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Jessie Hunter is director of domestic marketing for both the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, and American Pulse Association.

Upper Midwest a hotspot for pulse crops

MINOT, N.D. — Tim McGreevy, standing before an audience of farmers and industry leaders, reached into boxes filled with food products containing pulses. Chips and dips, cereals and crackers, and many more — each with at least one pulse crop among its ingredients. As he taled, his staff passed out the products to the audience to view and sample.

Each product was a small victory for his industry, each a small promise that even better days await.

"The market is here, and it's growing," said McGreevy, CEO of both the American Pulse Association and USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.

McGreevy was among the speakers at the Jan. 23 to 24 annual convention of the Northern Pulse Growers Association in Minot, N.D. More than 300 people, most from North Dakota and Montana, attended. The two states dominate the nation's pulse crop production, though pulses are planted on far fewer acres than wheat, corn, soybeans.

McGreevy's presentation, and the food products he distributed, reflect the pulse industry's growing optimism. The enthusiasm is based on two complementary trends:

• Consumers increasingly view pulses as nutritious, affordable and something to eat more of.

• Upper Midwest farmers, especially in parts of North Dakota and Montana where the generally dry, cool climate is well suited for pulses, are good at growing them.

Pulses are even more appealing to Upper Midwest farmers because pulse crop prices, on balance, have held up better than prices of most other crops.

"Farmers are looking for crops that can be profitable, and pulses have the potential to do that," said Jerry Schillinger, a Circle, Mont., farmer and president of the Northern Pulse Growers Association.

"Pulses are one of the few bright spots" in the ag economy, he said.

One measure of that: the 2017 Projected Crop Budgets from the North Dakota State University Extension Service find that dry edible beans can be profitable in much of the state, with lentils and chickpeas — which, because of disease, can be grown safely only in western North Dakota — among the handful of crops with the greatest profit potential.

The encouraging 2017 profit outlook comes on the heels of what was a generally profitable year for pulses in 2016, Kyle Groh, a Circle, Mont., farmer who attended the Minot pulse event, said he planted more pulse acres than usual, and profitably so, in 2016.

Pulse crops are drawing greater attention from agribusinesses, too.

West Coast Companies, based in Salem, Ore., was a first-time exhibitor at the Minot pulse event. The company recently established an office in Great Falls, Mont., to take better advantage of pulses' growing presence in Montana and western North Dakota.

"Pulses offer an excellent opportunity, we think," said Brant Hayden, president of West Coast Agricultural Construction Co., one arm of West Coast Companies. The family business is involved in the sale and distribution of processing, handling, packaging and storage equipment. Pulses account for 40 to 60 percent of its business, he estimated.

The outlook for pulse expansion is strongest in eastern and central Montana, where pulses are still relatively new. Pulses have been around longer in North Dakota, but their popularity there is on the upswing, too.

Montana farmers planted an estimated 540,000 acres of lentil this spring, four times the 130,000 acres in 2014. North Dakota producers planted an estimated 265,000 lentil acres this spring, three times more than the 75,000 acres in 2014.

The two states together accounted for 805,000 of the estimated 930,000 lentil acres planted nationally this spring.

Even so, pulses remain a minor player compared to wheat, corn and soybeans. For example, North Dakota farmers planted 7.6 million acres of wheat this year, with Montana farmers planting 5.2 million acres.

Consumers crucial

Upper Midwest farmers are planting more pulses because consumers increasingly want them, industry officials say.

"There's a growing recognition that pulses are both nutritious and affordable," said Jessie Hunter, domestic marketing director of the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council.

Pulses are touted as a good source of protein, fiber and antioxidants, and as a versatile and tasty food that can be used in many ways and on any occasion.

Pulses also rank favorably on the glycemic index, a measure of how quickly food is broken down in the upper gastrointestinal tract. A growing number of people, including some suffering from diabetes, heart disease or obesity, are interested and in pulses and other foods low on it.

