of us who were on the staff at that time. And, and, uh, had mentioned India and Tom Ryan and VJ, India’s sister, Heidi Goldman, I think a year later, Chris Cappy, all of us were residents and, um, laughing water had two pet goats, and they were called Marsha Lou and Mary Beth, which I believe may have been India and VJs, birth names <laugh>. Right?
Andy Vantrease (21:19):
They definite they are, yeah.
Jim Barngrover (21:21):
<laugh> and, uh, say they became too much to handle as pets, at least for laughing water. And I looked at them as resources for producing goat milk and possibly cheese. So within a year, I, and at that time along with Gail were milking goats and making yogurt. We eventually expanded the goat herd to five milking dough does some other things that were occurring that I was passionate about while I was a resident there. That being the Forest Service had a proposal to build a recreational trail that would come through the roadless area on the backside of the ranch. Basically, when you read the entire proposal, which was, uh, maybe a hundred or more pages, I don’t recall, that trail would eventually become a logging road <laugh>. So that, that created a, a little bit of a concern, not only at the ranch, but in the Gulch and in the surrounding greater Helena area.
And I got involved in organizing to, um, come out against that plan, worked with other people that lived in the area, and we eventually created a situation where the Forest Service was much more comfortable in backing off of that. And that was in 1976 or seven. There’s still are, uh, on the books, similar plans, especially in light of the pine bark beetle, which has devastated a lot of the older trees and some of the younger trees. And, uh, certainly has impacted the ranch, especially the, um, lodge pole pine and to some degree Ponderosa and other pine trees. But the other things that I got involved with there politically, uh, in 1976, there was, um, a proposal that was initiated by a friend of mine, Ed Dobson with Friends of the Earth to, um, ban nuclear generating facilities in Montana. We were just a few of us.
Uh, we raised virtually no money, but we got about 40% of the vote. So in 1978, I was involved with some others as organizers of another citizen’s initiative that would, instead of banning a nuclear facility being built in Montana, would make it conditional upon approval of the voting populace. And we were much better organized. We were outspent by hundreds of thousands of dollars. We might have raised 40 or $50,000, but we got 66% of the vote. Wow. Which was pretty amazing that had been on the books until this last month when the legislature decided that they could override that initiative by legislative eat it. It’s apparently no longer in effect. So there may be some new efforts in that respect.
Andy Vantrease (24:29):
Were these things that came from people that you knew at the ranch, or how did you get involved?
Jim Barngrover (24:36):
I guess the nuclear issues concerning radioactive waste and no legitimate long-term storage and nuclear proliferation as weapons of war were very concerning to me. And this was prior to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima. So that was a passion that I had in addition to, um, working the soil and growing food, and also my passion for saving natural resources and wildlands. So that all kind of gelled there at the ranch in 1978, sometime during the summer, uh, it was a tough choice. Am I gonna stay at the ranch, continue to live there with Gail, or am I going to, um, pursue this nuclear initiative, which was very invested in, I was traveling around the state talking to voters, gathering signatures, appearing on media and so forth. I made a tough choice that I really was invested in this initiative. So, uh, I chose to leave the ranch and work on it full-time through the fall when the election occurred.
That’s when, you know, I started a new chapter in my life. But soon thereafter, I got involved in teaching gardening through, uh, alternative energy resources organization based in Helena and working with local energy organizers in seven locations throughout the state. And then in 1980 I moved to the Bitterroot and, um, became involved in Lifeline Produce, which was a fledgling group of idealists, some dropout burn, Vietnam vets and hippies and biodynamic agricultural devotes. In 1980, we were growing about three acres of organic produce, and within four years, the six or seven of us that were the core nucleus of Lifeline were growing 80 acres of produce and had started an organic dairy herd. So I had really honed my production skills.
Andy Vantrease (26:50):
Yeah, that’s quite the upgrade
Jim Barngrover (26:52):
<laugh>. Yeah. And became a principal tractor operator and participated pretty much in all the aspects of producing abundant high quality food for people. So that was, that was a real passion. I found it right there as things happened, we had a drought year in 1985, and we were short of water, which limited the production that we were expecting. We also had a very severe early frost, which took out a lot of the potato crop, which was about half the acreage. So there was a lot of reduction of income. And, uh, I had a young family at that time. I decided that I needed to move on and, uh, that’s when I had an offer to be the garden supervisor and horticultural instructor at Montana State Prison. There we grew about 20 acres of produce for the prison and other state institutions. My core crew members a convicted murder mm-hmm. <affirmative>, former Green Beret from Vietnam, a pedophile and a rapist. Yeah. It was an interesting experience.
