The Executive Director of the Northern Pulse Growers Association reminisces about how far they’ve come and explains why the future is theirs for the taking.

By Dario Bard

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When it comes to the pulse industry in one of the world’s most important agricultural regions, Shannon Berndt, Executive Director of the Northern Pulse Growers Association, has seen it all. She was there from the earliest days of pulse production in the Northern Plains region, having grown up on a grain and cattle farm in Pollock, South Dakota and, straight out of college, having worked with North Dakota’s early pulse growers who were then struggling to establish what eventually evolved into the country’s most productive pulse growing region.

“When I first started working with them,” says Berndt, recalling her early experiences with the pulse industry in the late ’90s, “I wrote up a press release everyone was really excited about. We were about to double acreage … from a whopping 5000 acres to 10,000 acres the following year!”

Now, less than two decades later, Montana and North Dakota account for more than 85% of U.S. dry pea production and more than 75% of lentil production. Berndt has witnessed every step of the industry’s growth firsthand and, as the 2013 campaign gets underway with 50% of the crop planted late and concerns of frost on everyone’s mind, she is as optimistic as ever about the future.

“We continue to see new marketing opportunities emerge,” says Berndt. “As the acreage expands, processing facilities start to look at moving in and working with pulse flours and proteins and starches.” In fact, in early August, United Pulse Trading opened a new US$ 30 million processing facility in Minot, North Dakota, to do just that. “I think we’ll continue to see a lot of growth and excitement around pulses in the next several years to come.”

To hear Berndt tell it, the Northern Plains region is a land of boundless opportunities.

IFT: Tell me about the experiences that led you to become involved with the pulse industry?

Shannon Berndt: I started working with the pulse industry right out of college through an association management company that handled eight agriculture commodities; it just so happened that dry peas and lentils were among them. At the time, they had very limited acreage. There were several producers in the area that had pooled together funds and ideas and were trying to get the pulse industry moving in the region. They used their own dollars for marketing and that type of thing; their resources were really limited. Being associated with the company I worked for gave them the chance to really kick start their organization and launch their own association.

Then in 1997 they went to the North Dakota legislature and succeeded in having a check-off put in place on pulse crops that were sold or grown in the state. That meant that 1% of anything grown or sold went to marketing, research and education on pulse production in the region. That really kick started their organization because they then had funds to move forward with developing foreign markets, and they had money to put towards research into issues like disease and insect plagues.

Eventually, the association got to the point where they were large enough to go off on their own. They hired me in 2006 and I became the association’s executive director in 2008. It started out as a very small association originally called the North Dakota Dry Pea and Lentil Association. We joined up with the Montana producers in 2007 and that’s when we became the Northern Pulse Growers Association.

IFT: Back when you were at the association management company, was there something about pulses that appealed to you?

Shannon Berndt: When I started there I worked for three different groups: an association of buffalo producers; the dry pea and lentil group; and also a wheat and durum group. But the pulse industry was the most exciting at the time because there were so many things that were changing within that industry. And seeing its phenomenal growth is what has been most exciting. We’ve seen tremendous expansion with peas and lentils; with chickpeas, we are somewhat limited due to environmental conditions, but we are expecting a variety will come along that will work better in this region. So when I came in, it was a really exciting time. There was a lot of opportunity to expand acreage. Pulses were new to producers and they were interested in how they could fit them into their farming operations.

IFT: Over the course of your career, what are some of the more important changes you’ve noticed in the industry and in the Northern Plains region? You mentioned the acreage increase.

Shannon Berndt: A lot of the increase in acreage is due to more marketing opportunities. When the association first started, there was only a couple of processing facilities in the region for producers to market their crop. We now have several. We hear of interest to build more on a monthly basis. We have international and regional companies that have shown interest in handling pulses. That’s good for our producers and good for the increase in acreage because as long as they have a place to market their crop, they’ll continue to plant pulses.

IFT: To what do you attribute this boom in processing facilities?

