As more people eat plant-based meats, Midwest farmers give peas a chance
Fueled by the rise of meat alternatives, consumers have been eating more and more dry peas, chickpeas, lentils and beans.
Bags of lentils or canned chickpeas aren’t a surprising sight in a grocery store, but a closer look may reveal some surprising bean and pea products on the shelves.
There are bags of PeaTos, which are similar to Cheetos but made from peas. Their tagline is “Junk food taste, made from peas.”
In the freezer aisle, there are alternative meats, like Beyond Meat’s “ground beef.” The two top ingredients are water and pea protein.
The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that people consume about two more pounds of legumes per year than in 2000, and experts see that climb continuing.
Most of the crops behind those products come from northern states like North Dakota, Montana and Idaho, but states in the Great Plains are becoming increasingly important to meet rising demand.
Benefits to the soil
Eric Thalken is one of the farmers growing the main ingredients in those PeaTos and Beyond burgers. He harvested green peas in July on his organic farm in southeast Nebraska.
He chose to plant them because they work well as a third crop in his corn and soybean rotation. Peas fit into his planting and harvest schedule and use less water while adding nutrients to the soil as they grow.
“It feels like the ground is more energetic after peas,” Thalken says. “We’ve grown like double-crop corn, no additional fertilizer. Everything always looks really good after peas.”
Roland Rushman has been growing pulses — the industry word for peas, beans and lentils — for a little over a decade at his farm in western Nebraska. The crops thrive in drier climates with sandier soils and are particularly suited to be on a rotation with wheat.
Since they use less water and inject the ground with nutrients, they work well as an alternative to fallowing, when farmers choose not to plant anything to allow the soil to recover. With beans and peas, farmers can rehabilitate their fields and collect a paycheck.
“Instead of a fallow crop, they add nitrogen in the soil, and they’re a good cash crop,” Rushman says. “It seems to fit like a glove out in the panhandle.”
Thalken and Rushman are board members on the recently formed Nebraska Dry Pea and Lentil Commission, which aims to coordinate research, advocacy and crop insurance for farmers interested in planting peas.
The group will also help farmers learn to overcome the challenges of growing peas.
“There’s a couple problems, and one is that it’s really hard to harvest,” Thalken says. “This harvest is very slow and difficult. We might harvest 40 acres a day here, where soybeans we could do 130.”
Another obstacle is unpredictable pricing. In 2020, pea prices fell to their lowest point in a decade, but they’ve rallied to near all-time highs in some regions this year.
Strahinja Stepanović, an extension agent for the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, helps farmers learn about pulse production. He says growing peas can offer long-term advantages like soil health and weed reduction, but some farmers can’t justify the delayed benefits.
“Out of 600 farmers I’ve talked to, maybe 100 are sold on it and doing it every year and even increasing acres. The majority think that they’ll grow when the price is good or when they can fit them in, and then 20% say, ‘No, I’m never going to grow them again,’” Strahinja says. “It all depends on the personality of the farmer.”
Rushman says the global demand for pea and bean products is driving the momentum for new resources in the region. Companies are also betting that the Great Plains will work well as a source and logistics center.
Columbia Grain International recently bought a plant in Hastings, Nebraska. The grain and pulse supplier plans to expand operations at the facility to process 50,000 tons of peas per year.
The plant will clean and prepare the crops and then sell the peas to become government food aid, pet food or meat and flour alternatives.
Tony Roelofs, vice president of pulses for CGI, says he hopes the plant fills a gap for farmers in the region.
“(Farmers) just haven’t had a consistent demand or consistent market for their pulses,” says Roelofs
The plant in Nebraska makes sense as domestic demand for pulses grows, Roelofs says. Its central location simplifies shipping logistics, and rising supply from the Great Plains helps meet consumer appetites.
Marvin Fast, who manages the facility for CGI, has been fielding calls from farmers interested in learning more about growing peas. He says he was born and raised with corn and soybeans, but working with peas has been a rewarding change.
“We’re taking it from the farm and then sending out a clean product and actually seeing it in a grocery store,” Fast says. “That’s really cool to me.”
Advocates are confident the demand for pea and bean products will continue to increase. They hope high prices, a dedicated facility and the help of the new commission will convince Great Plains farmers to look past the risk and give peas a chance.