How pulse crops are saving Montana grain farmers
A quiet transformation is taking place in grain fields across Montana. In less than 20-years pulse crops — peas, beans and lentils — have grown from an obscure specialty crop with limited market outlets to become one of the state’s top agricultural exports.
According to Montana Department of Agriculture statistics, in 1998 fewer than 66,000 acres of Montana cropland were planted in pulse crops. That area has now expanded by more than 1,000 percent. In 2014 Montana producers planted more than 680,000 acres of field peas, lentils and garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas).
From near zero production in the 1980s, Montana now ranks as the nation’s No. 1 producer of field peas and lentils, and the third largest producer of garbanzo beans. The combined value of these crops in 2013 exceeded $140 million. Montana’s pulse harvest is now more valuable than its durum wheat production.
The forces driving this change are both global and regional, economic and environmental.
Many Montana grain growers have turned to growing pulses, not as an alternative to wheat and barley, but to improve the quality of these crops in the years ahead. Peas, beans and lentils aren’t replacing cereal grains in Montana, they’re making them better.
“Most grain producers who have gotten into the rotation of peas and lentils are finding that their wheat is better,” said Jeff VanPevenage, senior vice-president for Columbia Grain, one of the largest grain trading corporations in the Pacific Northwest. “Their weeds are more controllable, their diseases are more controllable and their overall soil environment is better.”
For years the traditional dryland farming practice for wheat and barley in Montana has been a two-field crop rotation. Half a producer’s land was planted into grain while the other half lay fallow, allowing half the soil to rest and improve its fertility.
The system worked well for decades — aided by liberal application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. However, beginning in the early 1990s, Montana grain producers began facing a troublesome menu of stubborn production challenges.
“They started to run into problems controlling all sets of different kinds of pests — weeds, insects and fungi,” explained Justin Flaten, co-owner of JM Grain, a leading brokerage house for the sale of pulse crops in Montana and North Dakota, “And the quality of the soil started to go down. So there was a big push to look for something that would work in a crop rotation.”
Legumes such as peas, beans and lentils have a natural ability to capture nitrogen from the air and return it to the soil. As a broad leaf plant they are also resistant to a majority of insect pests and diseases that attack grassy plants like wheat and barley.
“In Montana especially there’s been a lot of build-up of cheatgrass, goat grass and feral rye,” Flaten said. “All these grassy weeds that are really easy to kill in pulse crops with direct seeding. Both organic farmers and conventional farmers had a need for a rotation that would allow their farms to be more sustainable.”
The idea of rotating grains with pulse crops is one of the oldest concepts in agriculture. Middle Eastern farmers we’re alternately planting legumes and cereals as long as 6,000 years ago, and a three-field system of crop rotation became common practice in Europe beginning in the Middle Ages.
However, cereal/pulse rotation fell into disuse following the World War II, when chemical herbicides and fertilizers became commonly available.
Beginning in the 1970s, a small community of Montana farmers, encouraged by the organic food and “back-to-the-land” movements, began experimenting with pulse crop rotations.
“Lots of organic farmers started thinking about these crops just as green manure crops (crops which sole purpose is to enhance soil fertility),” said David Oien, “They were growing them, and then plowing them back into the ground and wouldn’t harvest the seed at all.”
Oien originally became involved with pulses as part of his pioneering effort to raise organic beef in the 1970s. Oien is now a co-owner of Timeless Seeds, Montana’s largest producer of organic lentils, chickpeas and barley.
“There really wasn’t much focus at the land grant universities or the county extension offices on organics or crop rotations or anything else,” Oien recalled. “What they were focused on was how many ounces of herbicide or insecticide you need to apply to get the greatest yield.”
There were a few exceptions to this pattern.
Since the 1940s grain growers in the Palouse, eastern Washington’s grain growing region, had continued rotating peas and lentils for a small export market. In the early 1980s, agronomists at Washington State University, South Dakota State University and the University of Saskatchewan began to take notice.
They found the advantages offered by pulse production were not limited to additional soil fertility and better weed control.
Peas, lentils and garbanzos are cool-weather plants that do well in semi-arid climates. They have a shallow root system that does not compete for the same subsoil moisture that wheat and barley does, and because they can be planted onto land that would otherwise be left fallow, garbanzos, lentils and field peas offer grain growers a second cash crop without the need for additional land.
“We’re not competing with other crops,” Flaten said. “We’re competing with fallow land, so we don’t have to push anybody else out.”
Columbia Grain began to get involved in the 1990s.
“In 1997 we took what we had learned on the Palouse and converted our grain elevator in Chinook, Montana to a pea and lentil processing facility,” recalled VanPevenage. “Production was relatively small, but it was the ‘grow it and they will come’ type of theory.”
North Dakota farmers were the next to embrace pulse crop rotation. Production spread into Montana’s northeast corner, prompting Columbia Grain to open a second processing facility in Plentywood.
“Farmers in that region were looking for somebody local to buy their crops,” VanPevenage said. “Those who were growing it were taking it to Canada, having to haul it a long ways away.”
The great turning point for pulse production in the United States came in 2002, when Congress included pulse crops in the farm bill.
“That’s when they really took off,” Flaten said. “Pulses became eligible for federal crop insurance. All of a sudden farmers were able to have a loan rate which set a floor price on pulses similar to your traditional wheat and barley.”
Pea, lentil and garbanzo production began to expand exponentially, spurred on in 2007 and 2008 by a sudden spike in the cost of synthetic fertilizers. Pulse production has also been able to take advantage of the growing popularity of vegetarianism, gluten-free foods and widespread concerns over genetically modified wheat and corn.
“Over the course of the last 10 years we’ve just been continuing to build this business,” VanPevenage said. “As time has passed we have invested a lot of capital into some very high quality processing facilities.”
Still, the largest markets for Montana pulses remains outside the United States. Roughly 70 percent of all the production is shipped overseas. India and China are the largest destinations.
“It’s part of their culture,” Oien said of Asian peoples’ enthusiasm for American grown peas and lentils.
He noted that the per capita consumption of lentils in India is more than 33 pounds a year. In the United States it’s less than 10 ounces.
Yet demand is growing. Nearly all of the U.S. supply of garbanzo beans is now being consumed domestically to feed American consumers’ new-found taste for hummus. The 2014 farm bill included provisions to promote the use of peas, lentils and beans in the school lunch program, while more and more high-end “white tablecloth” restaurants are seeking out top quality peas and lentils to serve to their customers.
The Montana Department of Agriculture predicts that more than 1.2 million acres of Montana cropland could be planted with pulses by 2025. But Oien cautions that an intensive production of peas, lentils and beans could create its own problems. Already, pulse farmers in North Dakota and Saskatchewan are experiencing increasing problems with fungi and stem rot.
“Pulse crops are not the silver bullet,” he warned. “They are just one piece in a very complex web of good agriculture.”