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Published November 23, 2011, 01:28 PM

Taking the industry’s pulse: Former N.D. farmer leads Pulse USA, a growing seed business

The rising Devils Lake swallowed up most of Byron Lannoye’s farmland and drove him out of farming — but not out of agriculture.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

BISMARCK — The rising Devils Lake swallowed up most of Byron Lannoye’s farmland and drove him out of farming — but not out of agriculture.

Today, Lannoye is general manager of, and a shareholder in, Pulse USA, a seed company in Bismarck, N.D. Pulse USA sells more than 40 types of seed for a number of crops, most notably field peas, lentils, forage and cover crops, to customers in the Upper Midwest and across 60 to 70 percent of the United States.

“We think the pulse crops have a very bright future,” Lannoye says.

He and the other partners in Pulse USDA — the others still farm in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska — were among the earliest producers to raise pulse crops in the Upper Midwest. Lannoye first grew field peas about 20 years ago.

“We had the foresight to see that this was a good crop and that it needed to be introduced into the Upper Midwest,” Lannoye says of himself and the other farmers.

“It was a very friendly crop. You didn’t need a lot of new equipment. It was a crop that pretty much anybody could do. We started with it, we stuck with it. We grew it to the point where it was a lot more than a niche crop in North Dakota and Montana,” he says.

North Dakota now leads the nation in production of both lentils and dry edible peas, with Montana ranking second in both crops, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Pulse USA was launched in 2001, with Lannoye serving as its first president while continuing to farm west of Devils Lake. The lake and the town share the name.

Initially, the business operated out of Lannoye’s home. A few months later, the company opened its office in Bismarck. The city’s location is good, in part because Bismarck is the state capital, he says.

The proximity to state government was particularly useful early on when Lannoye and other boosters of the pulse crops were working to bring them into the federal farm program, he says.

Lannoye started working in the Bismarck office in spring 2006, after the rise of Devils Lake had robbed him of roughly half his farmland and pushed him out farming.

Lannoye is “likable” and “pretty respected” in area agriculture, says Mike Zook, a Beach, N.D., pulse crop farmer and vice president of Pulse USA.

Lannoye’s background as a farmer gives him added credibility, Zook says.

The Bismarck office now has seven full- and eight-part-time employees. The latter work during the summer, helping with deliveries and blending of seed, among other duties.

Fits a need

Pulse crops — the name comes from the Greek word for porridge — are grown around the world.

Definitions vary on exactly what constitutes a pulse crop. But, generally, the term refers to legumes used for human and livestock food. High in protein, pulse crops have a growing reputation among consumers and food companies as a healthy food, Lannoye says.

“The move within the industry is, healthy, healthy, healthy, get healthier. All the pulse crops fit that very well. So we’re seeing increased demand for pulse crops,” he says.

There are several reasons why area farmers should consider growing pulse crops, he says.

“It fits their rotation. It spreads out their harvest load,” he says.

Farmers typically grow, or rotate, different crops, on the same field from year to year to improve soil health and to reduce the threat of insects and crop disease, among other factors.

Pulse crops put back nitrogen, a key ingredient for plant growth, into the soil, so farmers who grow pulse crops don’t need to buy nitrogen that growing season.

Pulse crops put more nitrogen into the soil than just about any other “normal, commodity-type crop” that area farmers can grow, Lannoye says.

Typically, cereal grains such as wheat or barley are planted on fields the year after pulse crops.

“It’s not unusual to see a 20 to 25 percent yield increase (in the cereal grains) the year after pulse crops,” thanks to nitrogen put into the soil the previous year by the pulse crop, Lannoye says.

Pulse crops “pencil out so well that all the producers in western North Dakota and throughout Montana and into parts of South Dakota should be adding them (pulse crops) into their rotation,” Lannoye says.

“You’ve got the positive of not putting down fertilizer the year of the pulse crop, the positive of gaining fertilizer the year after the pulse crop from the crop and the positive of the 20 to 25 percent yield increase in the cereals,” Lannoye says.

Pulse crops aren’t difficult to grow, and Pulse USA has the experience to help farmers new to the crop, he says.

Farmers in central and eastern North Dakota generally can fit soybeans into their rotations better than they can pulse crops, Zook says.

But farmers in the western part of the state should carefully consider pulse crops, says Zook, who’s been growing them since 1995.

Lannoye says he “proud of the western farmers and how they’ve changed their farming practices. They’ve embraced no-till, embraced the pulse crops.”

Wet planting year

North Dakota’s lentil production is concentrated in the extreme northwestern part of the state, with most of the dry edible pea production found in the northwestern, north-central and southwestern parts of the state.

A wet spring prevented hundreds of thousands of acres from being planted in northwestern North Dakota.

“That’s really in the heart of my trade area,” Lannoye says.

Inevitably, sales of seed for pulse crops this spring were hurt. However, Pulse USA also sold more seed mixes for forage and prevented planting acres, he says.

“We handle just about any kind of cover crop that anybody uses,” he says. “So that part of our business expanded and made up for the lackluster sales in early spring.”

The Upper Midwest has been in a wet cycle for years. Typically, pulse crops are more prone to disease in wet years, while soybeans flourish in wet years. That’s cut into the number of pulse crop acres in western North Dakota, Lannoye says.

But it’s only a matter of time until drier conditions return to western North Dakota, which will boost pulse crop acres, he says.

Genetic advances also are making pulse crops more resistant to wet conditions, he says.

‘Hard to go back’

Lannoye, 52, began farming in 1979 west of Devils Lake in the Penn and Churchs Ferry area. In his career, he grew wheat, pulse crops, canola, sunflowers, barley, corn and soybeans.

But the rise of Devils Lake has had a huge impact on farmers in the area. The lake has risen 30 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993. Farmland that once was miles from the lake now is under water or in danger of being submerged.

The last year Lannoye farmed himself was 2005, with his wife and children running the farm through 2006.

By 2006, about half of the land Lannoye farmed was lost to the rising lake water. Today, about 80 to 85 percent of the land that he once farmed has been claimed by the water, he estimates.

Lannoye says he’s sold the farmland that he owned.

Returning to the Devils Lake area now is “hard. It’s hard to go back. I get upset when I go back. It’s sad to see my neighbors struggling with their land. I feel bad for them,” he says.

If lake water “goes down significantly, the land should be fine” to be farmed again, he says. But reduced water levels would require “year upon year of severe drought.”

Lannoye says being out of farming was “a little hard to stomach” when crop prices shot higher a few years ago.

But he wouldn’t have enjoyed those high prices for long, he says.

“The lake was still there, taking away land.”

He says he doesn’t miss farming.

“I look at the cash outlay that they (farmers) have to put out now, and the stress that has to go with some of that,” he says. “I’m glad I don’t have to put up with those types of financial burdens on a daily basis like farmers do now.”

‘In the forefront’

Lannoye expects to continue at Pulse USA for many more years.

“I helped make the foundation for this company. I enjoy being here. I plan to keep growing it larger and larger,” he says.

Growth will come both in Upper Midwest and across the country, he says.

“We’re still a young company. We’ll continue to evolve going forward. But we’ll always be in the forefront on what we do,” he says.