Andy Vantrease (28:02):
Was that common for prisons to even have a, a gardening program like that to supply inmates and staff with fresh food?
Jim Barngrover (28:12):
Well, at that time, it wasn’t all that unusual. There was a large dairy operation at the prison, and that still exists, but the gardening operation no longer exists. Furniture, manufacturing and other, uh, like beef processing or, uh, meat cutting, uh, and processing facilities that supplied for state institutions. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yeah.
Andy Vantrease (28:37):
Yeah. I’m just curious. That must have been before the days of like, Cisco’s of the world and those larger organizations that supply both prisons and schools with their food these days.
Jim Barngrover (28:50):
<laugh>. Yes. And part of it has to do with, we were seen as unfair competition to these major corporations. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, because the labor that was paid to prisoners was pennies on the dollar. And that’s still true, but, um, yeah, that’s unfortunate because as I saw it, it was rehabilitation. It was mm-hmm. <affirmative> gain, learning a skill, something that a person could go and have a more stable life and a job that was maybe meaningful instead of, um, you know, carrying around, um, the rap of being a con and being discriminated against because of something that a person had done in the past.
Andy Vantrease (29:35):
Well, and just like you said, the epiphany that you had when you were gardening, that you are innately and inherently connected to your environment and all that is, from my perspective, one of the hard things about prison and is the lack of connection and is the isolation. You wanna know what that does to somebody’s mental health. You just look at anybody after the last year <laugh> of isolation, and it’s like, wow, this is, it’s really brutal. So I’m, I was just, I’m so interested to hear about that being part of your path and that there were actually programs like that.
Jim Barngrover (30:19):
I know there’s advocates and occasionally see articles about that kind of work with prisoners and giving them opportunities and responsibilities, and that makes a lot more sense to me than being, uh, strictly punishment in long term incarceration. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I was at the prison for about 10 or 11 months, and I had an invitation by a ranch manager in Central Montana to come and be the organic crop line manager at a historic ranch in Central Montana. And that is the Inbar Land and Cattle Company, and it’s one of the larger ranches in Montana, and it’s become, maybe I should say, um, kind of notorious in, in some respects, but at that time it was owned by the Elliot family, and Tom Elliot is the person who asked me to come be the crop land manager for organic crops, which I did. I grew about 200 acres of dry land organic crops, as well as planted a five acre vegetable truck garden.
That’s where I started working with legume crops with the purpose of fixing nitrogen and enriching the soil. And I experimented with, uh, several, one of them being lentils, another bean peas on a larger scale, also buck wheat, millet, flax, and some other crops. I really enjoyed my time there, but there were issues that also I had to deal with and, and I was there for two years and, um, decided that I wanted just start my own business. So the origins of Timeless Seeds took root David Oien, Bud Barta, Tom Hastings, and I formed a loose-knit enterprise to grow legum crops for soil enrichment. We were anticipating a wave of transitioning organic conversion of hundreds, maybe thousands of farmers, uh, that would want to divorce themselves from the dominant, chemically oriented agriculture that prevailed at the time. We saw, uh, lium crops as way to go go and, uh, we started out calling ourselves Four Guys Enterprise <laugh>, which within a year became Timeless Seeds.
Andy Vantrease (32:48):
You just mentioned that you had this idea that there were going to be farmers that wanted to move towards a more organic and sustainable way of farming outside of the conventional chemically dependent system.
Jim Barngrover (33:03):
Well, we’ve seen a really big shift, however, the dominant paradigm is still chemical farming. In fact, you know, I think organic food products make up about five or 6% of the market approximately the same in terms of percentage of organic farms. And that’s true with pulse growers on the northern plains, especially in Montana, which has now become the number one lentil producing state and the number two chickpea producing state. The fast majority of farmers are still using chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers are dependent upon that for productivity. What we’ve seen the big shift in is in the educational system, at the university level, at Montana State University, for instance, a land grant college. We now have many associated professors and researchers that very much support what we are doing. When we started this in, in 87, there was one professor, Jim Sims, that was supportive of what we were doing. Uh, so that’s the big shift and a lot more students that are involved in educational courses that work with regenerative agricultural concepts. And we’re seeing more adaptation of some steps towards a more sustainable agricultural system, but still very dependent upon the chemicals in agriculture.
Andy Vantrease (34:39):
And why are they dependent? What is the, what is this vicious cycle? If you can summarize it?
