An agricultural rags-to-riches story, pulse crops are no longer an obscure specialty crop. Instead, they are gaining popularity, market potential and profitability as production rises in Montana and across the U.S.
Praised as nutritional powerhouses packed with protein, fiber, antioxidants, calcium and iron, pulses are the dried edible seeds of legumes and include all beans, peas and lentils. With 2016 declared the International Year of Pulses by the United Nations, consumers are seeing a trendy new “pulse” hitting dinner tables – and it’s coming from Montana’s farmlands.
Montana’s Booming Pulse Industry
As the No. 1 producer of pulses in the U.S., Montana predominately grows yellow and green peas, green and red lentils, garbanzo beans (or chickpeas), and a variety of dried beans.
“In 2014, we had over 700,000 acres in pulses, according to the USDA,” says Deputy Director Kim Falcon of the Montana Department of Agriculture (MDA). “The next year, you could easily add another 15 percent on top of that. For 2016, we anticipate there will be an even higher increase.”
While domestic markets have room to grow, Falcon sees international markets developing exponentially, specifically in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, South China and Mexico.
At Columbia Grain, a world-leading grain exporter operating five processing facilities for peas and lentils in Montana, Senior Vice President Jeff VanPevenage says, “We are currently exporting into Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, but we’re going to need more production. We are building a reputation for quality and see more buyers turning to the U.S. for that. And although I say the U.S., a lot of it is found in Montana.”
Traditionally, Montana exports the majority of its pulse crops internationally. However, thanks to the huge growth in U.S. hummus consumption in the last five years, Columbia Grain has seen chickpea exports drop from 70 percent of U.S. production to about 30 percent, while increasing production at the same time. Lentils are also in high demand, driving strong prices domestically.
“The fact that we’ve had support and backing by the Montana Department of Agriculture has been very helpful to getting more acres out of the ground,” VanPevenage says. “I’m really excited about the International Year of Pulses. I can already feel and see it driving demand.”
Other key companies involved in Montana’s pulse industry include processors like AGT Foods, Hinrichs Trading Company and New Century Ag. All are helping farmers access viable markets around the world.
Benefits of Pulses
It’s no secret these super crops possess countless health advantages, especially for those with diabetes or struggling with weight loss. However, they’re also gluten-free, non-allergenic and non-GMO, making pulses a perfect fit for health-conscious consumers.
To help incorporate pulse crops into diets in 2016, the U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council has chefs creating menus featuring this perfect plant protein source for individuals and institutions like schools and hospitals. For example, pasta can be made with pulse flour, and whipped cream can be made with white beans.
Consumers are already seeing more snacks, like bean and lentil chips, stocked on grocery store shelves. By substituting pea flour for traditional flour, even cookies and brownies can be healthier, and delicious. Another advantage of pulse crops are the agronomic benefits, says Kim Murray, third-generation farmer and chair of the Montana Pulse Advisory Committee.
“We were looking for something that would work in our climate and help us eliminate fallow or uncultivated land. By putting pulses in rotation, we are getting production on every acre. Land values have gone up, while erosion from wind and water have dropped dramatically.”
Looking toward the future, Murray sees Montana’s pulse boom as an opportunity to feed a growing world population with an inexpensive, nutritious and easily transported protein. He encourages consumers to eat at least 1.5 cups of pulse crops each week.
“I invite people to take the pulse challenge,” he says.
Make a pledge at the Pulse Pledge website.