Lentils hold promise in the Midwest as conventional crop prices fall
WILLISTON, N.D. -- Beau Anderson didn't know much about lentils when he was growing up. They weren't raised on his family farm, and they didn't show up on his dinner plate.
WILLISTON, N.D. - Beau Anderson didn’t know much about lentils when he was growing up. They weren’t raised on his family farm, and they didn’t show up on his dinner plate.
But the crop has become a big part of his life. The third- generation farmer grows it every year and promotes it as a leader of the Northern Pulse Growers Association.
On this sweltering mid-August afternoon, he watches a field of his lentils being combined as an omnipresent horde of vehicles from western North Dakota’s oil patch rumbles past relentlessly.
“There’s a lot of good things about lentils,” says Anderson, who farms west of Williston, N.D., near the North
Dakota-Montana border. “The more you learn, the more you like them.”
Many people probably don’t know know much about lentils now, but everyone almost certainly will be hearing more about them. The crop - popular in India and some other countries but obscure in the U.S. - is drawing growing attention with U.S. farmers, consumers and nutritional experts.
For farmers, especially ones in dry climates best suited to the crop, lentils hold potential profits that competing crops struggle to match.
“You can never be sure of what the future will bring,” says Andy Swenson, a North Dakota State University Extension farm management specialist who tracks crop profitability. “But it sure looks like they (lentils) have a good chance of making money for farmers in some areas.”
For nutritionists and consumers, especially ones on a tight budget, lentils provide an affordable, nutritious option. As the Mayo Clinic website puts it, legumes - a class of vegetables that includes lentils - “are among the most versatile and nutritious foods available.”
Lentils are touted for their potential role in gluten-free, diabetic, vegetarian and weight-management diets, and U.S. government dietary guidelines recommend eating more lentils, dry peas and beans.
Another advantage, at least in some quarters, is that lentils are a non GMO crop.
“I’m not anti GMO, by any means, but to some people that makes a big difference,” Anderson says.
Lentils already are showing up on supermarket shelves in some other products, including the Cheerios Protein variety. The crop also is being used in high-end dog food.
Lentils are among the 12 crops, including dry beans and dry peas, known collectively as pulses. To recognize the crops’ value and benefits, the United Nations has designated 2016 as the International Year of Pulses.
“There will be a lot of attention on pulses, both nationally and internationally, next year,” says Shannon Berndt, executive director of the Bismarck, N.D.-based Northern Pulse Growers Association. “I think that will really help the industry continue to expand.”
The lentil industry is “making progress. We still have a way to go, but I think we’ll get there,” Anderson says.
He smiles and mentions he also raises cattle.
“Lentils are a healthy, nutritious crop. But to be honest with you, I eat barbecued lentils, with beef. To me, everything tastes better with beef.”
Then, turning serious, he adds, “In some parts of the world, people have to rely on (affordable) pulses as their only source of protein. We’re very fortunate that in the U.S., we can walk down the street and buy the food we want. But we’re also fighting obesity in this country, and lentils and other pulses can help with that.”
Planted acres rising
More U.S. farmers already are recognizing the value of lentils, although the crop’s importance is still dwarfed by that of wheat, corn and cotton.
American farmers planted 485,000 acres of lentils this spring, double the 246,000 acres in 2003, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
To put that in perspective, U.S. farmers planted 89 million acres of corn this year, or roughly 200 times the number of lentil acres.
In any case, farmers in North Dakota, traditionally the nation’s lentil leader, planted 160,000 acres this spring, up from 130,000 acres in 2003.
But Montana, where farmers are looking to diversify away from their longstanding reliance on wheat, is responsible for most of lentils’ acreage gains. Producers in the state planted an estimated 230,000 acres of the crop, up from 30,000 in 2003.
“They’re an important crop for me, and they’ve consistently been a money-maker,” says Kim Murray, a Froid, Mont., farmer who began growing lentils six years ago.
Froid is in northeast Montana, into which lentil production has spilled over from adjacent northwest North Dakota. The region’s semi-arid climate is well suited to lentils, which do best in low humidity.
Historically, many farmers in northeast Montana and northwest North Dakota alternated planting wheat with keeping their fields fallow during the growing season. But agriculture’s changing economics make continuing summer fallow difficult - fallow ground produces no crop or income that year - and rotating lentils or another pulse with wheat adds an increasingly important income source, Murray says.
Ongoing research into new varieties eventually could encourage farmers elsewhere in the region to grow lentils, too, Berndt says.
South Dakota and lentils
South Dakota isn’t a major player in lentils; farmers in the state don’t plant enough of the crop for NASS to track acreage.
It’s uncertain when, if ever, that might change. The South Dakota Pulse Growers Association is working to increase pulse acreage in that state, but pulses other than lentils would seem to have the best chance of taking off, at least in the near future.
“We can grow lentils (in South Dakota) all right,” says Terry Ness, a Pierre farmer who serves on the association’s board of directors. “But they just haven’t provided the return that some of the other crops have.”
