The Pulse Boom
What’s a lentil? What’s organic?
Those were questions from a confused banker in 1994 when David Oien asked for a loan to lease an abandoned grain elevator to store lentils grown on his family’s farm in Montana wheat country. Today, he doesn’t need to define either word for anybody, and Timeless Seeds, Inc., the business he started with three friends, is the No. 1 producer of organic lentils in Montana. “Our markets are growing with little effort,” says Oien. “The U.S. organic market has been growing 10% to 20% annually for three decades. Our sales have been growing more than 50% annually for the past decade.”
Timeless contracts with 40 producers in central and eastern Montana to grow 10,000 acres of certified organic pulse crops and heritage grains. In addition to six varieties of lentils, they grow chickpeas, peas, emmer, and Purple Prairie barley.
“Our little niche is to do what others don’t do,” Oien says.
Starting with lentils
Creating a niche is something Oien has done since returning to his family’s farm in Conrad, Montana, after attending graduate school to study philosophy. It was the late 1970s, and Oien didn’t buy into the philosophy of farming fencerow to fencerow and “get big or get out.” Instead, he convinced his parents to install solar panels, build a methane digester, raise organic beef, and try experimental crops on a few acres of land.
Because of the region’s low annual precipitation, the common practice was to collect moisture by putting land in cultivated fallow, alternating years with cereal grain crops. Oien recognized an opportunity to grow something during the fallow years.
After meeting Jim Sims, professor of soil management at Montana State University, Oien grew black medic, which neighbors considered a weed. But it was a self-seeding legume that could be used as a green manure crop. His plan to sell the seed to farmers for cover crops didn’t pan out, but the experience led him to crops that would be his destiny – starting with lentils.
“We added lentils initially as a cover crop to fix nitrogen and to get carbon back to the ground,” Oien explains. “Our purpose was to introduce legumes into the monoculture of wheat and barley. By the early 1990s, we realized the value of lentils as a food crop, though it was not yet popular in the American cuisine.”
It was a huge learning curve for Oien, his business partners, and other farmers to figure out how to grow lentils organically without chemicals to battle weeds. There was no university research or field trials on organic management practices. Instead, they followed the organic philosophy to achieve long-term management rather than short-term control.
Their cool, dry region – just 10 to 14 inches of precipitation a year – was perfect for lentils, peas, and chickpeas that originated 8,000 to 10,000 years ago in western Asia and the Nile region. Depending on the season, dryland lentils in Montana yield 800 to 1,500 pounds an acre, and chickpeas and peas have higher yields.
As a bonus, they have an extremely low carbon footprint and benefit the soil.
“For growers, it’s a way to eliminate nitrogen inputs for the current crop and bank nitrogen credits for future crops, add crop diversity, break pest cycles through rotation, and build soil,” Oien says. “And the markets are booming. You can often make 20% to 30% more than growing conventional wheat and barley. Organic premiums are 100% to 200% above conventional prices, so even if yields are less, you make more per acre.”
When he started, marketing was a huge challenge because there were no local markets, Oien says. He attended trade shows and approached markets on both coasts and overseas. The work paid off.
“Lentils have always been our calling card. We trademarked the Black Beluga lentils. It doesn’t look like any other lentil. It took 10 years to get noticed,” he says.
Because their crops are unique and organic, Timeless markets to high-end restaurants, university dining halls, and natural and specialty food markets. The company owns a seed processing facility and a certified food processing plant.
“We like to work with local and regional distributors who care about our mission of growing nutritious food that supports family farmers. We’re proud of our story, our farmers, and our quality,” Oien says.
A few factors led to Timeless Seeds’ success, says Oien. In 2002, pulses were added to the U.S. Farm Program, which made them “legitimate” crops. They also fill the bill for environmentally friendly practices and as healthy foods.
“They have a promising future, as consumers are more concerned about health and the environment,” Oien says. The USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council’s work to have 2016 named the International Year of the Pulse and the growing popularity of hummus have greatly increased consumer demand. Pulses are part of recipes for every meal course from appetizers to desserts. They show up in smoothies, plant-based protein bars, and meat substitutes; and they’re available as sprouted foods.
As demand increases each year, Timeless members focus on growing crops and experimenting with new varieties, such as a black chickpea and heritage grains that fit into crop rotations.
The journey continues to fulfill the goals Timeless set 30 years ago, says Oien. Lentils capture nitrogen and work with the soil. Farmers band together to grow the crop. Farmers and processors collaborate.
“We wanted an alternative to maintain as many farmers as possible on the land,” Oien says. “Steeped in the environmental movement, our mission was to advocate for and promote organic farming and markets and to get farm production to markets.”
Hummus to the rescue
The popularity of hummus, a dip made with pureed chickpeas and various seasonings, has made more U.S. consumers aware of the health benefits of pulse crops, which include chickpeas, dry peas, lentils, and dry beans. The term pulse is derived from the Latin word puls, which means thick soup.
Hummus is good news for growers, says Tim McGreevy, CEO of the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council. Hummus sales in the U.S. increased dramatically from $5 million retail in 1997 to $750 million retail in 2016. Pulse crops fit in with consumers’ changing food choices.
“There is a trend to reduce animal protein and increase plant protein,” says McGreevy. “People have options, and our role is to capitalize on this trend and show consumers that pulses are superfoods.”
Folks who don’t think they eat the protein- and fiber-rich foods may be surprised to learn that pulse flours and other derivatives were included in 1,150 new products in 2017, including protein beverages, bars and snack foods, and meat alternatives. Millennials who read labels and demand plant-based foods lead the demand.
“Between 2017 and 2021, we expect a 2.5% rate growth for pulse-based snacks,” McGreevy says. That creates more demand for the peas, lentils, and chickpeas grown by members of the council he has led since 1994. Traditionally, most growers are in the Pacific Northwest, but new growers in Montana, the Dakotas, Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas are discovering the benefits of nitrogen deposits the crops provide for crop rotation.
“There were less than 400,000 acres in 1994 and most (lentils, peas, and chickpeas) were grown in the Pacific Northwest,” McGreevy says. “In 2017, there were 2.8 million acres.”
The markets have also changed since 1994, when about 85% of the crops were exported. Now, about 60% of lentils and peas are exported, with 40% staying in the U.S. Half of the chickpeas are sold locally with the remaining half exported. A big part of the domestic sale increase is the demand for protein in dog and pet foods.
“Pulse crops deliver protein and fiber, and they are low input. There is a place for more pulse crops worldwide; developing countries have a huge need,” McGreevy says. “Domestically, we have a huge need for weight management and better diets.”
Pulse crops are protein-packed with four times the dietary fiber of whole grains. The council guidelines suggest that ½ cup of pulses three times a week is beneficial for good health.
Currently, U.S. consumption is low, about 8.8 pounds/person, but with the popularity of hummus and growing demand for lentils, the number of North American pulse growers – currently 6,000 (not including dry bean growers) – will continue to grow.
“Pulses play a prominent role as part of a sustainable rotation. Our farmers grow wheat, barley, and canola, and pulses are beneficial to their bottom line in a healthy cropping system,” McGreevy concludes.