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Dry peas: A crop whose time has come?

Mike Dick first grew dry peas in the 1990s. The weather didn't cooperate, and so the Munich, N.D., farmer quit raising them. But now he's growing them again and has begun raising faba beans, which are closely related to dry peas, as well.

Both crops "add a lot to our farming operation. And I think they're an alternative that might help some other operations," Dick said.

With poor prices and profit potential for soybeans and crops in general, most Upper Midwest farmers are looking for alternatives to corn, wheat and soybeans, the region's three most widely grown crops. So many farmers, especially ones in areas with particular climates, have renewed interest in dry peas and faba beans, or are seriously considering the crops for the first time.

That interest is enhanced, at least for some farmers, by the premium, or extra payment in addition to the base price, that some area processing companies are paying for dry peas.

"With the high-protein and protein premiums coming out with some of these processors, we're hoping that will make pulses more attractive for some of the growers in the area," said Shannah Plehal, genetics lead with Velva, N.D.-based Great Northern Ag, which has three facilities at which pulses are processed and retail seed and seed treatments are sold.

Ag officials say dry peas and faba beans hold special challenges and don't offer magical solutions. And because the crops fare best in certain climatic conditions, their geographic appeal is limited.

Even so, "They're definitely worth taking a look at," said Frayne Olson, North Dakota State University crops economist/marketing specialist.

What they are

Many people, even ones involved in Upper Midwest ag, are unfamiliar with dry peas and faba beans. Here are the basics:

Both are pulses (the name comes from an ancient Greek word for porridge), a category that includes a dozen types of crops. The 12 vary in shape, size, and color, and come in differing forms, as well. For example, the long list of dry beans includes black, pintos and kidneys.

Pulse crops produce one to 12 seeds within a pod, and are used for both human food and animal feed. The pet food market — with sales to pet owners who want their animal to eat more plant-based protein — is increasingly important. So are sales for human consumption in products such as high-protein sports drinks and nutrition bars.

Dry peas, also known as field peas, are marketed as a dry, shelled product for human or livestock food. In contrast, fresh peas are marketed as a fresh or canned vegetable.

Dry peas generally fare best in dry or semi-arid conditions, so, not surprisingly, western North Dakota and Montana dominate U.S. production of the crop. Of the 900,000 acres of dry peas planted in the U.S. in 2018, Montana farmers accounted for 390,000 acres and North Dakota produces 360,000 acres.

The region's long wet cycle that began in 1993 generally pushed dry peas out of the Red River Valley of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. But the wet cycle has ended, and dry peas potentially could recapture acres this spring in the Red River Valley, said Richard Roland, with Legume Logic and a long-time leader in promoting faba beans and other pulses in the area.

Both dry peas and faba beans are legumes, plants that capture nitrogen, a crucial nutrient, from the air and transition it into a form that plants can use. Soybeans are legumes, but not pulses.

Faba beans go by many names, including fava bean, broad bean, field bean, bell bean and pigeon bean. They fare best in relatively cool temperatures and hold up better than dry peas to relatively plentiful moisture — conditions most often found in north-central and northeast North Dakota, where faba bean production is concentrated.

North Dakota farmers planted about 4,500 acres to faba beans last year, a number that Roland estimates will grow to about 7,000 acres in 2019.

To put that in perspective: North Dakota farmers planted about 6.6 million acres of soybeans in 2018.

Sales at home, overseas

Big-picture, long-term trends favor U.S. pulse production, said Beau Anderson, a Williston, N.D., farmer and chairman of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.

Worldwide, "there's still a shortage of plant-based protein," he said. Domestically, "consumers want more plant-based protein, too."

The global population, which stood at 6.9 billion in 2010, is expected to reach 9.3 billion by 2050, according to a United Nations report. Some estimates put the 2050 number even higher. 

And the world's growing middle class, especially in Southeast Asia, increasingly wants and can afford high-quality protein. Again, estimates vary, but it's predicted that world protein demand will double, or nearly so, by 2050.

