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Winter Lentils on the Horizon

PULLMAN, Wash. — An agricultural research project begun 25 years ago may soon pay dividends to Northwest lentil growers and change the look of the Palouse landscape.

Lentils, a crop now planted only in the spring, may take their place in growers’ fields in the winter, alongside winter wheat and a handful of other crops planted in the fall.

Lentils are grown commercially as a “winter” crop only in the Middle East and South Asia, where mild climates preclude most crop-killing hard freezes.

“The material we are working with was collected in the highlands of Turkey about 25 years ago,” said Fred Muehlbauer, USDA-Agricultural Research Service legume breeder, stationed at Washington State University. “We’ve been working with it ever since in our breeding program.

“We are now getting types that are adapted here. They yield well; they’re tall; and they’ve got decent quality. I think we can start to think about releasing and commercializing them.”

When planted in late September or early October, winter lentils become established before winter sets in. With warm spring temperatures, the crop begins growing again and because of its head start, it blooms earlier. “This year we had material that was in bloom by May 20th,” Muehlbauer said, “while spring material only started to bloom on June 15th.”

He expects winter lentils would be ready for harvest three to four weeks earlier than spring lentils.

Fall-sown lentils benefit from cooler and more humid winter conditions and make more efficient use of available moisture because the crop is established and growing when evaporative demand is minimal. Spring sown lentils, which must germinate and emerge in May, are generally faced with warmer and dryer conditions during crop development.

Muehlbauer said fall establishment and growth during a more favorable part of the season appears to translate into larger yields for winter lentils, estimated to be 20 percent to 40 percent higher than spring lentils.

While yields alone might convince some growers to work winter lentils in their rotation, the biggest attraction of the crop is expected to be the void it would fill in direct seeding rotational systems, an increasingly popular farming method in which crops are planted into the stubble of previous crops.

“There are few broadleaf crops that can be planted in the fall now,” Muehlbauer said. “What the growers need for these direct seed systems is an alternative to cereal crops.”

That’s because lentils, a broadleaf crop, would help break plant disease cycles that start when one cereal crop is planted after another in the same field.

In direct seed systems, tillage is minimized to hold moisture in the soil, build soil organic matter, protect emerging crops from winter temperatures, suppress weeds and reduce soil erosion. “There would be virtually no erosion if the ground is not tilled,” Muehlbauer said.

Converting lentils to a fall-sown crop would also change the type of lentil Northwest growers now plant or provide an alternative to the traditional large-seeded “Chilean” type.

“The lines we have that have good winter hardiness are relatively small seeded,” Muehlbauer said. “Because winter hardiness seems to be associated with small seeds, we are developing winter lentils as a small- seeded, either red or yellow cotyledon type, which would be in demand in certain markets in South Asia and the Middle East.”

When might winter lentils make their debut?

“As soon as we can get seed supplies built,” Muehlbauer said. It could be within the next two or three years.

“Depending on what the processors want, winter lentils could be a big share of lentil production here, especially if we could get the small reds developed.”

The seeds of small red lentils, sometimes called Turkish reds, are commonly removed and split to make a value-added product that is popular in the Middle East and South Asia.

“There’s almost an endless market for that type,” Muehlbauer said, “and it can be produced successfully in the Palouse region.”

Washington and Idaho are the nation’s leading lentil producing states, harvesting a crop worth a combined $16.3 million in 1998, the most recent year in which complete statistics are available. Most of the crop is exported.

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