Pulse crops showing promise as markets expand

posted April 11, 2016 10:06 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Heidi Clausen, Regional Editor | clausen@amerytel.net

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Grown primarily in Saskatchewan and the Pacific Northwest, pulse crops also show some potential as part of crop rotations in other parts of the U.S., including the Upper Midwest, according to presenters in an April 6 webinar hosted by the American Society of Agronomy.

“There’s tremendous potential in our crop production systems in the future for incorporating peas, lentils and chickpeas throughout the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere,” said Stephen Guy, Extension agronomist at Washington State University.

Pulses — defined as the dry edible seeds of plants in the legume family, such as dry beans, chickpeas, lentils and faba beans — are “taking off” across the northern Great Plains, in areas such as northeast Montana and North Dakota, said Perry Miller, professor at Montana State University.

Over the past couple of decades, Montana has gone from hardly any pulses to an anticipated more than 1 million acres this year, Miller said. About 6 million acres are grown in Saskatchewan.

After six years, researchers have developed a handful of winter-hardy faba germplasm lines and are working to get growers and companies interested in their work.

Jinguo Hu of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service said he has begun working with some on the West Coast, and experimental seed samples have been sent to requesters from several states, including Wisconsin, for grow-out observation trials.

“The faba bean definitely has a place in the national market,” he said.

In 2015, there were 485,000 acres of lentils, 1 million acres of peas and 196,000 acres of chickpeas planted in the U.S., according to Guy. The market for these crops is expanding, especially as the UN this year promotes their production and consumption worldwide during the International Year of Pulses.

Domestic demand also is growing as they’re incorporated into more food products, such as hummus. Pulses are a good source of protein, vitamins, dietary fiber and phytochemicals, he said, recommending that people include them in their diets at least once a week.

Miller said the growth in pulses can be attributed to a “perfect storm” including the advent of no-till systems in semi-arid areas, calling for more crop diversity; investments in pulse research and processing, especially in Canada; and a major farm policy shift in 2003 that removed some of the risk of growing pulses.

Semi-arid regions have a natural competitive advantage, he said, because there’s less chance of disease along with fewer competing crops. Major markets for pulses include the Middle East, Europe and India.

“What’s holding back acreage now is not having food-quality varieties that can go into larger markets. The cover crop market is fairly limited,” Guy said.

Noting that there often aren’t many good local delivery options, “the key issue is getting them to markets,” Miller said. “There’s a demand out there. The prices are ranging pretty good right now.”

Autumn-sown peas promoted

Because they don’t require as many inputs as some cereal crops, pulses are environmentally friendly, Guy said. They form a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia bacteria to fix atmospheric nitrogen, helping reduce N fertilizer application and contributing residual N to the soil. Pulses also stimulate soil microbiology and make efficient use of water.

Pulses work great as a cover crop, substitute well into livestock rations and fit easily into crop rotations, he said. They introduce crop diversity to break pest cycles and offer “measurable benefits” to wheat production in rotation, boosting yields by as much as 20 percent and raising wheat protein by up to 18 percent.

“Dry peas are great. We need to grow more,” he said.

One way to do that, along with spring plantings, is to raise autumn-sown peas, according to Guy. This can provide an alternative rotational crop, especially in areas with low rainfall, and shifts fieldwork from spring to fall, when field conditions often are better.

Yields often are higher in autumn-sown vs. spring plantings, and, in Washington studies, potential exists for better economic return, comparable to winter wheat, he said.

U.S. marketing regulations for autumn-sown peas have changed in recent years, allowing them to be sold not only for feed but as a food-grade product, he said. This could make autumn-sown peas more widespread.

“It could be a viable alternative to winter wheat in dry areas,” Guy said.

Issues with pulses may include finding the optimal planting time and methods, effective and efficient weed control, marketplace acceptance, resistance to biotic stresses and adequate cold tolerance.

“These evolved in semi-arid regions of the world,” Miller said. “They didn’t evolve to tolerate a lot of pathogens.”

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. For more information, visit http://​iyp2016.org or http://www.crops.org/​iyp.

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