He’s grown a wide variety of crops, including several pulses, but never had lentils.
Unlike some of their peers in western North Dakota and northeast Montana who began growing lentils in the past 10 to 15 years, South Dakota farmers haven’t had fallow in their rotations for decades, further decreasing incentive to begin growing lentils now, Ness says.
Ruth Beck is more optimistic about the outlook for lentils in the state. She’s a South Dakota State University Extension agronomy field specialist who serves on the board of directors of the state pulse growers association.
“We can grow lentils in South Dakota, and some people have been successful with them. I think we’ll grow more of them if the price is good enough,” she says.
Ness is optimistic about the outlook for other pulses in South Dakota, too, though, especially if a new processing plant is built in the state.
South Dakota Pulse Processors has begun construction on a $5 million pulse processing plant near Harrold, with the expectation that it will start operations in 2016, Brian Minish, a South Dakota Pulse Processors board member, tells Agweek.
The plant will handle yellow peas exclusively, at least initially, and there are no plans to work with lentils, he says.
Construction of the plant was announced three years ago, and organizers hoped at the time it could be up and running by fall of 2012. Organizers later said work was delayed to make better use of capital, according to published reports.
A little history
Lentils originated thousands of years ago as a cool-season crop in Asia, later spreading to Europe. They’re thought to have come to America in the early 20th century, but received very little research to improve their yield and quality. Until recently, U.S. production was concentrated in eastern Washington and northern Idaho, where lentils were grown in rotation with wheat.
Some farmers in western North Dakota and eastern Montana became interested in lentils during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when tough economic times forced producers to consider alternatives to traditional crops such as wheat.
Anderson’s family was in that group, first raising lentils in the late 1990s.
“We’re not old dogs in this fight (raising lentils),” Anderson says. “But with wheat prices the way they were, we really didn’t have a choice. It was a good fit (financially) then, and it’s becoming a good fit again.”
Attractive wheat prices during the ag boom from 2008 to 2013 encouraged farmers to grow more of that crop, holding down interest in lentils, he says.
“Wheat is easier to raise and so more of it was planted when prices are good,” he says.”But now, with wheat prices the way they are, lentils are very good (financially) compared to wheat.”
The size and quality of the lentil crop in Canada, the world’s leading lentil exporter, has a big impact on U.S. prices, he stresses.
“I’ve never lost money with lentils. Some years I haven’t made very much, but I’ve never lost money” - which can’t be said for wheat, Anderson says.
Pros and cons
Lentils offer several attractions besides their often-appealing price.
As a legume, they fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, reducing the need to buy costly nitrogen fertilizer. And though lentil seed can be expensive, other costs associated with raising them are relatively modest.
Best of all, at least in normally dry regions, lentils consistently produce what Anderson calls “harvestable” crops even when rainfall is limited.
“It’s not uncommon here to get less than 6 inches of rain during our growing season, so that’s important to us,” he says.
Finally, ag economists stress the importance of diversification to spread risk. Growing a number of crops - Anderson is raising lentils, green peas, durum, spring wheat and flax this year - “evens out the highs and low,” he says.
Financial and agronomic benefits combine to make lentils attractive, Berndt says.
Lentils have a downside, too.
They’re a very short crop, which can make harvesting them a challenge, at least initially. But most combines today have flex headers, which allows farmers to go low enough to harvest them, Anderson says.
“If you go low and slow, it will really benefit you,” he says.
He recommends attending workshops in advance of planting to learn more about harvesting lentils efficiently. Workshops also can help would-be lentil farmers control weeds.
But the biggest challenge is marketing them. As is the case with other small-market crops, it’s vital to identify and secure buyers before planting lentils.
The job is complicated because lentils come in different sizes and a rainbow of colors, with some varieties especially popular in different parts of the world.
“Certain types of the world like certain types of lentils, so we try to cater to that,” Anderson says. “Make sure you know what your buyer wants.”
North Dakota and Montana farmers raise both red and green lentils. The red variety is more popular worldwide, but farmers in this region plant more green lentils, with which they’ve had good results.
Anderson, who has raised both reds and greens, says he doesn’t see much difference in them except for their color.
While there can be minor differences in varieties, lentils generally are a 90-day crop that should be planted before May 1 to allow them to be up and flowering before the arrival of mid-summer heat. Typically, they’re harvested seven to 10 days after desiccant is applied.
Anderson is pleased with yields on the lentil field being harvested on this 90-
degree-plus August afternoon. It’s not the best lentil crop he’s ever had - growing conditions weren’t ideal this year - but he’s better off with lentils than he would have been with wheat.
“It’s not for everybody, but -.” He stops for a few moments when his words are drowned out by the roar of the combine on his field and passing oil field vehicles.
When the noise diminishes, he says, “It’s not for everybody, but for some people - at least in this area - it can be a very good crop.”