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Montana Pulse Farmers Hurt By Indian Politics, Boosted By Hummus

A bowl of hummus is surround by pieces of pita bread.
Public Domain
A bowl of hummus is surround by pieces of pita bread.

Americans’ growing love of hummus and other plant-based proteins has helped make Montana the number one producer of chickpeas and lentils in the country. But Big Sky farmers are watching politics in India and international trade disputes play out before going all in on a pulse crop powered love affair.

If you walk into a grocery store pretty much anywhere in America, the question you’re faced with isn’t whether you can buy hummus, it’s what kind of hummus you should buy — Mediterranean, garlic, sriracha?

Tim McGreevy, CEO of USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, says this represents an exciting shift.

“Hummus has just changed the whole landscape in the United States. I mean you really can’t have a good Superbowl party anymore without hummus on the table. I mean, let’s be honest, you’d be shunned,” says McGreevy.

According to the council, hummus sales in 1997 generated about $5 million. In 2018, sales were close to $1 billion. McGreevy says farmers have responded by planting more chickpeas, as well as more lentils and dry peas. 

“[Over the last 25 years] we’ve gone nationwide from 400,000 acres to 2016 and 2017 where we had 2.5 million acres, and Montana really has been a huge part of that growth where they’re producing over a million acres of these three crops,” says McGreevy.

But right now farmers in Montana are watching an election halfway around the world to see if their biggest market will reopen again. After India’s prime minister imposed high import tariffs on American pulses two years ago, McGreevy says exports decreased by about 90 percent. The fate of these tariffs depends on who is elected India’s next prime minister this week.

“India has been our largest market. In effect, India is the largest pulse consumption market in the world because 1.3 billion people, 80 percent of the Indian population is vegetarian,” he says.

That means they’re eating and growing a lot of dry peas, lentils and chickpeas for their daily protein intake.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigned on the promise of doubling farmer incomes by 2022. Farmers make up the largest voting block in India, and Modi imposed import tariffs on American pulse crops in November 2017 to help give Indian farmers a competitive edge.

“And you know, it’s been devastating in terms of a market for growers and of course prices have dropped precipitously,” says McGreevy.

America’s second biggest pulse export market has also shrunk. During trade disputes with China in 2018, American dry peas were hit with tariffs, along with soybeans and other agricultural products.

Prices are down30 to 50 percent. In response, farmers planted fewer acres of pulse crops this spring, even though they work really well in places like Montana.

Pulse crops grow really well in the cool, dry climate of Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Idaho. Because they fix nitrogen in the soil, many farmers have started using them in their crop rotations with wheat and other cereal grains to improve soil health and prevent plant diseases and pest outbreaks.

Montana State University Extension has also encouraged farmers to plant more pulse crops to cope with the trend of warmer and drier summers. The average annual temperature in the state has increased by 2.4 degrees over the last century, which is higher than the national average.

McGreevy says despite the struggles with the export market, he’s hopeful new consumer trends in America can help fill the gap. Demand for plant-based protein has led to more non-dairy milks, snacks, pastas and flour made with chickpeas, lentils and dry peas.

“So we really see that as basically growing our way out of these issues for the next five years, but it takes a little time," says McGreevy. "You can’t lose 400,000 to 500,000 metric tons of export sales and expect the domestic market to pick up immediately.”

The USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council says it will continue to work with the Indian and Chinese governments, and they’ve been pretty successful exporting to Pakistan.

McGreevy says he’s paying close attention to India’s parliamentary elections. Recent exit polls indicate Modi is headed for re-election. He has reiterated his promise to boost Indian farmer incomes, while his rival Rahul Gandhi has pledged more nonfarm work for rural communities.

Official results for India’s prime minister are expected to be announced Thursday.