Thirty years ago Montana’s open plains held nothing put pastureland and tens of thousands of acres of wheat. But there were a few guys who started looking at things differently and set our to find new markets. David Oien and three friends would start Timeless Seeds Inc., with just a few hundred acres, some volunteer help, and a mission to help popularize lentils, peas, and chickpeas. Today, Timeless Seeds is a million dollar business, grows food for major retailers and restaurants and was featured in the book “The Lentil Underground,” released in 2016, which documents the story of these renegades and pioneers.

Still unfamiliar to many Americans, pulses have for years been relegated as a niche crop, one reserved for the tables of vegans, vegetarians, counter-culture groups, or simply to be shipped overseas. Now, concerns over human health and climate change are bringing these crops to the forefront in American grocery stores, kitchens, and restaurants, leading to growing domestic demand and enticing more farmers to grow them, and putting the Northern Plains, which saw virtually no lentils, peas, or chickpeas a generation ago, as the leading pulse-growing region in the U.S. 

Pulse crops have faced a serious challenge in recent years from decreases in export markets due to politics and trade wars. You’ll remember that after the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in 2017, India imposed sizable tariffs on pulses, and when the U.S. imposed tariffs on China, that country retaliated, imposing its own tariffs on pulse crops. As a result, prices for conventional lentils, chickpeas and peas crashed and acres planted decreased. But, a major factor in pulses’ new visibility has been the growing popularity of the so-called plant-forward diet, also known as mostly plant-based or flexitarian. It’s worth mentioning, over one-third of Americans identify wanting to follow such a diet, according to a OnePoll study commissioned by So Delicious Dairy Free.

Pulses will also most likely play a major role within the regenerative ag movement, as legumes can draw nitrogen from the atmosphere and don’t require much if any, synthetic fertilizer. On top of that, they are helping to sustain multiple families on farms, something that couldn’t be done under a single crop rotation where fields would sit fallow for 14 months. Pulses can also make land more productive and water-efficient when replacing those fallow periods, making them especially suited to dryland farming because they’re shallow-rooted crops. At the end of the day as a producer, they can be used as forage for grazing animals, cover crops, or simply harvested for cash, all while protecting and improving your soils.

Looking ahead, it’s uncertain how trade issues will work out with our partners, but I think it’s fair to say U.S. demand will continue to rise as we see more and more companies throw money at “pea proteins.” Currently, pea protein stands behind soy as a leading ingredient in packaged/processed protein alternatives. For example, pea protein, derived from yellow peas, is a key ingredient in products ranging from meat substitutes such as Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger to energy bars, plant milk, and dairy-free ice cream. According to data the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council shared, the market research firm Mintel found that over 1,800 global products that use pea protein as an ingredient launched in 2019, with plant-based meat having fueled a good part of this growth. I suspect gone are the days that according to Oien, we had to beg farmers to give them a try! (Source: CivilEats, ERS-USDA, TimelessSeeds)

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