Growers, foodies develop taste for pulses

Image of Liz Carlisle

Lentil Underground author Liz Carlisle, who spoke about pulses at Pangkarra Foods, Clare, for Tasting Australia in May.

PHOTO: Rebecca Jennings

Grain growers and gourmet food lovers were taken on a paddock-to-plate journey at Clare in May as part of South Australia’s annual food event, Tasting Australia

A week-long food and wine showcase in Adelaide in May was complemented by a series of regional events that provided farm-to-fork experiences, including celebration of the International Year of the Pulse.

There was an international flavour in the state’s mid-north cropping region when US lecturer and author Liz Carlisle joined forces with the Maitland family for a ‘pulse check’ on the role of lentils, chickpeas and beans on-farm and on-plate.

The Maitlands operate a gourmet value-added brand, Pangkarra Foods. They produce all the durum wheat and some of the pulses used in their wholegrain pasta and snack foods at their Clare Valley farm, ‘Anama Park’.

Over a long lunch to showcase the diversity of pulses, more than 40 guests from the region, Adelaide and as far away as Victoria and Western Australia, heard how these nitrogen-fixing crops are delivering diversity and risk management for growers in the US and Australia.

Liz, who is passionate about pulses, lectures in diverse farming systems at Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley. She captured the farming revolution of pulse crops in her home state of Montana – a traditionally monoculture cropping landscape – in her book, Lentil Underground. 

Lentil Underground tells the stories of growers who bucked the mantra of corporate agriculture to ‘get big or get out’ and introduced pulses to provide crop diversity and ecological benefits in their small, family-run farming systems.

Pulses have been part of the Australian farming landscape for decades. The first fully domesticated Australian sweet lupin was developed in the late 1960s in WA, chickpeas and mungbeans were first grown commercially in Queensland in the 1970s, commercial production of faba beans began in SA in the early 1980s and the lentil industry began in Victoria in the early 1990s.

However, in the US growers who wanted to diversify their cropping rotation faced red-tape road blocks, as crop insurance was, until recently, only available for wheat, corn, soybeans and cotton. (In 2013, a four-year pilot program was finally launched for peas, lentils and chickpeas in the main pulse-growing states of North Dakota, Montana, Washington and Idaho, to provide insurance parity with cereals and oilseeds.)

Nonetheless, the ecological benefits of nitrogen-fixing pulses motivated risk-takers. Central to the Lentil Underground story are four growers from central Montana who joined forces in the late 1980s to grow legumes as an alternative to cultivated fallow paddocks and lift productivity on their smaller farms by building organic matter and providing a natural nitrogen fertiliser.

Despite having no suitable equipment, no crop insurance and no market for their products, they started cleaning lentils on-farm and leased an old grain elevator to store their harvest.

Over time, they upgraded equipment and infrastructure, developed a value-added supply chain and swelled their ranks with more growers. Today, their company, Timeless Natural Food, represents dozens of growers who produce lentils for the US and export markets.

There’s even an Australian connection to the story – some of the researchers behind early trials of legumes in the US had seen ley farming systems incorporating medic pastures in southern Australia.

Robin Hood crop

Liz calls pulses the ‘Robin Hood crop’ for their ability to give back to the community by converting atmospheric nitrogen into a nutrient supply for subsequent crops.

She says pulse production in the US heralded more than just agronomic evolution. It represented something bigger: social change.

“Lentil farmers have created a more collaborative society. Growers in Montana have witnessed a stronger sense of community, as they are working together to process and market lentils, compared to a monoculture such as wheat,” Liz says.

“They also see the inclusion of lentils in their cropping rotation as the chance to move away from a dependence on chemicals to control weeds, and develop a biological community in their paddocks of plants and people working together for future sustainability. That is the foundation of a healthy rural community.”

While some of the early lentil growers in Montana were labelled ‘hippies’, Liz says their motivations are wide ranging: “Some growers were drawn to pulses as an option to remove chemical reliance and therefore influence from the government and multinational companies, some had spiritual reasons, others were organic growers searching for non-chemical options to fertilise crops.”

Today, however, pulse growers are no longer an ‘underground’ movement in the US.

“Lentils are no longer just a footnote in agriculture – the industry has its own trade organisation, the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.”

In 1987, when Timeless Natural Food was formed, just 800 hectares of lentils were harvested in the state of Montana, from 30 farms. USDA figures tracking the increase every five years show this area rose to 1010ha on 33 farms by 1992, 5163ha on 67 farms (1997), 8831ha on 79 farms (2002), and 35,530ha on 206 farms (2007). By 2012, harvested area had grown to 80,427ha across 438 farms.

Pulse production

Although pulse-growing areas of Montana and the mid-north of SA share similar rainfall (about 450 millimetres), these northern-hemisphere growers face a much shorter growing season.

Lentil planting in Montana runs from late April to early May, with harvest in August. In comparison, the Maitlands started their 10-day lentil-sowing program the day of the Tasting Australia event (6 May) and expect to start harvest in early November.

Montana’s long, harsh winters remove most invertebrate pests from the cropping landscape, but pulses provide diversity to break the cycle of weeds and diseases, which are the main agronomic management challenges.

The other main lentil-growing regions in the US are Washington, Oregon, Idaho and North Dakota, with the majority of production directed to the domestic market.

Consumer trends

Liz says consumer interest in pulses is growing in the US, driven by ‘plant-forward eating’ and the popularity of ethnic cuisines that feature pulses, such as African, Indian and Middle Eastern food.

“Pulses have presented a learning curve for chefs as they are quite a different ingredient to work with, but they are definitely growing in popularity, especially at farm-to-table restaurants.”

Liz says value-added pulse products such as snack foods are increasingly available on supermarket shelves in the US. However, she has not seen products made with lentil flour, such as Pangkarra’s gluten-free pasta, in the US and was planning to fill her suitcase with some of the SA products to try at home.

Image of a lentil paddock in Montana

A harvested lentil paddock in Montana. Growing pulses is said to be rebuilding a sense of community among US growers.

PHOTO: Shauna Farver


More information:

Liz Carlisle,
Lentil Underground

Tasting Australia

Pangkarra Foods

International Year of the Pulse

Pulse growers build their own value chain – Pangkarra Foods case study


Pulse growers build their own value chain


Grain storage is about food and safety

Region North, Overseas, South, West