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.”
At first, San Francisco Dr. Daphne Miller got funny looks when she told colleagues she was pursuing continuing education on sustainable farms. “The moment I began working as a family physician, it became clear to me that much of the chronic disease I was treating in my office was directly traced to our system of agriculture,” Miller explains. The ecologically managed farms Miller visited gave her hope for a better way — and inspired her to get involved in how we grow our food. For Miller and an increasing share of the medical community, the imperative to change the food system is a matter of health care economics.
When the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s federal health insurance subsidies in June, the 6.4 million Americans who rely on these subsidies breathed a sigh of relief. Joining them were emergency room nurses, social service providers and everyone else with a front-row seat on the inhumanity and short-sightedness of denying low-income Americans access to routine health care. Since the 2010 passage of Obamacare, more than 17 million uninsured people have enrolled in a plan.
But Obamacare also offers another opportunity. The law requires private hospitals to spend 3 percent of profits on community chronic disease prevention programs and, as Miller explains, “That’s a lot of dollars that could potentially go to supporting a healthier agricultural system. We just need to connect the dots and start seeing the way we grow our food as a public health concern.”
We can begin with the American diet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and it’s costing us $147 billion a year. First lady Michelle Obama has responded by trying to increase children’s physical activity, improve school lunch and get kids in the garden — all important and laudable goals. Cities such as New York and San Francisco have attempted to introduce taxes on sugary beverages to discourage consumption; Berkeley’s soda tax passed last year and will provide an interesting test case for this policy approach.
But our unhealthy national diet is just a symptom. It’s our food system that is the disease. Agricultural policy — mostly within the federal Farm Bill — continues to prop up a food sector structured to produce the very fare associated with our most common causes of death and ill health. Because we effectively subsidize unhealthy foods, they are artificially cheap; hence, the health burden of their consumption falls disproportionately on low-income communities. As Miller says, “Primary prevention is offering everyone a healthful, affordable selection of foods; whereas secondary prevention is screening for diabetes and heart disease.”
In other words, if we really want to improve American health, we need to change the structure of this food system, from the ground up. We need to rebuild infrastructure to support diverse rotation crops, distribution of local produce, and farm-to-institution partnerships for schools, hospitals and child care facilities. We need to support our public agricultural research and agricultural extension system and direct its activities toward biologically diversified farming systems and agriculture in the public interest. Absent such changes, attempts to curb diet-related ill health merely will treat symptoms, not the disease.
Liz Carlisle is a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at UC Berkeley and the author of “Lentil Underground,” (Gotham/Penguin Random House, 2015).
Coming this fall: Lentil Underground is being recorded for the Montana Talking Book Library, which serves readers unable to use standard print materials due to visual, physical and/or reading disabilities. The audio version will be available nationwide through the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
How to really nurture America’s young farmers
Los Angeles Times
By Liz Carlisle
A bill recently introduced in Congress, the Young Farmer Success Act, would make farmers eligible for federally subsidized student loan forgiveness — just as teachers and nurses are now — on the grounds that agriculture is a public service. But is it?
Certainly the history of U.S. farm policy would suggest that lawmakers have long seen agriculture as a public good. Why else would they pass a farm bill that, in its most recent iteration, commits $134 billion to farm subsidies, commodity programs and insurance? Why would California so assiduously defend agricultural water rights in the midst of a severe drought?
Arguably agriculture is more than a good; it’s a necessity, because everyone eats. But given that most U.S. crops will become fuel, animal feed, processed food components, export commodities or waste, the reality is a bit more complicated.
The truth is that agriculture is a hybrid public-private activity, and when it comes to evaluating the costs and benefits of its public fraction, not all farming is created equal.
The dominant approach to farming in the U.S. — the one encouraged by the last 150 years of agricultural policy — focuses on maximizing the immediate private benefit to the farmer, measured in yield of cash crops. Public benefits of commodity farming, its supporters argue, include open space, the preservation of rural life and the American agrarian tradition, and — the boon most touted by the architects of 20th century farm policy — an advantage in the balance of foreign trade.
However, some of these benefits have proved hollow. Commodity farming has led to larger and larger farms, which have meant smaller and smaller rural communities, and the flood of grain has continually driven down prices.
Is farming a public service? Well, it depends, and not on the age of the farmer. –
Simultaneously, commodity farming has led to a number of public “bads,” from dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico (caused by nitrogen fertilizer runoff) to toxic manure lagoons and poor air quality (due to confinement animal feeding operations). Plus, if you follow these commodity crops all the way to their eventual consumption by the public, an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. When you consider all its externalized costs, cheap food is not so cheap.
In response to widespread concern about these negative effects, the Reagan-era Department of Agriculture developed a parallel but less influential policy approach to farming, one that aims to maximize not private gain but environmental good such as wildlife habitat and watershed protection. This alternative strategy encourages nonproduction, as epitomized by the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave land fallow.
What has only recently come to the attention of policymakers, however, is that the soundest long-term approach to farming and conservation comes from understanding them not as opposing objectives but as two goals grounded in the same foundation.
