Environmentally-friendly crop good for the soil and bottom line
Kim Murray looked out on 3,000 acres of fallow ground in northeastern Montana and followed the wisdom of the day, preserving moisture and letting ground rest in rotation. Yet, the economics of idle land kept him searching for a solution and in 2000, he found his fit in an under-researched, yet burgeoning sector of agriculture, pulse crops.
Pulse crops are claiming a spot on agriculture’s main stage, boosted by the United Nations’ designation of 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. U.S. consumers are catching on and driving demand for pulse-related food products such as chickpeas, dry peas, dry beans and lentils.
Grown across 35 states, U.S. pulse acreage stands at roughly 3.4 million acres and has slowly climbed since 2000. As cool-season crops, the main concentration of chickpeas, dry peas and lentil production is across the northern tier states. Pulse crops are beneficial to soil health and a producer’s bottom line, according to Tim McGreevy, CEO of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council (USADPLC) and the American Pulse Association.
Pulse crops benefit farmers and consumers, say Montana farmer Kim Murray, left, and USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council CEO Tim McGreevy. The nutrient-packed crop doesn’t require much, if any, nitrogen and performs well in rotations.
McGreevy grows pulse crops on his small farm in Washington and says for dryland producers, pulse crops often pencil out better than spring cereal grains, especially in the current market. Input costs are relatively low and pulses don’t require much, if any, nitrogen fertilizer. “As with any crop, growers need a processing and marketing infrastructure before they jump into growing pulse crops,” he advises. “Regardless of region, there’s a pulse crop fit for your ground.”
Pulse crops provide strong levels of nitrogen fixation, especially in dryland conditions. McGreevy banks between 20 lb. to 30 lb. of nitrogen for his winter wheat crop grown after dry peas. “Pulses break weed and disease cycles. They promote soil health, biodiversity and are great in rotation with cereal grains and oilseed crops,” he notes.
Murray is one of the founding fathers of the pulse industry in Montana. By 2011, all of his 6,000 acres were in a wheat-pulse rotation. “My production acres doubled in size and allowed my son to come home and farm,” Murray says. He grows wheat in a four-year dryland rotation with pulses. After wheat in year one, yellow or green peas follow in year two. Year three is back to wheat, and green lentils are next. “We definitely see the benefit as nitrogen breaks down into usable forms over time,” he says.
Pulse crops have long been underfunded, but USADPLC helped gain up to $25 million per year in the 2014 farm bill to study pulse crop nutrition and functionality as a food ingredient. However, the finances remain in check, and no funds have been released. In addition, there are no focused research centers to address pulse crop genetics and yield.
“Pulse crops are one of the most nutrient dense, affordable and sustainable foods on the planet,” McGreevy says. “The time is now for pulse crops.”