It remains a mystery to some in the pulse industry why lentil production seems to stop at the Saskatchewan-Alberta border.
“That’s an enigma. I’ve asked the same question,” said Neil Whatley, crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture.
Lentils are primarily grown in Sask-atchewan’s brown and dark brown soil zones.
Those same soil zones also extend across southern and central Alberta, yet the lentil production in that province is a fraction of what it is in Saskatchewan.
Saskatchewan growers planted three million acres of the crop last year, compared to 110,000 acres seeded in Alberta.
The contrast isn’t nearly as stark with peas: 2.5 million acres in Saskatchewan and 1.2 million in Alberta.
So why have peas caught on in Alberta while lentils haven’t?
“I don’t know,” said Whatley.
Leanne Fischbuch, executive director of Alberta Pulse Growers, doesn’t have a good explanation either.
She said Alberta growers are unfamiliar with the crop and may be concerned about its short stature, but the same could be said about Saskatchewan growers at one time.
One plausible explanation is that growers have more rocks to contend with in Alberta, so they don’t like short crops that are difficult to harvest.
“Alberta is created near the mountains so we do have a tendency to have rocks show up in spots in our fields on a regular basis,” said Fischbuch.
The association wants pulses to comprise 15 percent of the province’s crop production by 2020, up from five percent today.
In an effort to boost lentil production, the association is funding an Alberta Agriculture research project it hopes will encourage growers to try the crop.
Researchers are experimenting with nitrogen fertilizer rates, seeding rates and herbicide application rates on Clearfield lentil varieties in St. Albert, Killam, Brooks, Lethbridge and Falher.
Almost all lentil production occurs in southeastern Alberta near the Trans-Canada Highway. Fischbuch hopes the new research will help growers expand their horizons.
“Part of our hope is that growers will get a chance to tour these sites and take a look at lentils and maybe have that additional exposure to the crop,” she said.
Whatley believes some of the new varieties of red lentils on the market will boost the profile of the crop with Alberta growers.
“There has been remarkable improvement in lentil genetics in recent years contributing to an increase in grower satisfaction,” he said in a recent news release from Alberta Agriculture that encouraged growers to give lentils another shot.
Whatley thinks a lot of growers were turned off when they experimented with Laird and Eston green lentils years ago because those crops are indeterminate.
If there is adequate moisture and nitrogen in the soil, they keep growing and do not set seed.
“They kind of went to that lentil hay thing,” Whatley said in an interview.
The new lines of red lentils are more determinate and could be grown in Alberta’s thin black soil zone, which tends to have more soil moisture than the brown soil zones.
Whatley said growers may not know that Clearfield varieties are on the market, such as CDC Maxim CL and CDC Dazil CL, which are tolerant to Group 2 herbicides such as Odyssey.
“These varieties have good resistance to the once devastating ascochyta blight disease, and Maxim, for example, has good resistance to both ascochyta and anthracnose, the most common foliar lentil diseases,” he said.
Whatley said the new red lentil varieties are well adapted to Alberta’s brown, dark brown and thin black soil zones, are higher yielding than traditional varieties and have thicker and stronger stems that minimize lodging issues.
He believes Alberta’s lentil acreage will continue to expand this year, just like it did in 2013 and 2014.
“Given lentils’ current high price and its continually positive rotation effects as a grain legume, it appears to be another good crop option in 2015,” said Whatley.
Analysts are forecasting a big jump in Canadian lentil acres.
Chuck Penner, analyst with LeftField Commodity Research, is predicting a record 3.6 million acres in 2015, 16 percent more than last year.
Marlene Boersch, managing partner with Mercantile Consulting Venture, is forecasting a minimum 13 percent hike in lentil planting.
Whatley said one factor might prevent some growers from planting the crop this year in certain regions of Alberta.
“That Drumheller area is a pretty prime lentil growing area, but they’ve had some problems with root rot in peas,” he said.
Some of those root rot species can also attack lentils, so growers might shy away from planting the crop in infected areas.
Wes Reid, purchasing manager with W.A. Grain and Pulse Solutions, an Alberta pulse processer, also expects the recent pulse acreage trend to continue because the cash price for the crop is about 37 cents per pound and new crop bids are up to 27 cents.
“Before these last two years, the lentil price was sitting down in the 18 to 19 cent range and for Alberta farmers that doesn’t pay,” he said.
He believes international demand for the crop will be strong in 2015-16 because India’s red lentil crop is in trouble and supplies are constrained in other important markets such as Turkey.