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University of Saskatchewan

Pulse Ribbon
You’ve absorbed Michael Pollan’s “eat plants” speech, you’ve watched way too many Netflix documentaries on food production (and all the ways we’re probably making massive mistakes between farm and table), and now you’re just generally trying to be more conscious of how your eating habits affect others. If this is you: How do you feel? More confused than when you started?

Photo: Blake Rasmussen
Photo: Blake Rasmussen

There is a category of food that makes family farms as happy as the customers who ultimately eat their bounty: pulses. Whether it’s chickpeas, lentils, beans, or dry peas, pulse crops tend to improve everything that grows with them—just one of the many reasons the United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses.

“You can sleep well at night in terms of being a farmer raising lentils,” says Blake Rasmussen, an ex-Boeing engineer who runs a family farm in Plentywood, MT, that his grandfather established in 1913. “I think we’re the first generation that’s going to truly improve the ground we’re farming and leave it in better shape than we found it.”

Why else do farmers love pulses crops?

1. They are natural fertilizers

“For us, most anything we grow requires nitrogen. The pulse family is special in that it produces its own nitrogen,” Rasmussen says. “Nitrogen is a building block. It’s your number one input cost. Lentils produce all the nitrogen they need to produce a crop.”

2. They use very little water

Photo: Lee Moats
Photo: Lee Moats

“In a world that’s really concerned about water, most of the pulse crops that we grow here are rain-fed—not irrigated. We use less water because they require less water to produce,” says Lee Moats, a third-generation farmer whose grandfather settled on the land he farms, in the southeastern part of Canada’s Saskatchewan province, back in 1910. Both Moats and Rasmussen live in areas with only 12–15 inches of rain per year, enough for pulses to thrive.

3. They have one of the lowest carbon footprints of any crop

Credit pulses’ nitrogen-making ability with this benefit. “Environmentally all the carbon that would be in nitrogen fertilizer isn’t there. So our overall system for producing crops has a lower carbon footprint, and the whole system benefits from this,” Moats says.

4. They make family farms more profitable

“Pulse crops take a little more work and a little more patience. But you make more money. Over the last 10 years, they’ve been more profitable than wheat,” Rasmussen says. “Financially they’ve become a great success story for this community. It’s allowed us and the other family farms in our area of Montana to make a better living without getting bigger.”

5. They leave the soil better than they found it

Again, it’s all about pulses’ ability to produce nitrogen. When a farmer plants another crop after a year growing pulses, there’s extra nitrogen in the soil. “As a farmer, I think your number one goal is to make a living, but also leave the ground in better shape than when you started farming,” Rasmussen says.

And Moats adds that sustainability is all about making the whole system work better, not just one crop—and pulses’ pay-it-forward tendencies start a positive chain reaction: “I think it’s increasingly true that when we think about pulse crops, we view them as a food as opposed to a commodity, and when we think about pulses as a food, we think about health. Sustainability is a healthy economy, a healthy planet and also healthy people.”

Learn more about the sustainability of pulses at pulsepledge.com