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Timeless Natural Foods' production facility in Conrad, Mont. (Madison Dapcevich, Special to Agweek)

Pea, lentil business is booming

CONRAD, Mont. — When David Oien applied for a farm loan nearly three decades ago, the bank asked him two questions: what is a lentil and what does organic mean?

With lentil production at an all-time high in 2015, business is better than ever for Oien, founding farmer and CEO of Montana’s leading organic legume producer, Timeless Natural Foods.

“As organic farmers, we needed an alternative to synthetic input,” Oien says. “That’s where we started getting interested in pulse crops and seeing the advantage of crop rotations. In the past 30 years [lentils] have gone from an unfamiliar cropping option to one that many farmers now grow on hundreds of thousands of acres.”

Growth

Significant growth occurred across Montana after a 2003 farm bill provision classified pea and lentil production at the same list level as wheat. Additionally, this provision provided risk protection for legumes, removing an important source of risk. A need to diversify crops further incentivized farmers to begin planting peas and lentils.

“These pulse crops, lentils in particular, are a huge opportunity for farmers to diversify their rotation, and it has huge advantages for the consumer as well,” Oien says.

Pulse crops have a very low carbon footprint when compared with conventional crops. Lentils have a shallow rooting structure that reduces water intensity. By fixing nitrogen, peas and lentils replenish nitrogen in the soil and eliminate the need for costly and sometimes toxic fertilizer.

Joseph Janzen, assistant professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University, says the economic impact is huge because farmers are taking land that was once used as fallows and are replacing it with pea and lentil agriculture.

“I think that’s really at the heart of what’s driving the increase in demand in pulse crops, whether they’re organic or not; having both the environmental responsibility and personal health impact,” says Oien, who has been a vegetarian for eight years. “Just by nature, it’s an environmentally friendly crop. It’s gratifying that we’re able to make some small contribution.”

A healthier option

Plant-based protein has been found to be healthier than animal protein. Perry Miller, an MSU cropping systems professor, partially credits the increased demand for lentils to protein fractionation, a process that physically and chemically breaks down a pea to extract its protein.

Often used as protein enrichment in dog food, fractionation has added value to the pea crop in a way that wasn’t available 15 to 20 years ago.

Janzen says lentil consumption around the world mostly occurs in Asia, where the bulk of the demand is from two bad domestic lentil crop failures. He says the U.S. and Canada are producing more than they can consume. Compounded with India’s rising wealth and North America’s booming lentil production consumption around the world mostly occurs in Southeast Asia.

“Farmers now have long-term experience in their systems and they see all the important things rotations add,” Miller says. “I think they are here for a long time given that the demand is growing and farmers recognize they work wonderfully.”

About 3 to 4 percent of legumes produced by Timeless Natural Foods stays within the state, with 10 to 15 percent of products going overseas.

Revenue from lentil production is growing, and accounted for 1.8 percent of 2014 total crop value in the state. In 2015, Montana produced 244 million pounds of lentils.

Today, Montana produces a growing share of all U.S. lentils, about half of U.S. production.