Three decades ago, when David Oien and three other organic farmers from central Montana began planting lentils, it was a rebellious act. Oien’s farm was surrounded by thousands of acres of wheat, the popular crop that blankets large swaths of arable land in the Northern Plains, and no one in the area was planting anything else.
The farmers, who formed Timeless Seeds, Inc. to grow alternative crops and find new markets, helped popularize pulses—i.e., lentils, peas, and chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans)—in their region and beyond. They started off with just a few hundred acres and a handful of volunteers, but today, Timeless is a million-dollar business that works with more than 40 organic producers and grows food for major retailers and restaurants. The company was featured in the 2016 book The Lentil Underground, which follows the farmers’ work and describes Oien and his colleagues as renegades and pioneers.
Many other farmers, both conventional and organic, have since followed their lead by growing pulses. And the Northern Plains, which saw virtually no lentils, peas, or chickpeas a generation ago, has become the leading pulse-growing region in the U.S. Yet despite this initial growth, pulses were for years perceived as niche crops, unfamiliar to many Americans and relegated to the plates of vegans, vegetarians, hippies, and immigrants. Most were quickly exported out of the country.
That’s now changing as 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.
For those invested in regenerative agriculture—practices that rebuild soil and sequester carbon—pulses are becoming a coveted tool. Simultaneously, these crops are now key ingredients in plant-centric diets—both in their natural state and in a growing number of packaged, processed products.
“The growth has been phenomenal,” said Jeff Rumney, vice president of marketing with the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council. “We’ve seen a huge run-up in product innovation and U.S. product launches with pulse ingredients.”
From Fringe Food to Customer-Approved
Though they are one of the oldest crops on earth, in many cultures lentils and other pulses have long been considered a poor man’s food. During the Great Depression, many Americans relied heavily on lentils for nutrition, tarnishing their image for years to come.
“In my father’s generation, everything was meat and potatoes, there was no domestic demand for pulses,” said Rumney.
In the U.S., pulse crops got their start in the Palouse, an agricultural area that encompasses parts of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. There, they were first cultivated by Seventh Day Adventists, avid vegans and vegetarians, and market infrastructure for the crops didn’t exist. In addition, a lack of federal government subsidies for pulses kept most farmers growing wheat and other commodities.
“We knew pulses are important to the soil, we knew we could grow them, but nobody was eating them,” Oien said, adding that Timeless Seeds had to figure out how to process, package, and find markets. “[For] the first 25 years, we had to pretty much beg farmers to give these crops a try.”
In parts of the Great Plains, where water is sparse and crops are mostly grown under dryland conditions, meaning they aren’t irrigated, farmers had for generations grown winter wheat for 10 months, followed by a 14-month period without a crop called “summer fallow.” During summer fallow, land is left barren to recapture soil moisture through rainfall, thus improving the following year’s wheat crop. More recently, some growers have also adapted no-till practices hand in hand with the use of copious herbicides.
But for many, said Oien, growing just one crop has proved increasingly untenable. Without a diversity of roots in the soil, farmers have had to use more and more synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Their soil has lost organic matter. Droughts have decimated their crops. They’ve lost millions every year to a pest called the wheat stem softfly. And plummeting commodity prices have led many farming operations to the brink of bankruptcy.
In the early 2000s, word began to spread that pulses could successfully be grown in the Northern Plains and that their export markets were booming, and some farmers in the area began to see these crops as tickets out of the commodity monocrop trap. Local land grant universities, such as University of Idaho and Montana State, began to support the role pulse crops could play in expanding economic opportunities when planted in rotation with wheat.
“In places like eastern Montana and North Dakota, it’s become really difficult for two generations to live on the farm,” said Rumney. “By growing another crop on that fallow ground, farmers doubled their income. This transformation has allowed their sons and daughters to stay on the farm.”
In 1999, U.S. farmers harvested approximately half a million acres of pulse crops, and the vast majority of those were planted in the Pacific Northwest. Since then, pulses have seen steady growth. By 2014, the crop had topped a million acres and by 2018, it hit 2.2 million acres.
Today, Montana leads in pulse production, followed by North Dakota. In Montana, total lentil, dry pea, and chickpea acreage has almost tripled over the past decade, going from zero to over a million acres. And in North Dakota, it’s at about 650,000 acres.
