COLTON, Wash. — Allen Druffel wants to spread the good news about pulse crops. The Colton, Wash., farmer grows peas and chickpeas in rotation with wheat.
Pulses are good for the soil and weed control, he says, and they diversify his income.
This year, Druffel’s pulse crops came through the hot, dry summer well. The peas are below average but chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, are about average.
“The beans, this year in this hot spell, have handled it better than anything else,” he said. “They’re kind of a bright spot in an otherwise kind of poor spring cropping cycle we’re having.”
But pulses have a problem, Druffel says: A lot of consumers are yet to embrace them for their nutritional benefits, mainly because they just don’t know how to cook them.
“I’ve seen this with my in-laws from the East Coast — they don’t understand how to cook with pulses,” he said. “There’s not a lot of good recipes out there, and it’s not shown on any of the popular TV shows. There is a general understanding of how nutritious they are, but they’re an intimidating little thing to cook if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Benefits of pulses
There’s a lot to like about pulse crops.
Dry peas, lentils and chickpeas are “nutrition powerhouses,” according to the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council in Moscow, Idaho. They’re high in vegetable protein, iron, potassium, magnesium and dietary fiber, council CEO Tim McGreevy said.
Farmers who raise them cite their ability to break up disease pressure in crop rotations for wheat production and put much-needed nitrogen back into the soil.
Pulse roots attract microbes in the soil that pull nitrogen out of the air and put it into the ground to feed themselves, which also feeds the plant, said Todd Scholz, vice president of research and member services for the council.
“The end result is, there’s more nitrogen put in the ground than the plant utilizes, so the next crop benefits,” Scholz said.
Winter wheat crops are improved when they follow a pulse crop, said Kevin Meyer, a Moscow, Idaho, farmer and first co-chair of the Western Pea and Lentil Growers Association.
“It gives us the ability to raise a crop every year, where in the old days they would summer fallow and then go to winter wheat,” he said. “It helps us being able to have a crop on the ground all the time.”
According to the council, U.S. lentil acreage increased this year by 45 percent, from roughly 266,000 in 2014 to 385,000 acres. Most of the added acres — 75 percent — were in North Dakota. Montana’s acreage was up 38 percent and Washington state’s was up 7.8 percent.
Dry pea acres in the United States were up 13 percent over 2014, from roughly 888,000 acres to 1,005,000 acres in 2015. The biggest increases in acreage were in Montana and North Dakota.
U.S. chickpea acres fell 2.5 percent, from roughly 202,000 acres in 2014 to 196,900 acres this year. At 70,000 acres, Washington state has the most chickpea acreage in the United States, according to the council.
McGreevy attributes the overall growth in acreage to increased demand and relatively low stocks.
Pulse prices have been strong compared to grain prices, he said. According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, chickpeas bring $30 per 100 pounds on the Washington and Idaho market; lentils bring $28 to $30 per 100 pounds; and peas bring $14 to $15 per 100 pounds.
According to the council, the average yield in 2014 was 1,324 pounds per acre for chickpeas, 1,300 pounds per acre for lentils and 1,907 pounds per acre for peas.
That pencils out to about $397 income per acre for chickpeas, $551 per acre for lentils and $286 per acre for peas.
The council estimates the total production cost in Washington and Idaho in 2014 was $355.28 per acre for chickpeas, $308.36 per acre for lentils and $316.47 per acre for peas.
Scholz said pea yields are much higher — 2,500 to 3,000 pounds per acre — in the Northern Plains, making the crop more attractive there.
Farmers raise pulses for reasons beyond the economic return, Scholz said, pointing to the benefits to the soil and as a rotation crop.
Peas aren’t dug very deep, so they basically require moisture from the top foot and a half of soil, Scholz said. Lentils require the least moisture. Chickpeas go a little deeper and are on the ground longer. In a dry year, the crop following chickpeas would show signs of moisture stress, but in a normal year, the moisture profile is recharged. Some growers choose peas over chickpeas, especially in drier regions, Scholz said.
“The value of having it in your rotation outweighs that concern,” he said.
Most farmers in the Palouse area already raise pulses, said Genesee, Idaho, farmer Jay Anderson. He initially hesitates to recommend pulses to other farmers, but finally gives a convincing reason.
“Lentils are a fairly low-use water crop,” he said. “If they’re having water problems, yeah, maybe they should put some pulses into their rotation.”
Besides kick-starting demand, the pulse industry’s biggest needs in the coming five years are related to transportation, McGreevy said.
The loss of container carriers at the Port of Portland was “a real blow,” he said. Last winter, the two biggest container carriers stopped calling at Portland.
“We have terrible congestion problems at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle,” he said.
Railroad service has been a problem, too.
“We’ve had over the past five years just really challenging rail problems — trying to get rail cars, trying to get them on time,” he said.
McGreevy has called for more investments in roads and bridges. Most of the 55,000 metric tons of pulses formerly shipped in containers by barge down the Columbia River to Portland have been switched to trucks that take them to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
Roughly half of the chickpea production, 65 percent of peas and 75 percent of lentils are exported.
“When you’re exporting that kind of volume, you have to have a very efficient transportation system so your customers will keep coming back,” McGreevy said.
Farmers would like to see more research and development on pulses.
Druffel wants varieties he could plant in the fall. Planting in early spring can harm the soil, he said. There are not many winter pulses, but winter pea and lentil varieties are in development, Druffel said.
Meyer said he’d like to see new chemicals to combat weeds, disease and insect problems.
“We’re pretty limited right now,” he said.
Anderson agreed. He would like more chemical options for pulses. Chickpeas don’t have many choices once they emerge, he said.
“If it doesn’t get rain, it doesn’t activate the chemical and we end up with some weedy crops out there,” he said.
Pulses aren’t considered a major crop, which makes finding funding for research difficult, Meyer said. The council is backing further research into the nutritional value of pulses.
“We know they’re very healthy foods to eat, but we don’t have a lot of the research there to back that up,” he said.
Meyer doesn’t hesitate when asked if he will continue raising pulses.
“Oh, yes of course,” he said. “I believe in them, believe in the health aspects and all of that. They’ll be part of my rotation as long as I’m farming.”
Druffel is optimistic about the future.
“I think when the First World discovers pulse crops, there’s going to be an increased demand,” he said.
“We honestly believe that part of the solution to reducing and ending hunger in our lifetime is to increase the consumption and production of pulse crops worldwide,” McGreevy said.
He expects more to turn to pulses as the world’s population increases.
“We’re facing water shortages,” McGreevy said. “These are low water-use crops. They build the soil profile, they put nitrogen back in the soil. They’re just a really important crop as we move forward.”