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Pulse Crops: What Are They and Why Are Farmers Growing Them?

Emily Standley, Fergus County Ag Extension Agent

You may have heard the term “pulse crop” floating around recently. This phrase has become somewhat of an agricultural buzzword, because while some farmers have been growing pulses for quite a while, over the last few years, they’ve quickly gained popularity in our part of the world. So what is a pulse crop? And why do farmers choose to grow them?

To start, pulses are defined as the dry, edible seeds of plants in the Fabaceae, or pea, family. This category includes a wide variety of crops, but the most common pulses grown in Montana are dry peas, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), and lentils. The word “pulse” comes from the Latin word, puls, meaning porridge, which makes sense, because many pulse crops such as black beans, peas, and lentils are frequently used in soups.

Pulse crop production has been growing steadily in Montana since the late 1990s, but within the last decade, those numbers have skyrocketed. The amount of dry peas harvested went from 414 million pounds in 2010, to 1.13 billion pounds in 2016. Chickpea harvests in 2010 totaled 8.40 million pounds, jumping to 153 million pounds in 2016. Finally, Montana farmers harvested 335 million pounds of lentils in 2010, but outdid themselves by harvesting 737 million pounds in 2016, making Montana the #1 producer of lentils in the nation!

There are a few reasons behind this steep increase in pulse production. First, there is an ever-growing appreciation for pulse products. Foods like hummus and lentil soup can now be found in most grocery stores and restaurants, whereas ten years ago, these items were rather unusual, especially in Montana. Unique products like pea flour are also starting to make their way into the market. But there are benefits to growing pulse crops that go beyond what we see on grocery store shelves.

It’s common knowledge among farmers that to keep both the plants and the soil healthy, they can’t grow the same crop on the same piece of ground year after year. There are many reasons for this, but some of the biggest ones involve breaking disease cycles and managing soil nutrients. Historically, many Montana farmers addressed these problems by developing a rotation, planting wheat one year, then leaving the field in fallow (bare ground) the next year, and possibly adding a hay crop into the mix as well.

While this practice may prevent extensive damage from disease or insects, and gives the field a chance to “rest,” farmers and researchers have found there are actually a few disadvantages to including fallow in a rotation. The most obvious problem is that those bare fields don’t produce any crops, which means they don’t provide any income. Additionally, bare soil is more likely to reach high temperatures in the summer, which leads to water loss through evaporation, and can hurt the micro-organisms that help keep the soil healthy. Bare ground is also more susceptible to weed invasions and erosion.

This is where pulse crops can be of help. Fabaceae plants like peas, lentils, and chickpeas are different enough from grain crops that they are sensitive to different diseases and different insects. So, planting pulses can help break the pest cycles mentioned earlier. Pulse crops are also unique, because as members of the pea family, they are legumes, meaning they can convert nitrogen from the air into nitrogen that can be used by plants in the soil. This is important to farmers, because pulse crops can help replace some of the nitrogen that was taken up by a wheat crop, keeping the soil healthy, and reducing the need for fertilizer. Finally, by including pulses in their rotation, farmers can diversify their crops, and reduce or eliminate fallow years, which is good protection against changing market prices, while also keeping the soil covered, feeding micro-organisms, and providing some protection against weeds and erosion.

It’s no surprise then, that Montana’s increase in pulse crops correlates with a decrease in the amount of fallow. According to the Farm Service Agency, fallow in Montana dropped from over 3.5 million acres in 2010, to less than 1.5 million acres in 2016, which is a 60% decrease. Of course, this change isn’t due entirely to pulse crops, but they certainly played a role. Peas, lentils, or chickpeas aren’t right for every farm or environment, but they’re one more tool that agricultural producers can use to make their operation more economically and ecologically sustainable.