Only one hand shot up when Neil Whatley asked a recent crop tour near Castor if anyone was growing lentils this year.
Luckily, a more rigorous Statistics Canada survey tells the real story — there are a whole lot of hands growing lentils this year.
“There’s close to six million acres on the Prairies this year, and Alberta has close to 565,000 of those,” the provincial crop specialist said at the Battle River Research Group crop tour in mid-July.
“That’s a significant increase from what it was five years ago, and the acreage seems to be growing.”
Alberta more than doubled its lentil acreage in 2016, shooting up to 564,882 acres from 249,823 acres in 2015, according to Statistics Canada’s field crops report released June 29.
And that jump is thanks to strong lentil prices in 2015, said Nevin Rosaasen, policy and program specialist with Alberta Pulse Growers.
“The increased lentil acreage definitely has to do with the profitable returns that lentils can bring producers,” said Rosaasen.
“Last year, we saw record-high lentil prices across the Prairies, and of course, we saw some very attractive fall delivery contracts around that 40-cents-a-pound mark. When you pencil in a yield of, say, 20 to 30 bushels an acre for lentils, it’s very profitable.”
Lentils become even more attractive to growers when they factor in the cost savings of a crop that fixes its own nitrogen, added Rosaasen.
“When you can scrap your entire nitrogen bill off your cost of production, it makes for a very good net return per acre.”
Producers are also realizing that the new red lentil varieties are “much better” than the old green varieties that used to be the standard, said Whatley.
“The agronomic package is much more comfortable for the grain producer,” said Whatley, adding that the new red varieties have higher yields, reduced lodging, and improved disease resistance.
“These crops are much easier to grow than they used to be, so acres are expanding because of that.”
‘An irreversible trend’
And acres will only continue to expand as consumers become more interested in healthy eating, said Murad Al-Katib, president and CEO of Saskatchewan-based AGT Food and Ingredients.
“As a food industry, I think we have to be prepared for what could be a transformational earthquake that is coming with consumers where there is a connection between natural and non-GMO and healthy, clean labels. And pulses give us that opportunity to look at protein, fibre… micronutrients, natural biofortification.
“We are seeing all these trends aligning.
“When I look at the demand fundamentals from a product development standpoint and a consumer trend standpoint, this is actually an irreversible trend,” Al-Katib, who is also president of the Canadian Special Crops Association, told a record crowd at the Pulse and Special Crops Convention in Toronto last month.
“It’s not one that I think is grounded in a fad or some type of a temporary phenomenon where we are going to see pulse consumption and ingredients rise and then potentially taper off. We are ultimately looking at a high-protein, high-fibre, non-GMO, gluten-free product, with a very strong and environmental story to tell.”
Canada, the world’s largest pulse exporter, is expecting a record pulse harvest this year. The Statistics Canada survey showed that field pea acres across Canada increased from nearly 1.5 million acres in 2015 to more than 1.7 million acres in this year, with an increase in Alberta pea acreage from 584,800 acres in 2015 to 752,600 acres in 2016.
An expanding market
Despite a depressed stock market and low commodity prices, the future demand for pulses is huge, said Peter Hall, vice-president and chief economist with Export Development Canada. The U.S. economy is growing and so is China’s, along with its middle class and that of India’s, he said.
With Canadian pulse exports on the increase, people came to the convention to see what’s happening, said Gordon Bacon, president of Pulse Canada and CEO of the Canadian Special Crops Association.
“This is our biggest convention ever,” Bacon told reporters. “This is the biggest number of international delegates that we have ever had. I think it is all saying what we’ve been feeling, and that is this, the pulse industry is in the midst of an expansion in market base. Not only are we a big supplier on a global, traditional market scale, but we are starting to see this new level of interest.”
Back-to-back droughts in India, the world’s largest pulse importer, have contributed to the increased demand, pushing world prices up and enticing Canadian farmers to produce more, he added.
And interest will only grow, Al-Katib said, based on what he sees in young people, including his 14-year-old daughter.
“I would consider (her) a socially conscious, very intelligent young lady,” he said. “And she cares about her food labels. She wants to see natural ingredients. She cares about the environment. I wouldn’t consider her an environmentalist, but I consider her somebody who is… what the model consumer 10 years from now is going to look like.”