By Tom Driscoll, Director of NFU Foundation and Conservation Policy

Here on the Climate Column, we have discussed the climate benefits that can be achieved through extending crop rotations. A longer rather than shorter rotation can

  • mitigate erosion if the rotation reduces or eliminates time that soil lays bare;
  • assist with pathogen, pest and weed infestation by interrupting consecutive plantings of vulnerable “host” crops; and
  • reduce input costs when the rotation includes crops that fix atmospheric nutrients in the soil and encourage microbial activity.

In a Climate Column post this spring, we discussed the specific benefits of adding oats to the rotation on more Iowa farms, as well as supports available to farmers to help create the market infrastructure to bring the oats to consumers, thus securing more value for their crops along the way.

That line of thinking extends to other crops. In some cases, consumer demand is already growing for crops that can be grown in rotation with major cereal crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) February Amber Waves article pointed out that US production of pulses, including lentils, has expanded recently, supported by both strong exports and increased domestic demand. The article notes that lentils are gluten free, contain substantial amounts of fiber and protein, and can be readily used in snack foods. With these qualities, demand for the crop is likely to remain stable or continue to grow. This trend is also noted in a From the Field July blog post documenting NFU members’ experiences with pulse crops. Many farmers have increasingly turned to pulses as an alternative to wheat, as grain prices have been unreliable in recent years.

Farmers in some areas may be able to capitalize on this trend by including lentils in their rotations. They would also secure benefits for the cereal crops they are already growing in the form of resilience to disease and pests and biological nitrogen fixation. Lentils are also relatively drought-tolerant, growing best in cool, dry regions.

Yet even with growing demand, considerations such as the availability of appropriate equipment, access to markets, and the relative lack of research dedicated to legume science and breeding may keep farmers from securing the advantages of a rotation including lentils. Effective mechanical harvest of lentils is challenging because of the plant’s short stature, but greater consumer demand and interest in the crop’s environmental benefits will ideally drive improvements in production methods and equipment.

Would lentils make sense in your crop rotation? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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