It is one of the best good news stories to come out of agriculture in the past 30 years.
It is a story that shows how an idea and desire, if deftly managed and based on sound principles, can be built into an entire new industry, generating new jobs and money-making opportunities in a myriad of spin-off businesses.
For the first time last year, lentils ranked as the top earner among all crops for Sask-atchewan farmers when considering only seed sales.
The province’s lentil exports equalled $2.5 billion last year, compared to $2.4 billion for canola and $2.3 billion for wheat.
It is a startling rise for a crop that was seldom heard of when Al Slinkard, who many consider the father of Canada’s lentil industry, arrived at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre in 1972.
Slinkard estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 acres of lentils were being grown on the Prairies at that time. Last year, Saskatchewan alone seeded 3.7 million acres.
Lentils’ climb to the top is due mostly to the record high prices being offered for green lentils and near record prices for red varieties, which have been boosted by poor harvests in India. Last year, Sask-atchewan shipped $961 million worth of lentils to India.
Coincidentally, the announcement of 2015’s landmark year comes as the world enters the International Year of Pulses.
The breakthrough serves as a tip of the hat to Slinkard and his team, who stick handled their vision for a vibrant pulse crop sector, particularly for lentils and peas, through the system. They saw pulses as a way to offer producers a new option to what had become a low value wheat crop in the 1980s.
The lentil story began with a variety called Laird. Not only did early tests show that it had the ability to become a solid, economically sound option for prairie farmers, it also tested well when planted into wheat stubble, making it a good fit with the no-till revolution that was sweeping into the farm research lexicon at the time.
As well, its ability to fix nitrogen in the soil made it a valuable contributor to farm rotations.
Since then, many new lentil varieties have come to market, which give farmers a valuable economic and agronomic tool.
The lentil success story illustrates how a bold vision can gather momentum. It also shows the valuable returns that can be realized from proper research funding.
If the research can prove the product’s value, farmer interest will follow, and with that comes increased funding and even greater farmer interest.
It is a lesson we should heed when exploring the many potential new crop options now coming down the pike. Which of those might become tomorrow’s lentils?