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Published January 15, 2013, 04:08 PM

Taking an industry’s pulse

Northern Pulse Growers Association holds annual convention Jan. 21 and 22 in Minot, N.D.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Pulse crop growers in North Dakota and Montana still have some catching up to do. The executive director of the Northern Pulse Growers Association is optimistic that it will happen this year.

A freakishly wet spring in 2011 prevented many farmers in northwest North Dakota and northeast Montana, where pulse crops are most popular, from planting their fields, causing pulse crop acreage in the two states to plummet. But pulse crops regained much of that lost acreage in 2012 and could recover the rest this spring, Shannon Berndt says.

“I think we can get back to the historic acres we’ve had,” she says.

Berndt will be among the roughly 250 people expected to attend the Northern Pulse Growers Association’s 20th annual convention Jan. 21 and 22 in Minot. N.D. The event will feature exhibits and a number of informational sessions.

One of the highlights this year is a farm bill update by Jim Wiesemeyer, senior vice president of farm and trade policy at Informa Economics.

“There’s just so much interest in the farm bill because of what occurred, or rather the lack of what happened, in Washington,” Berndt says.

Congress last year failed to pass a few farm, instead approving an extension of the old one.

The association’s annual convention once again will be held the same week as Minot’s popular KMOT Ag Expo, which runs this year from Jan. 23 to 25. Holding the two events so close together in Minot, northwest North Dakota’s largest city, works well, especially for businesses and groups that have exhibits at both events, Berndt says.

N.D., Montana are leaders

Pulse crops — the name comes from the Greek word for porridge — are grown around the world. While definitions vary on what constitutes a pulse crop, the term generally is applied to legumes used for human and livestock food.

The Northern Pulse Growers Association, based in Bismarck, N.D., represents dry pea, lentil, chickpea, lupin and fava bean growers from Montana and North Dakota. North Dakota typically ranks first nationally in both dry pea and lentil production, with Montana in second place for both crops.

North Dakota farmers’ interest in pulse crops is growing primarily because of the crops’ rotational benefits. Typically, pulse crops are grown in rotation in wheat, Berndt says.

“They (farmers in the state) are looking at it as a good fit in their operation’s soil health, she says.

Montana farmers, in contrast, see pulse crops “as an option for increasing the profitability of their operation,” Berndt says.

One of the advantages of pulse crops is that they put back nitrogen, a key ingredient for plant growth, into the soil. Farmers who grow pulse crops don’t need to use costly nitrogen that growing season.

Growth opportunities

A pulse crop breeding program at North Dakota State University is working to develop new varieties that will help the pulses expand into areas where they’re not common now, Berndt says.

The pulse industry hopes to generate more demand for its products from schools and other institutions, she says.

“I really think that’s going to be key to help our industry grow on the domestic side,” she says.

Berndt says commenting on pulse crop prices and profitability is difficult because prices are tied closely to quality.

But the North Dakota State University Extension Service’s 2013 Projected Crop Budget estimates that the profitability of field peas and lentils in northwest North Dakota will be comparable to that of spring wheat, canola and oil sunflowers, although well below that of corn.

The profitability of small chickpeas is projected to surpass that of most other crops grown in northwest North Dakota, according to NDSU.

More information on pulse crops and the upcoming Northern Pulse Growers Association convention: