Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Giving peas a chance November 22, 2016 story by Jenny Lavey · photos by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzaléz • Published 11/22/16

Windshield views of golden fields against blue skies are synonymous with Montana, and for good reason. However, over the last decade, many of those golden acres have been gradually turning green.

For the better part of the last 40 years, as evidenced in 160 research citations, Montana State University has been a pivotal player in a quiet paradigm shift in Montana agriculture. Long known for wheat and barley, Montana farmers are increasingly growing pulse crops, which are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family, such as peas, lentils and chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Montana is America’s top producer of pulse crops with more than 1.1 million acres currently growing pulse crops. That’s compared to Montana’s 5 million in annual wheat acreage, according to the USDA.

The last decade may well have created the perfect storm that’s turning Montana’s golden wheat acreage to pulse-crop green, according to Barry Jacobsen, associate director of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station. Inconsistent fluctuations in wheat prices have been countered by a global demand for crops like lentils, chickpeas and peas, which are ingredients in such dishes as hummus, dals and curries. Global populations are booming with not enough protein crop production to keep up with nutrient demands, and Americans want more options for healthier forms of vegetable protein for themselves and their pets.
This surge of pulse crops, also called pulses, across the state has been called the “quiet revolution” by some in Montana farming and the “next crop frontier” by others in agribusiness.

“For a state known primarily for its wheat exports, pea, lentil and chickpea are now beginning to share the spotlight,” said Jacobsen. He added that in agriculture terms, pea crops are referred to in the singular. “It’s an exciting time in Montana agriculture.”

Montana pulses on the rise

This year, Montanans have planted more acres in pulses than they ever have in history—about 500,000 each of pea and lentil—according to USDA data, and the planting trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down, Jacobsen said.

This is a change from the traditional cropping system that Montana and most Northern Plains’ farmers used in cereal grain production since the droughts of the Great Depression: Plant wheat or barley or their major cash crop for one cycle, harvest, then let the ground lay fallow (barren) for one season to conserve moisture and nutrients for the
next planting season.

The problem with fallow acreage, according to Perry Miller, MSU Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences professor and agronomist, is that it doesn’t produce much economic value for the farmer because valuable acreage is essentially left idle, though it does serve as an important risk management tool in banking water in the soil.

“Fallow is one of the most destructive agricultural soil management practices because of soil erosion, loss of soil organic matter and soil structure and nitrate leaching,” Miller said. “There is enormous benefit to plant otherwise fallow land with a pulse crop, and we see this particularly with pea.”

In 2015, Miller, along with Anton Bekkerman, MSU Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics associate professor, and Clain Jones, soil Extension specialist, and others, reported from a study begun in 2003 of the soil and economic benefits of Montana farmers growing pea in lieu of wheat-fallow cropping systems. Over the most recent four-year rotation, data suggest that producers who grew pea added more than $70 per acre, per year, of additional income in a no-till system.

“Primarily, the savings in nitrogen and the way pea residues backstop wheat yield and protein can make pea a critical rotational benefit,” Miller said. “Because pea(s) have shallow roots, they also conserve more water in the soil and make soil organic nitrogen available in tune with growing season moisture.”

Traditionally, most farmers would have told you they grew pulse crops to cover soil in between wheat and barley cropping systems, which were tilled under the soil and used as green manure. In no-till systems, the acreage is left alone, leaving the soil to conserve moisture.

There are an estimated 4.6 million acres of fallow land each year in Montana, according to the Montana Department of Agriculture. If farmers planted pulse crops on just 25 percent of the total fallow land in Montana, there could be a $240 million benefit to Montana’s economy, based on current planting research by the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, often called MAES.

Benefits and challenges: reasons for going pulse

While the financial gain of pulses is certainly attractive, farmers might well plant them for their soil benefits alone.

Chase Stoner, a Montana wheat farmer near Havre whose uncle Jon was a pea-planting pioneer in Montana, said the soil health of his fields has skyrocketed, thanks to a pea crop.

“Their ability to fix nitrogen, store water and break up the disease and pest cycles of wheat has been the biggest benefit from an entire-operational standpoint. You can literally see the line in the soil where we planted pea,” Stoner said.

Jones explains that’s because pulse crops bring diverse benefits to the soil. Not only do they use nitrogen—an essential element to any living plant—but they add nitrogen into the soil too.

“They work together in a unique, symbiotic relationship with soil-dwelling Rhizobium bacteria, which are also naturally living in soils,” Jones said.

These bacteria capture gaseous nitrogen from the air and soil. The bacteria feed this nitrogen to the pulse crop, helping the plant to grow. In return, the plant provides carbohydrates—food for bacteria—helping it to grow. Pulse crops also have the unique ability to grow root nodules that house this Rhizobium bacteria, creating an in-house food producer for the plant and helpful bacteria. When the pulse crop dies or is harvested, the beneficial nitrogen already present above and below ground is released into the soil, Jones said.

“Effectively, this process ‘fixes’ nitrogen in the soil that serves as a free, healthy and nature-made fertilizer that’s ready and available for the next planted crop,” he said. “When a wheat or barley crop follows a pulse crop, it can experience substantial rotational benefits, with high yield and strong qualities desired by current markets, like protein content.”

It is this partnership with Rhizobium bacteria that makes pulse crops so attractive—one, because they make the soil better for the next crop and two, they require little (if any) commercial nitrogen fertilizer, a major input cost for the production of most crops.

Pulse crops are also effective in breaking disease and pest cycles in wheat and barley systems, said Chengci Chen, superintendent of the Eastern Agricultural Research Center in Sidney, who has seen the rise in pulse crops firsthand.

Chen, formerly stationed at MSU’s Central Agricultural Research Center in Moccasin, has been coordinating the statewide effort in testing pulse crop cultivars for eight years. He currently is conducting pulse crop research in eastern and northeast Montana, advising farmers about suitable pea, lentil and chickpea varieties and production practices. Largely because of the research support from the seven MSU research stations and the MSU campus, according to Chen, a majority of former wheat farmers now plant a pulse crop in their production system, some as their primary cash crop. In fact, in 2014 the USDA said that there were 290,000 acres of pulse crops in the northeast corner of the state alone.

Chen said pulse production is slowly moving west across the state, with more and more producers adopting and tailoring pulses to areas with less precipitation, especially in the central area of the state. Chen said even though caution must be taken for statewide adoption because pulse crops are sensitive to drought, their spread has been supported by field trials at the seven research stations under MAES.

“Producers have been able to see pulse viability and success firsthand at our (ag research) centers and on-farm trials,” Chen said. “Our capacity to expose pulses to Montana’s different environments helped producers feel more confident from year to year, and a growing history has led to strong global markets for our regional yield.”

World markets for Montana pulses

Montana’s pulse crop boom would quickly bust without growing markets to consume Montana-grown peas, lentils and chickpeas.

Joseph Janzen, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics, has been tracking international markets alongside Montana’s increase in pulse production. According to his research, there are a number of factors generating strong demand for pulse crops outside the U.S. Growing populations with rising incomes, particularly in India and China, are eating more peas and lentils. Nearly half of U.S. pulse exports are destined for China, India and neighboring Asian countries, according to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.

“Global pulse demand is growing and the U.S. is capturing an increasing share of the world market,” Janzen said. “While domestic markets are important and growing, export markets are crucial for demand. Growing exports are great news for Montana pulse growers, especially since prices have also been strong. Lentil prices in 2015 and 2016 were as high as we’ve ever seen.”

High prices for peas and lentils are a stark contrast to wheat, Montana’s largest crop by acreage, with Montana being the fourth-biggest wheat producer in the country. USDA data show wheat prices paid to Montana growers have generally declined over the last five years, and acreage planted with wheat also has declined over the same period.

The pocketbook reality and the reduction of economic risk through diversity, of growing pulse crops instead of wheat, may be why some farmers in the state are growing pulse crops as a primary cash crop and wheat as a rotational crop, according to MSU agricultural economists.

Neighbors learning from neighbors

It took a while to get here. 

Since the late 1970s, MSU’s Central Agricultural Research Center in Moccasin has been pivotal in diversifying Montana’s farming with crops no one ever thought possible to farm in the arid environment.

David Wichman, a former CARC superintendent and MSU agronomist who has watched the rise and fall of economic and climate threats on Montana agriculture for 30 years, said the pulse bandwagon may have gained its initial traction in central Montana, thanks to local pioneering farmers and business owners.

“The introduction of pea cultivars with the semi-leafless character, which enabled the peas to remain standing after they are ripe, was one of the main factors contributing to the widespread adoption of pea production across Montana,” Wichman said.

“The peas have been kind of the gateway pulse crop that has led to producers growing the more difficult, but often higher-value lentils and chickpeas.”

The commercial side of pulse markets also made a large difference as well, Wichman said, and those agribusiness companies saw the potential for markets and later played a role in bringing elevators closer to Montana’s widespread towns.

“As early as the 1980s, a few venturesome growers across the state were giving peas a try as an alternative cash crop or green manure nitrogen source,” he said. “It took on a grassroots, collaborative nature of early pulse pioneers between now-retired MSU faculty, like Jim Sims, and a litany of farmers statewide who embodied the early and critical role of trial and error—many who risked their livelihood and land—in the adaptation of lentil and pea farming across Montana.” 

The horizon ahead

MAES has hired Kevin McPhee, a dedicated faculty member to breed pulse crops. He will begin in January breeding pulse varieties that are best-suited for Montana’s variable landscapes and climates. The university recently created the Regional Pulse Crop Diagnostic Lab, managed by Mary Burrows, MSU Extension plant pathologist, where producers across the state can send in samples for pulse disease and pest support, including identification and treatment prescriptions.

Burrows, who is on the speed dial of most farmers across the state and annually crisscrosses Montana, looking for diseases and pests in state’s crops, said that pulse crops have come with their own set of pests and diseases—something MSU is doing all it can to get a handle on.

“Diseases are what drive the pulse industry out of an area,” Burrows said. “These crops are susceptible to numerous diseases, and since most of the crop is exported, phytosanitary (pest and pathogen sanitation) issues are crucial. Keeping threats out of the state and at low levels is going to be imperative. We have to make sure we’re diligent with cultural control and pesticide treatments as needed.”

Burrows said no crop is immune to pests, from planting to post-harvest. Root rots, white mold, viruses and foliar blights are of high concern to the industry.

“The MSU diagnostic lab plays a critical role in keeping the pulse industry ahead of a lot of very real threats, which have the capacity to affect the entire industry,” she said.

In coming years, MSU will remain a leading source of information and support when it comes to pulse crops. MAES was the recipient of a $2.3 million Montana Research Economic Development Initiative research grant created by the 2015 Montana State Legislature in an effort to enhance Montana’s economy. The grant is looking at the potential economic gain of replacing about 4 million fallow acres each year with pulse crops and researching new pea and lentil varieties, in addition to researching challenges and benefits of precision agriculture and cover crops.

It will take all seven off-campus MAES research centers statewide, on- and off-campus faculty and a lot of statewide private businesses and farmers to expand the potential future of pulses in Montana, Jacobsen said.

Stoner said he’s seeing pulses becoming more popular as markets emerge and elevators come closer to town.

“Things are changing. I think people are starting to feel more progressive,” Stoner said.

For Stoner, farming pulses might be more about the future than today’s market. For him, it’s about using Mother Nature’s cyclical and natural benefits to leave something better behind for young people, who will one day step into the responsible shoes that play a direct role in feeding the world.

“As a land steward, we want to do everything we can to improve the land, instead of just take from it,” he said. “We want to be able to pass it on to the next generation better than we found it. Pulses give us that kind of assurance.”