Jim Barngrover (34:47):
The name of the game for most farmers is production, which they need a lot of inputs. They, they’re using huge equipment tractors of four or five, 600 horsepower combines that cost up to a half million dollars. They’re farming more and more acreage, so they need large scale industrial framework in which to get the profitability. You know, the average farm in Montana now, I think dry land farm is probably five or 6,000 acres in summer, two or three times that big. So there’s very little boots on the ground. They’ve really lost touch for the most part with what the life in the soil means, and they’re just applying chemical resource just to compensate for life forces that regenerate soils and produce healthy crops.
Andy Vantrease (35:45):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Okay. What is the regenerative way of farming and the organic way of farming that you are dedicated to? Why, why would anybody switch?
Jim Barngrover (36:00):
Uh, on a personal level, I would encourage people to switch for their own personal and family’s health. That’s the number one thing that we are consuming in our food supply. All kinds of chemicals that are not helpful to our wellbeing and they’re not helpful to the soil. Certainly they’re not helpful when they run off in the water systems and, uh, they’re not helpful to wildlife and so forth. So what are we doing to the resources that we depend upon for our very existence? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, glyphosate, or commonly known as Roundup, affects our gut biota and what that means to, um, our digestive system. When glyphosate was introduced, uh, and widely adapted, especially with the coincidence of genetically engineered corn and soybeans and other crops in the us, there became so many more degenerative diseases showing up, autism, gluten intolerance, and all kinds of other digestive issues. Cancers,
Andy Vantrease (37:10):
Jim Barngrover (37:12):
Autoimmune. Yeah. You know, 95% of the pulses growing in Montana are done conventionally or with chemicals. And one of the chemicals they depend upon is a desiccant. In other words, they basically, before harvest, spray a desiccate on the field to kill everything in the field. And what is most commonly used now, previously they had used quite a bit of glyphosate or Roundup, but now it’s Paraquat. Paraquat is a nerve toxin. It kills plants, it kills insects, it kills virtually anything that’s in the field. It turns it a peculiar color of reddish brown. After maybe week or 10 days, they can go in and harvest it directly with a combine that is, um, very different than the organic pulse crop growers I work with. Most of ’em rely upon swathing to dry down the crop and then come with a combine. And, um, you are going to lose some of the crop in each operation that you performed. So they won’t have as much productivity perhaps as the conventional farmers, but at least it’s a much cleaner product.
Andy Vantrease (38:28):
I was watching that documentary Kiss The Ground again, and there are quite a few, few people in there saying that once they got the operation up and running, working within the natural cycles, working with animals to rotate and graze, and once they got a hold of doing cover crops and rotating those as well, it actually can produce just as much, if not more than conventional method. What are your thoughts there?
Jim Barngrover (39:00):
Yes, and I have seen that with some of our growers, that if you know what you wanna accomplish and are willing to try and experiment with and have a diversity of crops and you have a little bit of luck with rain, you can really see remarkable results on organic farming principles or with them on particularly adverse droughts, stressed years. Organic farmers often exceed the yield of those neighbors that are chemically farming. Several of the people that I work with that are doing remarkable job of managing their land and making it more productive, drawing cover crops, integrating livestock, having a sophisticated rotation and producing food for people that care about where their food comes from and can identify where it comes from as opposed to producing a commodity that’s loaded into rail cars loaded into ships and transported overseas. And as one person that I recently encountered says, I’m proud that I’m a farmer because I feed the world. Well, do you have any idea where your crop ends up? He didn’t.
Andy Vantrease (40:20):
<laugh>. Oh, wow. Yeah. When I was interviewing that chef here in Bozeman, you know, we were talking a lot about local produce and he said, the lentils that I have had from the growers around here, he was talking about somebody from Fort Benton. He just said it, there’s nothing like it. I mean, it doesn’t matter how, um, clean and organic you can get from store ball or like bulk lentils that who knows where they come from. There’s no competition at all when it comes to taste and quality. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, if you’re mm-hmm. If you’re getting it locally,
Jim Barngrover (41:00):
He very well may have been speaking of Casey Bailey, who is really one of the farmers that I was referring to as being as astute and progressive as any farmer I’ve ever worked with in the region that he’s dealing with, with low rainfall, but incredible producer that just has really figured out systems.
Andy Vantrease (41:25):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So tell me about what your goal has been with Timeless Seeds and really what you have been able to achieve that beginning mission of what the four of you were trying to create and what that journey has been like.
