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Unusual year means fewer acres for pulses

Montana and western North Dakota, where growing conditions generally favor pulses, were projected this spring by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, to see major acreage declines.

pulse - lance lindbloom.jpg
Lance Lindbloom, Special to Agweek

Beau Anderson is a big believer in pulse crops. The Williston, N.D., farmer raises them and serves as chairman of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council. But while he's confident that pulse crops have a strong long-term future, he also recognizes that concerns confront his industry.

"It's been a challenge," said Anderson, who planted fewer acres of pulses himself this spring.

An ongoing trade war with India, the world's largest consumer of pulses, has cut sharply into demand. So has reduced exports to China, another major pulse consumer. The subsequent oversupply of pulses โ€” Anderson talks of farmers who have relatively large amounts of stored pulses on their farms โ€” cut sharply into the prices that farmers receive for them. That, in turn, led farmers to plant less, a lot less in some cases, this spring.

Montana and western North Dakota, where growing conditions generally favor pulses, were projected this spring by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, to see major acreage declines. In North Dakota, chickpea acreage was expected to drop to just 17,000 acres from 41,000 in 2019 and 114,000 in 2018. In Montana, 139,000 chickpea acres were projected, down from 299,000 in 2019 and 390,000 in 2019.

Projected dry pea planted acres dropped in both states, though not as much as with chickpeas.

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Anderson said planted pulse acres in his area definitely are down this year, although it's difficult to estimate how much. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's weekly crop progress report doesn't track pulse plantings or conditions.

Despite problems with oversupply and poor prices, there are reasons for long-term optimism about pulses, Anderson and others say.

Prices have risen sharply, though they remain much lower than farmers want, Anderson said.

That partly reflects the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cut into restaurant sales and caused some consumers to buy and eat more pulses at home, though the increase isn't necessarily as much as the industry was hoping for, he said.

Legumes are a huge family of plants whose fruit is enclosed in a pod. Pulses are part of the legume family, but are grown for their dried seed. Lentils, dried peas and chickpeas, a.k.a. garbanzo beans, are among the common kinds of pulses., which are praised by nutritionists for being high in protein and low in fat, as well as being affordable. Long popular in some foreign countries, pulses have drawn greater attention in the United States, too.

The U.S. pulse industry hoped that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cut into restaurant sales, would cause more consumers to buy and eat pulses at home. That's happening, though not necessarily as much as the industry had hoped for, Anderson said.

Though nobody knows when pulses will rebound fully, the long-term outlook remains good, he said.

"This isn't an easy time. But we know things will get better," he said.

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