Research underway in Fargo, N.D., and the University of Toronto in Canada is fine-tuning how pulses can be used in food products to make better advantage of the glycemic index, Cliff Hall, a North Dakota State University food scientist, said in a presentation during the Minot convention.

To capitalize on pulses' nutritional value, the pulse industry is promoting the "half-cup habit," or eating a half cup of pulses every day.

The pulse industry has a long history of working with consumers to help them understand and utilize pulses, said Shannon Berndt, executive director of the Northern Pulse Growers Association.

Pulse supporters received a huge boost when the United Nations declared 2016 International Year of the Pulses. That helped pulses draw favorable attention from a number of high-profile chefs.

What's more, the designation, and the consumer interest it generated, encouraged food companies to develop food products with pulse ingredients.

"And it's just beginning. We'll see even more coming out in the next few years," said Eric Bartsch, Bismarck, N.D.-based director of food ingredients for AGT Foods.

Challenges, too

Area farmers face challenges in growing pulses, just as they do with other crops. Weeds, insects and crop disease are concerns with pulses, just as with other crops.

Speakers at the Minot event included Brian Jenks, NDSU weed scientist, Julie Pasche, NDSU plant pathologist, and T.J. Prochaska, NDSU crop protection specialist. They examined some of the trends, issues and problems posed by pests and disease. For example, Russian thistle, a weed, is increasingly resistant to glyphosate, the widely used herbicide.

The wide variety of pulse crops can be both good and both. More types can lead to more potential problems with pests and disease; but it also can bring alternatives. An example: a protracted wet stretch in parts of the region has led to more root rot in dry peas. But faba beans, also known as fava beans and broad beans, hold up better in wet conditions and are drawing growing attention as a replacement for dry beans.

Another challenge: Pulse crops don't have have the same level of federal farm program support as corn, wheat, soybeans and other widely grown crops, pulse industry officials says.

Pulse crops need to to be "included and treated equally with other farm program commodities in the area of farm and conservation program support," the U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council said in a policy position paper.

The nonprofit American Pulse Association was established in 2010 to increase pulse consumption. The nonprofit USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council was created in 1965 to promote and protect the interests of growers, processors, warehousers and sellers of dry peas, lentils and chickpeas. Both are based in Moscow, Idaho.

Other concerns

Pulse crops carry another concern, too. Because they're grown on relatively few acres and have a relatively limited market, even a modest production increase could lead to oversupply and a big drop in prices. Agriculturalists sometimes refer to this as "swamping the market."

Asked about that, Schillinger said, "Markets are a concern with any crop. But we're focused on continuing to build the market for pulses."

Another issue to watch: pulse industry officials, like their counterparts in other crops, are uncertain how exports might be affected by new Trump administration trade policies.

"The honest answer is, we don't know," McGreevy said. "It's a concern."

The U.S. exports roughly $700 million pulse crops annually, with India and Mexico especially important markets.

But even with the challenges and concerns, the U.S. pulse industry is headed for bigger and better things, McGreevy said.

"We just need to keep building on this, and we will," he said.

What are pulse crops?

• The name comes from an ancient Greek word for porridge.

• There are a dozen types — including lentils, dry beans, dry peas and chickpeas — which come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Some of the basic types, especially dry beans and dry peas, have even more variety. The list of dry beans, for instance, includes black, pink, navy, pinto, Great Northern and both dark red kidney and light red kidney, among many others.

• Pulses produce one to 12 seeds within a pod, and are used for both human food and animal feed.

• Soybeans and peanuts, grown mainly for oil extraction, aren't called pulses.

• Fresh green peas and fresh green peas aren't considered pulses because they're immature and haven't dried naturally in fields.

• Pulses can play a useful role in many Upper Midwest farmers' crop rotations. Farmers typically rotate the crops they grow on a field; doing so helps them to fight pests, conserve moisture and improve soil health, among other benefits.