Jim Barngrover (41:45):
Oh my, well, <laugh>, I would say that we really played an integral part, even though most of it was adapted to chemical agriculture, we were one of the earliest to grow lentils in Montana and made them popular. We are seeing legumes being grown, which will fix nitrogen from the atmosphere so that there’s less need for supplementation and for most growers that still rely upon some chemical or petroleum fueled derivative of fertilizer. You know, I’d mentioned how the attitude of the educational systems has changed. We’ve seen a lot more people care about their food in a large increase in the volume of organic foods being consumed and produced. But I think really the next step is, uh, working with growers like Casey Bailey, like Bob Quinn, like Jodi Manuel and many others, to really do regenerative agriculture principles that will sequester carbon in the soil that will increase organic matter that integrates livestock in their operations.
And I have long been a purveyor of organic fair trade coffee on the side because Timeless Seeds was not going to provide a complete, uh, livable wage for myself. And, um, the coffee that I’m referring to comes from Chiapas, Mexico, and I very much am in, into the principles of fair trade for indigenous people too long take advantage of farmers, not only here in the US but especially minority farmers and third world farms. Food has been exceedingly cheap and we’ve subsidized it with our taxpayer dollars and mostly those large food producers, corporate farms, corporate processors of food products have really benefited both ends by our domestic food policy and tax structure, uh, and subsidies that are being, uh, given to so many in the food industry that are the big processors. So I believe that we really gotta work on economic fairness and stability for farmers and ranchers and workers all across the food producing spectrum. Doing that to a larger extent, that’s where we need to be putting more effort, at least from my perspective in, uh, the transition as I hopefully retire in the not too distant future.
Andy Vantrease (44:35):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you’ve spoken about these plants being, and these crops being something that actually pull nitrogen into the soil and pull carbon into the soil. And so I’m curious to hear more about this very intentional choice of doing lentils and chickpeas when you started Timeless Seeds,
Jim Barngrover (45:00):
Lentils in general are just a super food. They’re packed with nutrition, not only the protein, but they’re one of the best ways to get fiber in our diet. They’re loaded with folates, uh, which are essentially a B vitamin. They have a good amount of potassium and iron and mayonnaises and, and other things. And, and then, so they just are very well rounded, adaptable food that cooks quickly, pretty inexpensive, that are eaten widely in many areas of the, the world. In fact, our basic staple and the way that we really got going in this is that we took French green lentils, which we also were growing. That may have been the first one that we grew commercially. We took it to Expo West in Anaheim, California, and a buyer from Trader Joe’s came by and saw those French green lentils and said, I really like those. Can you get me? And I can’t remember the figure, but I think it was several hundred thousand pounds of those. Can you bag those up in one pound packages, uh, for Trader Joe’s? And we said, sure. <laugh>.
Andy Vantrease (46:13):
Oh my gosh, say yes and then figure out how later.
Jim Barngrover (46:18):
Yes, yes. That was the real start of a commercial enterprise.
Andy Vantrease (46:24):
Okay. So you’re still doing lentils, you’re doing some what? Heirloom grains and chickpeas?
Jim Barngrover (46:33):
Yes. We’re doing several varieties of chickpeas. Uh, the large Kabuli type. We also have introduced to the market a black chickpea that originated, um, according to the person who we traced it back to Afghanistan, and he was collecting that seed in a field in either 79 or 80, and it was outside of Kabul Afghanistan, and the field had landmines in it, which the Russians had placed there when they were occupying Afghanistan at that time. It very well adapted to Montana. It’s very resilient. It has, um, agronomic advantages over the large Kabuli type, which is prone to disease factors and takes a lot more tending, but it’s one that we hope will really take off in the marketplace. And we’re experimenting with a couple of others. One which is, um, probably originally from Morocco and another one that’s a green chickpea. All three of those colored ones are smaller than the large Kabuli types. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> we’re also growing or having our growers, uh, produce Emmer is an ancient grain. This ancient grain is typically de hauled and then lightly scarified, and it cooks in about 25 minutes and is an excellent substitute for rice that we can grow in abundance on the northern plains of Montana. It’s, um, higher nutritional quality than rice and a very tasty, we market it as far, and you may have seen that in the marketplace.
Andy Vantrease (48:09):
Jim Barngrover (48:11):
The other ancient grain we’re growing is Purple Prairie Barley, which also has an interesting ancient history. Apparently originally came from the Nile River Valley with the migration of people in foods. It was then grown and is still growing in the high plateaus of Tibet, Nepal. Somehow we got it over here and have been growing that for a number of years. So those are the ancient grains we work with.
