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Growers take pulses to next level

HUGHTON, Sask. — Farmers were desperate to make a dollar, quotas were tight and grain was not worth much when the holy grail of lentils appeared on the prairie horizon.

“It was easy to convince people to get into it,” said Bill Copeland, who offered his farm near Hughton, Sask., for lentil and also barley research trials for three decades.

“Once it got going, it went like a wild fire,” said Bill, citing the large acreages of pulses today in west-central Saskatchewan. Today Canada is the largest pulse exporter in the world.

Bill said the allure was that pulses did not have to be marketed through the Canadian Wheat Board like barley and wheat. They could be cleaned and sold and the money pocketed immediately.

The research ended with the farm’s switchover to continuous cropping. CDC Copeland malt barley was named for him and his support of research.

Both he and his wife and home economist, Alma, were also inducted into the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame.

Hail damage challenged an early crop, but the Copelands still grew 1,100 pounds and sold them for as much as 20 cents.

“That was more money than we’d made off anything,” said Bill, whose business grew from pedigreed seeds to lentil cleaning and exporting.

Early crops performed well, yielding $350 an acre compared to $75/acre for wheat.

He and Alma farm with their son, Bob, president of Copeland Seeds. The farm business cleans and sells lentils, employs 15 people drawn from the local community and seeds 8,500 acres of malt barley, lentils, canola and durum wheat.

Alma said the establishment of their processing plant spiked an increase in acreage in their region.

Improved production techniques grew from trial and error, said Bill.

“There was nobody to talk to as it was the beginning of a new thing. We went mostly by the ass of our pants,” said Bill.

“You hoped you didn’t make too many errors.

“We started some new areas of agriculture which turned out to be very good for farmers, the industry and the health of the people of the world,” said Bill.

“Research trials were useful in showing what you should and shouldn’t do.”

He also used his agriculture degree and was helped by his friend and plant breeder Al Slinkard at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre. Slinkard, with John Buchan of Saskatchewan Agriculture, Canada’s first provincial special crops specialist, helped spearhead the creation of the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers.

Bill started with Chilean lentils provided by grain companies before moving into Laird lentils, named for Rosetown farmer Thomas Laird. He had given the CDC a $25,000 grant to produce new crops for his area.

Slinkard was behind the development of Laird, an extra large-seeded, late-maturing lentil that greatly advanced pulse growing. He also developed Eston, a short, small-seeded early maturing lentil and Indian Head, a green manure lentil.

Bob, a graduate of the agriculture school, said the university and industry contacts proved useful for their growing business that has witnessed increased volumes, industry expansion and specialization in lentils.

“It increased by at least 50 percent since I started,” said Bob.

It’s not uncommon to see people in the area planting 1,000 acres of lentils, he said.

He estimated lentils accounts for as much as 25 percent of the acreage in the west-central region.

Alma said the drier west-central region was well suited to grow them and free of stones that could hamper harvest. They were also good for crop rotations.

The farm found a flex header commonly used for soybeans worked well at harvest because lentils grow so close to the ground.

Looking ahead, Bob said the future of the family business depends on whether any of his three adult children will take it on.

“As our children become more involved, the children’s ideas may give us something to move forward with,” said Bob.

The Copelands sell lentils in countries as far-flung as Spain, Germany, Mexico, South America and Turkey and that has changed little since the early days, said Bob.

“Lentils are such an ancient grain. We are the new country that’s using them.”

“Everybody in the world eats lentil but North America,” said Bill.

Alma said that’s cultural, noting the many United Kingdom and Ukrainians that settled the Prairies and brought their meat and potato diets with them.

That is changing with the influx of new immigrants from places like the Middle East, where pulses are commonly consumed.

Bill thinks there is an untapped lentil market with athletes, due to their slow release of energy.

Looking back, Bill called taking on pulses a calculated risk.

“We were doing something new and it had the potential to go where it went,” he said.

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