And as lentils, peas, and chickpeas have turned mainstream, large agribusinesses such as Sabra and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) have also jumped in to begin buying pulse crops from large farms. Just a few years ago, most of those companies’ crops were sent overseas; 80 percent of peas, 80 percent of lentils, and the vast majority of chickpeas were exported to India, Middle Eastern countries, and China, Rumney said. But in recent years, changing consumer trends have led to the development of the U.S. market. Today, only about 60 percent of lentils and peas are exported. And thanks to the exploding popularity of hummus, just 50 percent of chickpeas get sent out of the U.S.
Much of the growth has been in conventional pulses, but organic ones—which command 3 to 5 times the price of their conventional counterparts—have also seen a steady increase, Oien said. Large agribusinesses are jumping in to grow organically, he added, but since most of those pulses are exported, small organic farmers can still count on premiums and incentives, he said.
And while conventionally grown pulse crops often end up as ingredients in processed foods such as snacks and meat substitutes, most of the organic pulses grown by Timeless farmers are destined for Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and other natural food stores, or gourmet restaurants.
“Our customers realize the impact organic pulses can have,” Oien said. “They are happy to pay more because they’re buying more than lentils. They’re buying family farms, healthy soil, and a lower carbon footprint.”
When the United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, it also added to these foods’ visibility, Oien said. “People started to realize their nutritional value and their environmental benefits. And that has brought pulse crops to the radar screens of farmers, chefs, food editors, and people shopping in grocery stores.”
Pulses Move to the Center of the Plate
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). Already, over one-third of Americans identify wanting to follow such a diet, according to a OnePoll study commissioned by So Delicious Dairy Free.
Pulses are perfect for those looking to reduce their meat intake, because they’re high in protein, dietary fiber, and several vitamins and minerals. In addition, they’re gluten-free, aren’t genetically modified, and are not considered major allergens like soy or wheat.
Scientists around the world have recently advocated for drastically cutting meat consumption. Major research published in Nature and The Lancet over the last year advocates for a mostly plant-based diet to meet the challenge of feeding a growing world population, protect the environment, and boost human health benefits.
“Right now, you have an animal-centric set of choices when you walk into a restaurant or other food place away from home,” said Sophie Egan, the program director of Menus of Change, an ambitious project from The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard School of Public Health that aims to change how Americans eat. “The vision… is that the options would enable you to eat a flexitarian type of diet… and that the plant-based dishes are cooked in a way that can stand head to head with animal-based ones” when it comes to taste.
Menus of Change encourages chefs to adopt “the Protein Flip,” a concept that advocates moving away from feeding plant proteins and grains to animals, and instead feeding those plant proteins and whole grains directly to diners. The idea is to make pulses the meal’s center, using culinary traditions from around the world, and using only small servings of humanely raised, grass fed meat for blending, as a condiment, or as side dishes. Adoption of similar programs have been gaining ground across the foodservice industry, Egan said.
A related project, the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, uses campus dining halls as incubators and innovators for a diet based mostly on plants. The collaborative, a working group that consists of 57 institutions and 236 members, including dining directors and executive chefs, academic faculty, scholars, and student fellows, focuses on evidence-based research, education, and innovation.
Universities and their students are at “the front line of adoption for the industry as a whole,” she said. Campus dining can implement innovative plant-based meals and then export those solutions to shift America’s culinary practices, Egan said, because “college students are in their identity formation around food choices, and many college programs are independently run so they can implement changes more nimbly, while food chains have to shift the big ship.”
The USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council has worked hard to promote the plant-centric diet, Rumney said, noting that it’s now popular in North America, but also all over the developed world. In the U.S., Rumney said, value added pulse products such as plant-based burgers, pasta, baby food, protein bars, and protein coffee are gaining market share. There’s even rising demand for pulse protein in pet foods. The organization is also working with the federal government to introduce pulses into the school lunch program, both in their whole form and as pasta, and to get them recognized as a vegetable, he said.
Of particular note is the explosion of pea protein, Rumney said, which is now second to soy as an ingredient in packaged/processed protein alternatives. 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. Plant-based meat has fueled a good part of this growth. The North America pea protein market for meat substitutes is projected to surpass $21 million by 2026, according to a new research report by Global Market Insights, Inc.
And major food companies, ranging from Cargill to Kellogg’s, are now investing in pea protein production and/or products. According to McKinsey, interest in pea protein grew at a compound annual growth rate of 30 percent from 2004 to 2019. The company concluded that “pea protein and cultured meat show the most promise [of the existing alternative proteins] for market growth over the coming five to 10 years.”