Andy Vantrease (48:40):
Wow. Does Timeless Seeds kind of work as like a co-op or a collective of farmers? Like how are you all set up and how many farmers are you working with?
Jim Barngrover (48:52):
It depends on the year. We’ve worked with dozens of farmers, perhaps close to a hundred farmers over the course of the last 20, 25 years. We have a core group of farmers that have become valued partners, but we are a, a for, for-profit business. Timeless Seeds is, and, uh, last year, <laugh>, we actually achieved it for the first time. <laugh>. We have shareholders, 25 shareholders roughly, and, uh, we actually declared a dividend for the first time. We’ve come to very much appreciate the growers that have been steady with us. I’m the grower liaison in charge of procurement, and we have a, a relatively new agronomist, Joseph Kibiwott, he’s from Kenya, recently obtained his Master’s degree at, uh, Montana State University. And we get out and visit farms two or three, sometimes up to a half dozen times a year and travel, especially in what is known as the golden triangle of Montana, north, central and Northeastern, sometimes all the way to the North Dakota border in the Judith Basin area, and, and down near Terry, Montana, near Glendive, got growers and all of those areas. Occasionally we work with growers in Canada or adjoining states as well.
Andy Vantrease (50:18):
What is the biggest life lesson that you’ve learned from farming?
Jim Barngrover (50:22):
Wow. There’s a lot of them. I guess the biggest lesson would be treat the soil well. It will treat you well. It will sustain life forms that enrich all. And there’s so many young aspiring people coming into farming. The average age of the people we work with or have worked with this last couple of years is probably in the early forties, as opposed to the average age of the US farmer is in the upper fifties. There’s so many bright young people that are coming back or starting a new, but it’s not an easy thing to do with the capital outlays and such. But there is a bright future in working with the land, the soil, and food for people. So many emerging markets and businesses that are looking for individual sourced products. If you’re aspiring to do food production, look to local organizations that are involved in it.
Uh, look at your land grant university. Some of ’em are excellent. Many other colleges, including the University of Montana, have great programs in nutrition and soils and others, other things related to organic agriculture. So I think the market is going to drive that. The more we find out about our food, where it comes from and what the benefits are of food that’s produced regeneratively organically, the more demand there’s going to be and the less demand for inferior quality food that’s highly processed, that is grown with chemical inputs exploiting people, and the the resources. There’s probably never been a better time. There’s so many programs that have come about now that, that, uh, you can plug into. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Bottom line is that if people buy good food instead of inferior food, that will change so many things in terms of policies, healthcare, quality of life, quality of resources, contamination pollution, carbon footprint, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, cleaning up waterways, cleaning up oceans, being conscious of what you put in your body. Those are all related, and that’s what I’m hopeful and believe the public is really awakening to how we need to fundamentally change the way that we’re consuming resources, the way that we’re investing in food production and supporting each other.
Andy Vantrease (53:26):
Jim Barngrover, what a wonderful walk through his life path, a journey that led him down many different routes, and ultimately back to himself and to the soil. It’s so cool to me to know that he was on the forefront of organic farming in Montana, and now I see Timeless Seeds, lentils in stores, and on restaurant menus here in Bozeman all the time. In fact, I just bought my first bag of green lentils from a grocery store here, and I can’t wait to sauté them up with a little butter and not only taste the freshness of getting a crop from a local farm, but also trusting that all farms associated with Timeless are working within the highest standards of organic ag. The kitchen at the Feathered Pipe Ranch also uses all Timeless chickpeas, lentils, and purple barley. So if you’re a fan of Mediterranean Night and the Falafel, now you know why it’s so delicious.
Jim’s passion for education within this sector is inspiring and hearing him talk about the epiphany he had at the ranch, the realization that not only do we have a responsibility to protect the soil, but the understanding that we are the soil. There are many scientists, farmers, and doctors out there now speaking about how intricately linked our microbiomes are with the microbiomes of our soils. And it’s because of people like Jim that these ideas are now peppering the covers of health magazines and making their way into the mainstream. If you’d like to learn more about Jim and Timeless Natural Foods, visit timelessfood.com.
A special thank you to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move through the world.
This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to healing, education, community and empowerment. If you’d like to help support this project, please visit FeatheredPipe.com/gratitude or leave a review on Apple podcasts and share with your friends. Be sure to tune in to our next episode in two weeks. We cannot wait to share another amazing conversation with you. Until then, have a beautiful day.