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Amid Farm Bill cuts, chickpeas and lentils may get a boost

Chenfei Zhang Correspondent

WASHINGTON - Jim Thompson of Farmington has raised peas and lentils for more than 20 years and has seen an increase in worldwide demand for both in the last decade.

“Thanks to that, the price was fairly strong in recent years,” Thompson said recently.

The next farm bill could make the demand even stronger.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., wants the government to help double production of those crops over the next eight years. On Friday, Cantwell introduced an amendment to bring peas and lentils into the school breakfast and lunch programs.

The measure would increase funding for research on so-called pulse crops, which include dry beans, dry peas, lentils and chickpeas. The term comes from the Latin word “puls,” which means thick soup.

Scientists who study the health and nutrition of these crops would receive grants totaling $125 million over next five years if the initiative passes with the farm bill later this year. Most money would go to the Washington State University and the University of Idaho, according to Tim McGreevy, chief executive officer of the American Pulse Association, a collaboration between the nation’s Dry Pea and Lentil Council and Dry Bean Council.

Chickpea is another crop gaining in popularity. Its acreage in Washington state has exploded from less than 10,000 acres in 2000 to 80,000 this year. A primary factor has been the significant demand for hummus, McGreevy said.

In the past few years, more than 1,000 farms that grow these crops in Washington have helped make the state one of the biggest producers of pulse crops in the nation.

McGreevy thinks the research would bring “a turning of the times” to the industry.

“Currently, the investment research on pulse crops is only less than $3 million a year,” he said. “They are definitely under-researched.”

McGreevy also owns a small family farm where he grows chickpeas north of the Washington State University campus in Pullman. Pulse crops are great sources of dietary fibers and proteins, he said, and eating them could help with weight control and the chronic diseases associated with obesity.

But pulse crops have long been overlooked as a health-promoting food, he said, pointing to USDA’s 2010 dietary guidelines, which cut the recommendation for pulse foods in half, from 3 to 1.5 cups per week.

“The nutrition value they bring to the table is impressive,” he said. “But the problem is we don’t have research to support the health effects of these crops. We want to show Americans these are really worth including in their diet, and the funding can give us tools to inform them.”

More research could lead to more demand, which could mean more production that would boost the local economy. Cantwell said more peas, lentils and chickpeas equal more jobs around the state, not just on farms.

“It would mean more jobs at processing plants, ports and farm supply companies,” she said.

Chenfei Zhang, a student in the University of Missouri’s Washington Reporting Program, is a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review.
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