The success of pea-based meat substitutes is a start, said Egan, the Menus of Change director, but meat analogues are only a small part of the solution. While plant-based meat may be environmentally better, she said, its nutritional value isn’t better than that of a meat patty. Minimally processed whole foods, especially pulses in their intact form, have a much more significant role to play, Egan said, but there hasn’t been much capital going into their marketing.
Egan says chefs will play a prime role in creating cachet and excitement about the whole foods-based approach, which has the potential to boost nutrition for humans around the world. Increasingly, more chefs are choosing to emphasize plant ingredients. “There is tremendous business opportunity here to offer these new protein options,” Egan said.
The Pulse-Based Nitrogen Fix
In addition to helping overhaul American diets, pulses also have the potential to play a major role on organic and regenerative farms. As legumes, they can draw nitrogen from the atmosphere and don’t require much, if any, synthetic fertilizer, said Meagan Schipanski, associate professor of agroecology at Colorado State University. They are great to grow in a rotation with other crops because they leave some nitrogen behind in the soil. This is especially true if they’re planted as forage for grazing animals or cover crops, but also if they’re harvested as cash crops.
And their nitrogen is less susceptible to being washed away when it rains than the nitrogen supplied by synthetic fertilizers. Pulses increase good microbes and soil organic matter, she said, and because of their nitrogen-fixing abilities, they can also help convert soil into a carbon sink and, in some cases, decrease wind erosion.
Peas, lentils, and chickpeas can also make land more productive and water-efficient when replacing fallow periods. They’re especially suited to dryland farming because they’re shallow-rooted crops, so they don’t use a lot of moisture. And when pulses are planted in rotation with wheat or other cereals, they can disrupt the disease, insect, and weed cycles, leading to higher yields and a reduced need for chemical inputs, particularly herbicides.
Most importantly, Schipanski said, pulses can provide additional income to farmers long dependent on a single crop. While farmers in the Central Plains have been slower than in other regions to add pulse crops to their rotations, “there is growing interest and awareness among producers of the success stories (with pulses) in Montana and other places,” Schipanski said. “With commodity prices so low, more producers are looking for alternative crops or at integrating grazed cover crops into their system to spread their risk and diversify.”
Schipanski’s research shows that grazing cover crops in dryland farming systems can improve soil health and boost profitability. Farmers get paid to graze the cattle and enough cover crop residue remains in the fields to reap soil benefits, Schipanski said.
Even for conventional farmers, adding pulses into their rotation can begin a shift toward other, more sustainable practices, said Liz Carlisle, author of the Lentil Underground and assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Program at University of California, Santa Barbara.
“The learning that’s happening for farmers who’ve been working with just one commodity and relying on the industrial model of production is tremendous,” Carlisle said. “They realize that the plants themselves can be a self-supporting ecosystem and they, the farmers, are just working as stewards or facilitators of that ecosystem.”
After adding pulses to their rotations, these farmers, often start thinking about further reducing their inputs, adding perennial crops, or integrating animals into their operation. “Planting pulses leads them to ask questions about how they can make their farming systems more ecological,” she said.
‘If People Eat More Pulses, We’ll Grow Them’
One challenge pulse crops have faced in recent years is a decrease in export markets due to politics and trade wars. 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 (and other goods). As a result, prices for conventional lentils, chickpeas and peas crashed and acres planted decreased.
Farmers who wish to add pulses to their rotation should also consider that infrastructure is still limited in some areas, said Schipanski, the Colorado State professor. After a processing facility was built in Nebraska, the state saw a 300 percent increase in acreage of field peas in the area around the facility, she said. “A huge piece of the puzzle is establishing the infrastructure and markets to support these emerging crops,” said Schipanski.
As infrastructure develops, pulses should play a bigger role in U.S. agriculture, said Oien of Timeless Seeds, though for now their consumption remains a blip when compared with meat consumption. Annual consumption of meat in the U.S. is about 220 pounds per person per year, while the average consumption of lentils is 8 to 10 ounces per capita. When Timeless launched, lentil consumption was at about 2 ounces per year, he said.
“There’s a big opportunity for building up the domestic market,” said Oien. “Regenerative farming depends on what people put on their plates every lunch and dinner. If they eat pulses, there will be a market and farmers will grow them.”