Meat is expected to account for much of the increased protein consumption, but many consumers around the world will prefer, either for economic, cultural or religious reasons, or a combination of the three, to buy and eat plant-based protein, Anderson said.

Even so, pulse prices, in general, are struggling temporarily because India, the world's biggest importer of pulse products, has imposed tariffs on U.S. pulses, cutting into export sales. But dry pea prices have held up relatively well because protein from dry peas increasingly is used in domestic markets, Anderson said.

Dry peas and faba beans, like other prices, are gluten-free, furthering their appeal to many consumers, ag officials say.

With global demand for plant-based protein surging despite India's tariffs — one estimate calls for it to quadruple by 2025 — some food companies are paying a premium for high-protein dry peas.

AGT Foods, a global leader in pulse production, offers such a premium at its pulse processing plant in Minot, N.D. Processing of peas — called fractionation — yields a variety of products, including protein.

AGT Foods is optimistic about the future of high-protein peas and wants to work with area farmers who are interested in growing them, said Eric Bartsch, the company's Bismarck, N.D.-based director of food ingredients.

As high-protein peas become more attractive financially, more research into high-protein varieties will be undertaken. That, in turn, will encourage more farmers to grow them, Anderson said.

Do your homework

Though premiums for high-protein peas can be attractive, farmers need to remember that the base price for dry peas, like those of virtually all over crops, has slumped in recent years, Olson said.

Farmers also need to keep in mind that specialty crops such as high-protein peas typically are grown under contract, and farmers who raise food-grade pulses generally need to meet specific quality provisions, Olson said.

"You've really got to dig into the contract (being offered for dry peas) and make sure you understand it," especially the consequences of failing to meet the quality provisions, he said.

According to information from NDSU Extension: "Harvest management is especially important to obtain high-quality field peas to be marketed as human food or seed. A high-quality product is needed to receive a premium price for the crop. If the crop has quality problems, including bleached, split, cracked or earth-tagged seed, the livestock feed market likely will be the only option."

What's more, different processors sometimes have different priorities for growers to meet. So what's required in a contract for one processor may not be the same as in another contract for a different processor.

Base prices and high-protein premiums vary among processors, too.

"First and foremost, find a processor out there you trust and can work with," Anderson said. "Finding the processor and getting the information on what the processor wants is critical."

Other valuable sources of information include local agronomists, Extension agents, NDSU research farms and other farmers already growing dry peas.

The additional "harvest management," as NDSU Extension calls it, can be dealt with successfully, dry pea and faba bean supporters says.

"It's not exactly like growing corn or soybeans. It has more management," said Plehal, with Great Northern Ag. "It shouldn't be an issue if you're forward-looking. But there's a certain level of commitment."

Diversity, too

Potential profits from dry peas and faba beans aren't the only — or maybe even primary — reason to grow them, supporters of the two crops says.

As legumes, dry peas and faba beans can fix nitrogen in the soil, reducing what a farmer otherwise would need to spend on nitrogen fertilizer, Roland said.

"They reduce problems with insects, disease — weeds, too," he said. "They have a role in cover crops and intercropping (planting two crops in the same field at the same time). They're really beneficial for soil health. So they help in many ways."

Dry peas and faba beans can prudently supplement soybeans in a crop rotation, rather than replacing them, Roland said.

Soybeans are especially dependent on August rains, while dry peas most need June precipitation and faba beans rely heavily on late July rains. That spreads out weather risk, Roland and other dry pea and faba bean supporters say.,

And dry peas can be planted early with relative safety and, consequently, mature sooner than most other crops. That spreads out both planting and harvesting, an important consideration for most farmers, Dick said.

Though dry peas and faba beans bring challenges, their economic and agronomic diversity is worth it, he said.

"I don't like putting all my eggs in one basket. And these crops help me not to do that," Dick said.