Summer fallow, wheat, soybeans — or some variation on that crop rotation — is common in the semi-arid climate of western Nebraska, but some farmers are bucking the trend and replacing summer fallowing with pulse crops.

The pulse crop industry in Nebraska, specifically field peas, has been growing steadily since 2011. Since then, the acreage of field peas grown in the state have increased from 10,000 acres to 60,000 in 2017, and the number of certified seed dealers has blossomed from two to eight.

Pulses are a sub-category of legumes or plants whose seeds are incased in pods. Pulses are identified as the dried seed of a plant, including dried beans, dried peas, lentils and chickpeas.

According to Strahinja Stepanovic, an extension educator at Perkins County Extension, the integration of pulses into crop rotations in Nebraska started in the Panhandle, where because of the semi-arid climate, farmers often leave fields fallow as part of their crop rotation. The practice helps restore soil conditions for the next crop. Planting field peas or chickpeas is an option for farmers looking to avoid leaving the field unplanted.

Stepanovic organized the second Pulse Crop Expo in Grant in mid-January. The first Pulse Crop Expo organized by UNL Extension was held in November of 2016 in Culbertson.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations named 2016 the “International Year of the Pulse” in an effort to draw attention to the nutritional benefits and sustainable production that pulse crops offer.

Steven Tucker, a farmer and co-founder of AgriForce Seed in Venango, attended the expo this year and anticipates growth in the industry.

“Based on what happened last week (at the expo) the grower interest is just phenomenal — off the charts — people are interested in trying to figure out how to grow pulses,” Tucker said.

Production gains across the U.S. are largely because of increased acreage of pulses in Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota, according to the USDA Vegetables and Pulses Outlook report released in October 2017. Trends in health and nutrition have increased human consumption of chickpeas, black-eyed peas and lentils in the U.S. because pulses can provide a protein alternative to meat.

“The markets are exploding on a global level. They are growing in terms of volume and also in terms of diversity,” Stepanovic said. “The markets are not only for human consumption, but also for pet food and animal feed.”

Outside of domestic consumption, India is one of the largest importers of U.S. pulse crops, importing 294,826 metric tons in 2017.

“India has been an important market for U.S. green and yellow peas, in particular,” according to the October USDA Vegetables and Pulses Outlook report. However, India imposed a 50 percent import tax on peas in early November, and in December added a 30 percent tariff on imported lentils and chickpeas. Despite those moves and a decrease in pulse prices on a global level, “The processors here, all the buyers, have offered amazing contracts with farmers, and prices are holding relatively steady,” said Stepanovic.

In addition to stable market prices and an opportunity to profit on crops other than standard commodities, planting pulses can increase soil health and break up insect and disease cycles that typically occur in standard rotations.

That’s why Tucker began planting pulses about six years ago.

“I am a very diversified farm and have not set crop rotation; my rotations are based off of two factors — whatever the ground needs and whatever the profitable opportunity is,” he said.

Tucker farms 4,000 acres near Venango. He uses no-till practices and tries to employ regenerative agriculture practices and scientific research. Tucker says peas are a good fit for the crop rotation because they have high water-use efficiency, but the limiting factor that has affected yield the last few years has been high temperatures when the plants are flowering.

“We’re still in the early stages of trying to figure out what works down here and how to make it work and looking at the varieties to get some that tolerate that," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-2648 or kwolf@journalstar.com.