Elevating pulse crops

In the agriculture world, the first page of fresh, new calendars are quickly filled during ‘meeting season’ for farmers. But the dawn of 2016 has been special in another way to a local producer.

In the agriculture world, the first page of fresh, new calendars are quickly filled during ‘meeting season’ for farmers. But the dawn of 2016 has been special in another way to a local producer.

Allison Ammeter and her husband Mike farm southwest of Sylvan Lake. They’re both involved in producer organizations, so are busy running to events this month. Allison is particularly enthused about her role as chair of the Alberta Pulse Growers, because 2016 has been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of the Pulse. That means a chance to elevate the humble bean and its cousins, to receive the worldwide recognition they deserve.

“It’s a fabulous opportunity for us to get the word out on what’s really an ancient grain,” explained Ammeter.

The roots of pulse crops may go back to history’s earliest records, but the industry believes the timing is perfect for a fresh look and a new appreciation of what’s really a super food. Plus it’s a great way to celebrate the key role dried beans, chickpeas and lentils play in feeding the world.

Ammeter sees pulse crops as really ‘having it all’. They’re a great source of protein, and more studies are showing how important such a low fat fibre can be to a healthy diet. Plus they’re winners on both affordability for food and environmental benefits for farmers.

As the Chair of the International Year of the Pulse Committee for all of Canada, Ammeter is off to Winnipeg this week for a pulse industry roundtable, to provide an update on activities in this country for the celebration.

“We’ll be doing various promotions, school activities, reaching out to the medical community, and more. I guess I’m the overarching cheerleader,” she smiled.

“It’s such a great ride and so exciting. Usually when you do this kind of work, there’s some kind of downside, but there’s just no downside to pulses!”

As a crop in central Alberta, pulses are one of the relative newcomers. I can remember in my “This Business of Farming” TV show days doing numerous interviews on the challenges of harvesting peas. But improved varieties and steady crop prices, not to mention the agronomic benefits of the nitrogen fixing ability of the crops, means that many farmers, like the Ammeters, have made pulse crops a regular part of their rotation.

“I was talking with someone this week who was involved in the early days of the Alberta Pulse Commission,” said Ammeter. “They thought then the market would be saturated if we hit a hundred thousand acres.”

“Last year, we grew 1.7 million acres. We expect even more to be planted this year with the prices the way they are. They’re so good for the soil, they need less water, and because they make their own fertilizer, are less expensive for inputs.”

Severe drought in India has made the pulse market an active one this year.

“India is the largest grower of pulses, but also the biggest consumer. Canada is the world’s largest exporter of pulses, so it impacts our prices. We’ve really got a perfect storm of strong prices at the same time we’re promoting the benefits of pulses.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations wants to promote pulses for food security, especially in areas like Africa. Pulse crops could be a double whammy of providing higher protein for a healthier diet as well as being good for the soil.

“There are 35 countries on the organizing committee for the Year of the Pulse,” adds Ammeter. “It always amazes me when we’re on a conference call, and getting updates from places like Japan and Norway. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that Pulse Canada is the envy of the world as an organization. We’re fortunate to have such a good overseeing group to promote the pulse industry.”

It’s only fitting to get some pulse eating tips from such a national pulse promoter!

“Well, I had always been old school – baked beans (from scratch), chili or split pea soup. But one of my favorites now is a Pulse Canada recipe for Butter Chickpeas.”

As well, in the ‘who would’ve thought you could use pulses here’ category, Ammeter’s family loves her cinnamon buns, which contained pureed beans. ‘Health by Stealth’ she calls that. She also now finds herself adding a handful of lentils regularly to store-bought soups for an extra dose of protein and texture, or pulling cooked beans out of the freezer to puree and add to baking recipes. And she has a tasty dahl dish on her ‘must try soon’ list. If you’re looking for interesting ways of incorporating pulses, she’s found a helpful book is Spilling the Beans by Calgary’s Julie Van Rosendaal and Sue Duncan.

Even better, Ammeter points to the Year’s unique promotion called the Pulse Pledge, a challenge asking people around the world to commit to eating pulses once a week for ten weeks. At www.pulsepledge.com you can sign up and get weekly tips or recipes to help with meeting the challenge.

The UN announced its upcoming focus on Pulse Crops at the end of 2013. Since then, the industry around the world has been gearing up for this special year, so is poised, and eager to get rolling. Allison Ammeter is excited about the potential impact such an international promotion can have on pulse production. But she wants to see the good news last more than just a year.

“Pulse crops are environmentally sustainable, healthy, tasty and economical. We hope the message keeps going even after 2016.”

Dianne Finstad is a veteran broadcaster and reporter who has covered agricultural news in Central Alberta for more than 30 years. From the Field appears monthly in the Advocate.

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