Farmers, in other words, don’t have to stop planting crops to help the environment. Farms are sutured into living ecosystems, and their production is reliant on the health of those ecosystems. It is entirely possible for farmers to raise nutritious food and also protect water quality, invest in soil fertility and actively promote a diverse community of pollinators, beneficial insects and plant species.
So back to the question: Is farming a public service? Well, it depends, and not on the age of the farmer. Although there’s a feel-good quality to supporting young farmers — and young farmers are proportionally more likely to manage their lands organically — age does not map neatly onto farming practices. More fundamentally, paying young farmers’ college loans does nothing to change the incentive structure of U.S. agriculture to truly support them in farming for the long-term common good.
Instead of loan forgiveness, why not subsidize land access for farmers who commit to water conservation practices, cover cropping, crop rotation and avoidance of toxic chemicals? Why not expand the program that directly funds young people to participate in public service — AmeriCorps — including the portion that focuses on the food system, FoodCorps?
It’s a missed opportunity to encourage young people to work on a farm, any farm, as if they were all equally beneficial to the American public. It makes far more sense to incentivize specific practices.
Liz Carlisle is a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at UC Berkeley and the author of “Lentil Underground.”
Lentil Underground was just 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.”
The Lentil Underground tour kicks off summer with a June 4 stop in Red Lodge, Montana, and we’ll be in Lewistown, Billings, Livingston, and Missoula in mid-July. Watch the events page for details!
Organic Matters, Spring 2015
They’re not the charismatic megafauna of the supermarket. But while we’ve been focused on kale, chia seeds, coconut water, and the dazzling array of organic produce that’s recently entered common parlance, they’ve been waiting for us over in the bulk section. Organic lentils.
I know what you’re thinking. Lentils are so old school!
Well, you’re right about that. Lentils have been rotated with grains for 10,000 years, and their cultivation dates back to the dawn of agriculture.
And yes, some early vegetarian cookbooks wore us out on uninspiring versions of lentil soup. But there’s so much more to lentils than soup, and there are good reasons these little legumes have stood the test of time. Here are five of them:
LENTILS MAKE FERTILIZER.
As legumes (members of the pea family), lentils have a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria, allowing them to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Therefore lentils require no nitrogen fertilizer, and even contribute some nitrogen to subsequent crops. Why does this matter? Because synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is one of the biggest environmental problems with our food system. When chemical fertilizer runs off into the watershed, it pollutes the drinking water supply in rural communities and causes marine dead zones downstream. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer also has a hefty greenhouse gas footprint, mostly associated with the energy required to manufacture it. On a life cycle basis, legume crops and legume-based pastures use 35 to 60 percent less fossil energy than chemically-fertilized grains – and the fossil field savings is even higher for organic lentils.
LENTILS ARE DROUGHT TOLERANT.
Lentils can be grown without irrigation, and they are tolerant of both low and volatile moisture. They pause their growth cycle during dry times, staging their development to fit within the constants of their water resource. When I was researching my book Lentil Underground, which tells the story behind Timeless Natural Food, the 2012 drought hit the grain belt, devastating many farmers’ crops. But even though Timeless growers only got 40% of their typical precipitation, they still realized 80% of normal yields.
LENTILS ARE GOOD FOR YOU.
You probably know that lentils are a great source of protein. But did you know that:
- Lentils offer more than one third of the recommended intake of fiber in one ½ cup portion.
- A half cup serving of lentils provides 45% of recommended daily folate, which is necessary for the production of red blood cells and protein metabolism, and is particularly important for women of childbearing age due to its role in the developing embryo.
- One cup of lentils has potassium comparable to one banana. Potassium is imperative for electrolyte and fluid balance, as well as muscle and cardiac function
- Blueberries have become popular providers of antioxidant properties, but lentils contain 56% more antioxidant capacity than blueberries.
LENTILS ARE GOOD FOR FARMERS.
When they are used in a crop rotation, organic lentils can improve soil fertility and provide more stable income for producers who might otherwise be reliant on commodity grains. Diversifying crops, markets and risks decreases a producer’s vulnerability, and boosts rural economies.
LENTILS ARE DELICIOUS.
If soup is as far as you’ve ventured, it’s time to get more adventurous with your lentil cooking! Having been cultivated since the dawn of agriculture, all over the world, lentils feature prominently in a number of global cuisines, from Ethiopian messer wot to Indian dal to Lebanese mujadara. For more ideas, check out the teaser slide show for Bozeman Chef Claudia Galofre-Krevat’s forthcoming cookbook, Pulse of the Earth: Local Food Global Flavors.
Montana native Liz Carlisle is the author of Lentil Underground, which tells the story of a group of Montana organic farmers who made their farms more sustainable by sharing knowledge, resources, and inspiration. She holds a Ph.D. in Geography from UC Berkeley, where she is a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems.
When the Lentil Underground tour rolled into White River Junction, Vermont, the spread that greeted us was almost as amazing as the warm welcome:
Our friends from the Upper Valley Co-op in White River Junction have graciously shared their recipes, which cover the gamut from curried lentil cakes and mini dosas to lentil oatmeal cookies and apple lentil cupcakes.
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