The Pulse of Agriculture

Pulse crops are gaining popularity across the state, and local farmers are getting ready for the upcoming growing season

By Molly Priddy
Gigi Munro, a volunteer with the Montana Academy, picks peas on July 26, 2017 at the Central Kitchen Garden for the Center for Restorative Youth Justice's upcoming Supper Club dinner. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The sun feels warmer, the snow is melting, and the birds and squirrels are waking up in the Flathead Valley as spring continues to break through the end of a long, snowy winter.

For Doug Manning, a farmer in Ronan, the snow has a couple of different effects: First, he’s happy there’s a solid snowpack, but secondly, he’s wondering how he’s going to get his crops in the ground if it’s still covered in snow.

“We usually plant the wheat the first to second week in April,” Manning said last week.

Manning grows winter wheat, spring wheat, canola, and sometimes barley, but this year he’s branching out a bit more. He’s grown yellow peas since 2006, but now he’s dedicating several acres of his no-till fields to chickpeas.

“Field peas have been raised in this valley for 100 years,” Manning said. “And there were guys in the early 80s who raised garbanzo beans.”

Pulse crops — lentils, dry edible peas, and dry beans — have long been part of the agricultural rotation in Montana; the legumes enrich the soil with nitrogen, which is what Manning wants in his crop rotations instead of just letting the field go fallow.

Montana has seen a recent resurgence of pulse crops, with farmers increasing acreage dedicated to pulse crops by 40 percent last year. The production, however, was about 40 percent less than they expected, according to the Department of Agricultural Economics at Montana State University, due to drought

But for farmers like Manning, planting these crops makes sense.

“I’ve been thinking about it for the last two or three years,” Manning said. “Rotation wise, I like having a legume in the mix, but the market is a little riskier.”

According to the Montana Department of Agriculture, the state is a perennial national leader in pulse production, and in 2011 led the country in pulse crop acreage. The department estimated that if pulse crops were grown on 25 percent of the fallow cropland — about 900,000 acres — it would boost the state economy by about $240 million.

Manning said the growing season in Northwest Montana doesn’t allow for some pulse production, such as soybeans, because they require more frost-free days than the current growing season allows. He remembers when lentils were big in the valley in the 1970s and 1980s, and said folks have had success with pulses before.

“As a viable option, they’ve gone in and out of favor,” he said.

Andy Lybeck, manager at the agriculture division of CHS Mountain West, said this year’s agricultural outlook for all crops is still taking shape, but existing drought in parts of the country bode well for local crop prices.

Drought is already a concern in the Midwest, with worries that this year could be worse than 2012, which was the worst drought year since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

“Unfortunately, most of the pricing benefits that we see in our market come from problems elsewhere,” Lybeck said. “A drought in the Midwest is a good opportunity for some of our growers.”

Drought in Argentina, specifically, baked the country’s 2018 crops, driving up winter wheat and hard red wheat prices to their highest since last August.

So far, Montana is coming in as average on the drought monitor, he said, and “it’s good not to be starting at a deficit.”

Manning is keeping an eye on wheat prices, as well as prices for pulse crops, but before he can reap the benefits, he has to be able to sow the seeds.

“We’re getting a little nervous up here with all the snow,” he said.

 

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