One day I won’t be months behind. Today is not that day, but I am catching up on some things — like posting this article I wrote for Montana Magazine about lentils.
We plucked a lentil from our field yesterday to gauge its progress, which reminded me that I had forgotten to post the article here. (The lentils are flowering, by the way, so I had to hurry to post the article before we are harvesting again.)
THE MIGHT OF THE LITTLE LENTIL
As wheat prices remain at dismaying lows, a different crop is carrying a growing number of Montana farms through the lean times.
Although lentils have been grown in Montana for more than two decades, the estimated acreage of lentils planted more than doubled from 221,000 acres in 2015 to roughly 500,000 acres in 2016, making Montana the No. 1 U.S. producer.
“That’s a landmark change, that’s a big, big change. A lot of that change is in the Triangle Area,” said Tim McGreevy, CEO of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council and the American Pulse Association.
Last year marked the United Nations’ International Year of Pulses, which meant a broad-reaching, aggressive marketing campaign about the crops’ nutritional and agronomical benefits.
“It’s not like these are a new crop, but we have reinvigorated the category,” McGreevy said.
In 2015, producers in the state planted an estimated 773,500 acres of pulse crops –lentils, chickpeas, beans and dry peas. In 2016 that number jumped to nearly 1.1 million, he said.
The campaign has sparked interest among consumers and producers alike.
“And frankly, it’s about time because they’re such a great rotation crop,” McGreevy said.
By adding pulses into a crop rotation, farmers change the traditional every-other-year model in dry-land areas that can’t support crops each year.
Now, farmers are able to produce crops on a field two of every three years – or better.
In Kim Murray’s case, he now produces a crop every year and has for six or so years.
Until Murray introduced chickpeas to his Flat Center Farms in Froid, the farm followed the traditional half-acres-in-production, half-acres-fallow model.
“I really view the fallow acres as a waste, and the way land prices cost anymore, I don’t see how you can let land lay fallow,” he said.
This year, in addition to other pulses, about a third of his acres were planted in lentils.
“It’s by far better than anything else I’m raising,” he said about the prices.
By increasing his farm’s profit, he was able to financially support his son Blake returning home to farm.
“Of course we wanted him to pursue his own dreams, but in the end his dream was to come back to the farm and fortunately it worked out,” Murray said.
The crop has brought other changes, including investment in equipment and bins that are easier from which to load and unload the lentils and other pulses.
Murray said he has seen benefits beside the financial boon that make the investments worthwhile. The soil has captured nitrogen the crops produce and the use of different chemical sprays to knock down weeds has helped reduce weed resistance.
However, the appearance of some root disease and mold has caused Murray to back off the aggressive crop rotation. By adding another crop to his rotation, he will still keep 100 percent of his land in annual production and put at least a year between pulse crops.
At Fairchild Farms north of Gildford, pulse crops have been grown since 1989. This year, owner Mark Aageson decided to grow 100 acres of lentils for the first time to add an additional pulse crop to his rotation and hedge against disease taking hold in his chickpeas.
A new variety of red lentils that is less likely to shell out in inclement weather and withstand spray while in crop, along with high prices, convinced Aageson to turn his interest into action.
The move paid off.
“I’m going to increase my acres four-fold (in 2017), again because of revenue,” he said.
Even if wheat prices go up and lentil prices go down, Aageson said, he plans to continue planting lentils because of their benefits to the soil and his rotation.
Pulses benefit consumers as well.
As people are more conscious about from where their food comes and its impact on the environment, pulses are booming.
“The times are changing and we happen to be in a time frame now that the food trends are starting to shift more towards plant-based foods and plant-based proteins,” McGreevy said.
Pulses are easy to store and high in protein, iron and fiber.
They also are a sustainable source of protein, which require little water and little-to-no fertilizer to produce. Pulses add nitrogen and different bacteria than wheat to the soil, which can help mitigate disease pressure.
Lentils aren’t a perfect crop, though.
Besides being more susceptible to disease than other crops, seed costs more than winter wheat seed and pulses are generally more fragile than wheat in adverse weather.
“Is it a little higher risk? Yes, it is. I’m not going to candy coat it,” McGreevy said. “But the trends are in our favor,” he said, adding that world demand and prices are strong.
In addition to the bulk market, there’s a growing market for finished food products, such as lentil chips and gluten-free chickpea pasta
“Especially in Montana now, there’s getting to be more and more first purchasers,” McGreevy said.
Jill and Tyler Streit plan to capitalize on the state’s increased pulse production.
They realized that area producers were reluctant to begin growing pulses because, unlike wheat, farmers can’t truck the crops to town and sell them whenever they want and usually must work with out-of-town buyers.
When they began growing pulses, including lentils, on their own farm they experienced frustration dealing with people from out of town to whom they sold their crop.
So they began purchasing pulses at the elevator they co-own in Chester, Stricks Ag.
“If you can grow it, we’ll find a way to market,” Tyler said.
The contracts are still mainly out of state and even out of country, but working with a local face increased producer confidence.
This fall the Streits planned to increase the role they play in pulse marketing by opening a processing facility that will allow them to clean, tote, bag and size lentils onsite. The facility will add to the local economy and put more money in producers’ pockets, Tyler said.
From a grower’s standpoint, they won’t see as much dockage for different sizes or breakage in the same truck load because Stricks will be able to sort and accordingly market each variation. It will be vertically integrated from the point of production to the point of consumption, Jill said.
Building the new processing facility is financially intimidating. “But we know it’s the right way to go,” Jill said, adding they don’t see the market diminishing anytime soon.
The allure of profit, combined with a strong market and new crop insurance options, is convincing producers to say yes when it comes to trying pulses or increasing their existing acreage.
If a farmer’s winter wheat makes an average yield of 40 bushels an acre, he’ll pull in about $200 an acre. An average yield of lentils is bringing in $450 an acre, McGreevy said.
For Jon Stoner, his lentil crop was the sole reason one of his Stoner and Sons operations near Havre made a profit this year. About one third of his acreage was lentils, Stoner said, but they accounted for 100 percent of his profit.
Despite the burst of popularity and projected strong demand, lentils and other pulses aren’t expected to replace wheat as king in Montana anytime soon, if ever.
“Oh, no, no. I think wheat will be king for a long time. I can’t see our farm going away from wheat and durum for a long time,” Stoner said.
“I raise as much wheat as I ever did,” Murray said.
Wheat, along with pulses, can be grown successfully around the globe and both are important to food security in the face of population growth, McGreevy said.
“It happens to be that right now, pulses have strong demand and pricing and returns to growers,” he said.
Don’t count out wheat in the long-term, though. Pulses need cereal grains in crop rotations to hedge against disease.
“We’re not holding a funeral mass for wheat. It will rise again,” McGreevy said.
If anything, more land will be planted with pulses instead of laying fallow.
“I’m sure my grandkids will be raising pulse crops on this farm one day,” Murray said, adding that’s something that lentils might make financially feasible.
“We all want to pass down our legacy.”