USA Dry Pea, Lentil & Chickpea Production

Cool season food legumes, including dry peas, lentils, and chickpeas, are an important feature of the dry farm lands of the western U.S. The two principal growing regions include the Northern Plains, comprised of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, and the Palouse, which includes eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and northeastern Oregon.

Lentil production began in the Palouse in 1916, dry pea production in the 1920s, and chickpea production in 1981. The region offered excellent growing conditions and a growing season with annual rainfall of 15 inches to 24 inches (400 millimeters to 600 millimeters), most of which fell in the fall and winter months.

More recently, the Northern Plains region has become an increasingly important production area. Since the 1990s, the lion’s share of U.S. food legume production has moved from the rolling hills and loess soils east of the Palouse into the Northern Plains region, where pulses t well with the established crop rotation.

By 2009, North Dakota had become the largest producer of pulse crops in the U.S. Montana occupies the second position, cultivating the greatest number of yellow peas in the U.S., in addition to significant acreage devoted to lentils. Pacific Northwest farms in Washington and Idaho remain the largest producers of green peas and chickpeas. For U.S. production numbers for 2008, see tables on pages 45-54.

In those areas that receive sufficient rainfall to support annual cropping, food legumes continue to replace summer fallow. The region boasts considerable potential and its role as an important producer of dry peas and lentils is expected to continue. Meanwhile, the range of U.S. food legume varieties has changed over time and is likely to continue to evolve as breeding programs develop improved types.

The field history is an important consideration in pulse production. To allow for proper site preparation, the decision to grow pulses in a given field is usually made a year or two in advance. Approached this way, the “pre-plant” period for any field includes each of the production seasons that followed the previous pulse crop and the late fall, winter, and early spring that preceded planting of the pulse crop.

The previous crop is especially important if the pulse crops are directly seeded into stubble. Sowing pulses into clean fields is preferred, but pulses are frequently seeded on stubble. In such situations, weed competition is often an issue and can be complicated further by volunteer plant growth.

Seed selection includes considerations like crop quality potential, adaptability to the planting conditions (i.e., disease and environment), and improvement in the overall rotation—both economic and environmental.

Some varieties are well adapted to particular regions due to maturity rate, disease resistance, blooming date, and tolerance to temperature variations. Other considerations are based on quality such as color consistency, resistance to bleach and pod shatter, harvestability, and handling concerns like cracking during shipment. Pulses are best grown following a cereal crop like winter wheat or spring barley as cereals are less likely to carry pulse diseases.

Another benefit of planting pulse crops in rotation with cereals is that cereal crop yields often increase due to cereal pest (disease, insect, and weed) cycles being disrupted. In addition, food legumes conserve soil moisture and limit soil erosion by offering an option other than summer fallow. Pulses also increase the nitrogen content of the soil. This is a significant consideration, providing value to the producer in addition to the crop.

When it comes to seeding, maintaining firm seed-to-soil contact is critical, making moist soil, and the avoidance of dry soil, a critical step. Most pulse seeds can emerge from deep seeding depths due to their large size. Deep seeding is not a necessity provided that the seed is placed in firm, moist soil.

After planting, pulse crop beds are rolled to smooth the soil surface. This improves the harvest rate by reducing losses and breakage of low-hanging pods at harvest. Rolling also buries rocks, making harvest easier and safer. Harvest typically takes place in August. The crop must dry out on the vine to a certain degree first, which usually occurs without the aid of chemicals.

Chemicals that aid drying are, however, important during cool, wet summers when natural drying is not possible. Waiting for natural drying to occur can lead to pod shattering, sprouting, seed coat slough, and seed bleaching. When weeds are not a problem, dry peas and lentils are mechanically swathed or direct harvested.

India is the world’s major producer of food grain legumes (about 13 million tons in 2003/2004): chickpeas (5.3 million tons), lentils (0.8 million tons), dry beans (about 3 million tons), and other pulses. Canada, Australia, and Turkey are the main world suppliers of chickpeas and lentils. Approximately 75 percent of U.S. cool season food legumes are exported.

Most U.S. legumes are used for food either as whole pulses, as with decorticated Crimson and Red Chief lentils, or as decorticated and split peas, as seen with green and yellow dry peas. New and novel uses, including incorporation into starches and snack items, continue to grow as interest in these healthy, versatile foods increases.

Given such developments, the future for food legumes in the U.S. looks bright. There is considerable room for expansion of production in the Dakotas, Montana, and the western states of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. The trend to replace summer fallow in these states is opening additional acreage for legume production to meet increasing demand.

Finally, as of this writing none of the pulses available worldwide are genetically modified, and there are no plans to begin production of such pulses.