Pulses hit their stride

Farmers are gearing up to satisfy increasing demand worldwide.

Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

farm tractor harvest

With their abundance of protein and other health benefits, it’s easy to see why lentils, chickpeas, dry beans and peas, have a place on foodservice menus. Recognizing the value, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses.

Pete Klaiber, vice president of marketing for the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, says pulses could benefit from this campaign the way quinoa once did.

“2013 was the ‘Year of Quinoa,’ and it helped that product get all kinds of attention,” Klaiber says. “Pulses have a message of nutrition and sustainability, and we think this [campaign] is going to help that message resonate globally, particularly in the U.S.”

Data from Chicago-based foodservice research firm Technomic suggests these ingredients are falling out of favor, but Klaiber disagrees. He says that since 2010, U.S.-produced pulses have increased their total exports by about 24 percent. The one exception has been chickpeas.

Thanks to the growing popularity of hummus in the U.S., chickpea production has grown, but exports have decreased because of increasing consumer demand. “Years ago, we used to export 90 percent of our chickpea crop, but with the popularity of hummus in the U.S., we are absorbing more of our own production,” Klaiber says.

In 2014, the U.S. accounted for 7.2 percent of total dry pea production and 3.8 percent of lentils worldwide. However, Klaiber says these numbers are misleading because the U.S. grows green and yellow peas for human consumption, while much of the world grows lower-quality yellow peas, which are used in animal feeds.  There’s another caveat: Most of the world grows red lentils, whereas the U.S. mostly grows green, making it an important supplier for that variety.

The most popular pulses are high-quality peas and lentils, Klaiber says.  Dismal growing conditions elsewhere, including a poor crop in Canada and bad weather conditions—a drier than normal planting season and rainier harvest season in India—could have a positive effect for U.S. growers in the coming year.

“People who wanted good quality lentils had to scramble to find them, so we’ve already shipped a lot of lentils,” Klaiber says. “This year, I’d say we’ve already exported about 65 percent of last year’s production.”

Double duty

About 50 miles south of the Canadian border, Flat Center Farms in Froid, Mont., used to seed only half of its 6,000 acres, says grower Kim Murray. Fifteen years ago, instead of leaving half of the land fallow, Murray started growing pulses.

“Leaving the ground fallow seemed pointless,” Murray says. “Now we seed every acre. We rotate seeding yellow and green peas and lentils. This year we’re seeding green peas and Richlea green lentils, which are my best seller.”

Worth the effort

At 1,500-acre Diamonds Farms in Colton, Wash., President and Owner Art Schultheis originally grew peas, but has since moved toward growing more garbanzo beans and brown lentils because the timing of the harvest worked better with his wheat harvest.

“The past four years garbanzo beans have been a very good seller,” Schultheis says. “This year, garbanzo bean prices dropped off a bit. I think the prices have been affected by the strong dollar. Foreign buyers are struggling to pay the higher prices, and since most of my crop goes abroad, that affects everything.”

Another outside factor affecting Schultheis and other growers is a longshoreman work stoppage, which backed up six months of exports out of the West Coast. Klaiber says the strike has since been settled, but the industry is still reeling, since its largest markets are on the Pacific Rim, particularly in India and China.

Despite the challenges, growers agree pulses are often worth the work. Dick Mickelson, partner at Drift Prairie Farm in Rolla, N.D., has grown pulses for more than 15 years because he says they are an excellent rotation crop with his wheat. He grows yellow peas that he sells to be either split or ground   into flour.

“The market has been good for yellow peas, especially in comparison to the wheat market,” Mickelson says. “Things look promising for next year, too. We do grow some seed for sale to other growers, and those have been really strong this winter. Mainly because of the [price of wheat], people are looking to diversify.”

  • 78% of U.S. lentils were exported in 2014.
  • Approximately 76% of U.S. dry peas were exported in 2014.
  • 46% of U.S. chickpeas were exported in 2014.
  • Export has grown 24% in U.S.-produced pulses since 2010.
  • The U.S. contributed 7.2% to total worldwide dry-pea production in 2014.

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