Shannon Berndt: There’s two ways of looking at it. One is that producers have realized that pulses are a good fit within their agronomic practices; pulses put nitrogen back into the soil and help with soil health, and there is research that shows that crops following a rotation with pulses can have subsequent yield increases. So producers are seeing that pulses fit really well into their farming operations.

The second is that, because consumers are becoming more concerned with health and nutrition, we are hearing more about pulse crops. It’s interesting now that whenever you pick up a magazine there seems to be an article about lentils or garbanzo beans. Years ago, I don’t think the general public could have identified those two products, but now you see them on restaurant menus and store shelves. There seems to be a lot of interest being generated on the nutrition and dietary side. Processors are going to pull these two factors together. They are going to work with producers to get the acreage planted so they can then have enough supply to satisfy the growing consumer demand.

IFT: What changes do you anticipate for the future of the pulse industry overall and the northern plains region in particular?

Shannon Berndt: I think we will see more processing facilities and more companies working with pulse flours, proteins and starches because there seems to be a lot of interest from the food industry.

I also see such great potential for acreage growth in Montana right now. Fallow ground is now being turned over to pulse crops, so I see a very bright future for pulses in Montana. Producers there are excited about the nitrogen fixation properties of pulses. Some have told me that they can definitely tell the difference in soil health from having planted pulses several years in a rotation. Some of these guys might have gotten into pulses to give them a try and see how they performed and then, realizing the agronomic benefits and that the prices were there, they decided to stick with them.

The 2011 disaster is a testament to that. In 2011, we had a horrible weather year in North Dakota and lost more than 80% of our crop. The years prior to that, our acreage had stabilized; in North Dakota, it didn’t go up, but it also didn’t go down. Since 2011, we are seeing the acreage go up by 150,000 to 200,000 acres every year. So we are almost back to where we were when we had our weather disaster in 2011. I believe that’s because there are producers that have been planting pulses for years, they saw the rotational benefits, and once the ground had dried up—because there were a lot of areas that were too wet to plant pulses—they got right back into that pulse rotation again.

IFT: In terms of research, what are some of the recent new technologies that have been implemented or are under development?

Shannon Berndt: Our biggest focus is developing new varieties through the breeding program we established. We are looking at producing public varieties to give producers more options and opportunities to plant different varieties of peas, lentils and chickpeas. The breeding program works closely with the quality lab and our pathology program. They can actually select genetics based on drought and disease tolerance. With the quality lab, we take it one step further to meet the needs of clients that, say, want a pea that is high in starch; we can have the genetics in place to deliver a pea variety that is higher in starch than others. That, in my opinion, is really interesting because it means the opportunities are limitless when we start looking at developing products that are suitable to just about any market.

IFT: What are the biggest challenges facing the Northern Pulse Growers Association?

Shannon Berndt: Our biggest issue is continued growth on the acreage front. We want to make sure, as we are out there promoting and developing new markets, that the supply is always there to meet any new demand that we might generate. That’s our biggest hurdle. Making sure we get enough acreage in. Also, making sure producers are educated about pulse production. The first year they plant pulses, we want to give them all the education they need as far as what to look for in terms of disease presence in the field and what’s the best way to harvest; we want them to succeed.

IFT: Do you see new markets emerging for Northern Plains pulses?

Shannon Berndt: Absolutely. We’ve always worked with the livestock market on feed, and there are opportunities there; again, the challenge is making sure we have the supply to meet any demand we would create. I see a lot of opportunities on the livestock side and the domestic marketing side.

In terms of foreign markets, they have traditionally been the strongest for us, and I see that continuing as world population growth continues. Certainly, we are going to be in a lot of those countries that have always been big importers of our products. And of course products from major food companies that include pulse derivatives will be filtering into those regions, too. I think we’ll continue to see a lot of growth and excitement around pulses in the next several years to come.

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Photos provided by Northern Pulse Growers Association.