It’s a good thing Al Slinkard isn’t afraid of the cold.
It was a bone-chilling – 40 C when the father of Canada’s lentil industry reported to work at the newly formed University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre Feb. 1, 1972.
But he didn’t think twice about his decision to uproot his family from their home in northern Idaho and head north because the career opportunity was too good to pass up.
“I looked at the department and there was only about five people in it and 46 million acres of cropland under cultivation,” he said.
Slinkard was tasked with developing new lines of peas for the province’s growers, but the centre also wanted him to work on developing other special crops for a province that had become far too reliant on low-priced wheat.
Growers in Slinkard’s home state planted both peas and lentils, so the pea and grass breeder, who was recruited from the University of Idaho, knew the crops had similar climatic requirements.
According to Statistics Canada, 64,000 acres of peas were grown on the Prairies in 1972. It didn’t track lentils at that time, but Slinkard estimates there were 10,000 to 15,000 acres of the crop.
He obtained the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s collection of lentil varieties and grew them out to see which ones were suited for Saskatchewan. By 1975 he had identified 10 promising lines.
Two of them looked really good. One was a large-seeded variety and the other a small-seeded variety. Slinkard didn’t want to release both so he picked one.
“I remembered that consumers liked big and bright seeds, so I went with the one that had the biggest and brightest seeds,” said the 82-year-old retired breeder.
He named it the Laird lentil after Thomas Laird, a farmer from Rosetown, Sask., who had given the Crop Development Centre a $25,000 grant to produce new crops for his area of the province.
The variety was field-tested with producers in 1977. One grower in the Regina area planted 80 acres of lentils on summerfallow and another 80 acres on wheat stubble.
Both crops yielded 1,800 pounds per acre. It was a major research breakthrough for the crop.
“That indicated that we could grow lentils on stubble land and didn’t have to grow them on summerfallow,” said Slinkard.
Another fortuitous development that year was the extensive drought that hit eastern Washington and northern Idaho, which were the main lentil growing areas of North America.
Brokers had forward sold a bunch of the anticipated crop and were desperate to find lentils to fill those sales. They heard about the trials in Saskatchewan and came north, bidding up prices to 35 cents per pound.
Farmers growing the experimental crop grossed $700 per acre for their lentils that year compared to $100 per acre for wheat.
“You can imagine, everyone wanted to grow lentils the next year,” said Slinkard.
Laird lentils were commercially released in 1978 followed by the small-seeded Eston lentils in 1980.
Saskatchewan Agriculture special crops specialist Dale Risula said the moment Laird lentils hit the market was the birth of a pulse crop industry that generated $1.7 billion in farm cash receipts last year.
Saskatchewan now accounts for more than 50 percent of world pea and lentil exports.
The timing was right for the introduction of lentils. Farmers were clamouring for a new crop because wheat markets were severely depressed due to global overproduction.
“It was all negative returns that were shown on any of the farm budgets that were done at the time,” said Risula.
Acceptance was slow at first. There were a lot of disease problems, and farmers had trouble harvesting a crop that grew so low to the ground.
“A lot of people were running into the problems more so than the benefits,” he said.
Slinkard spent his winters on the speaking circuit encouraging farmers to experiment with the new crop.
“I had one little catch (phrase) — A, B, C: anything beats cereals,” he said.
The centre eventually introduced more disease resistant lines, and farmers started adapting their harvest equipment with floating cutter bars and pick-up reels and using land rollers to create a smoother soil surface.
“They could afford this because of the high price of lentils,” said Slinkard.
Risula said peas and lentils slowly began to gain momentum in the province’s Palliser Triangle area
“Up around 1990 it became very apparent that pulses were taking over,” he said.
He lived in Moose Jaw at the time and farmers there were increasingly incorporating lentils into what had been a wheat and summerfallow rotation.
By 1991 farmers were growing 600,000 acres of lentils and 500,000 acres of peas. This year they planted 2.38 million acres of lentils and 3.34 million acres of peas.
“The impact has been huge,” Risula said.
“It has been more than just income. It has been the health of the land.”
However, acreage has been tailing off in recent years. Pulses are facing stiff competition from high-priced wheat and canola. They also have to contend with corn and soybeans, two relative newcomers to Western Canada.
Risula said it has also been wet the last couple of years, and pulses don’t like having wet feet. He thinks acreage will rebound when the Prairies get back to the more familiar drier weather pattern.
However, he said it is also possible that pulses may continue to lose ground to competing crops in Canada and cheaper Black Sea peas and lentils.
“That’s why our research has to be focused on pulses that are higher in quality than those grown elsewhere.”
Chuck Penner, an analyst with LeftField Commodity Research, believes there is still a bright future for pulses.
“Some of the low fruit in pulse markets has already been picked,” he said.
Canada has done a good job of making inroads in traditional pulse consuming markets such as India and South America.
“We had a situation where we could have fairly rapid growth because we were focusing on markets that already existed,” he said.
“The next gains will be a little bit slower, but they’re out there.”
Penner believes there is going to be a push to increase dry bean production in Saskatchewan.
“That market is bigger than the lentil market, for sure,” he said.
“Dry beans are a huge opportunity. It’s a matter of finding the varieties and then producing them in a cost effective way.”
Penner also believes the increased consumer focus on sustainability in developed markets bodes well for pulses.
He thinks pulse acres are going to increase as Canada focuses more on serving niche markets rather than fighting it out with cheap Black Sea peas and lentils in bulk markets.
He also said the naysayers have been around since Slinkard’s time.
“And look at where we’ve come,” he said.
“The people who say, ‘no, it can’t be done,’ are typically proven wrong.”
Slinkard is also convinced pulses have a rosy outlook because there is an ever-growing need for vegetable-based sources of protein around the world.
However, even he is surprised at how well the crops he introduced to the Canadian Prairies have performed.
“I could not have conceived this amount of success when I first came here. It’s above and beyond my expectations,” said Slinkard.
“I can’t believe it, but I’m sort of proud of it.”
THEN: Fababean markets opening up in Man.
A fledgling fababean market has begun to develop in Manitoba this summer, with one feed mill ready to use beans, other feed mills prepared to consider purchases and Japanese buyers asking for up to 1000 metric tons next year.
Fababeans offer high protein content which can be used as a replacement for soybeans and barley in animal feed rations and which are popular as human food in many parts of the world.
This year, about 2000 acres of fababeans are expected to be harvested and used on Manitoba farms for feed and seed.
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