Tariffs and prices could be reasons for the drop in lentil acres in 2019, but lentils are still being raised in solid numbers in Montana and North Dakota.

In the most recent NAAS prospective plantings report, Montana producers intend to plant 300,000 acres of lentils this spring, down from 500,000 acres in 2018.

North Dakota producers intend to plant 160,000 acres, down from 185,000 acres.

Lentils remain a “uniquely suited and profitable rotational crop within the dryland wheat systems in the two states,” according to a four-year $3.2 million lentil grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“It’s testament, truly, to the tenacity of lentil growers that they have figured out how to grow this crop profitably in Montana, mostly using field practices borrowed from Saskatchewan and North Dakota, and using varieties developed in Washington and Saskatchewan,” said Perry Miller.

Mary Burrows, MSU Extension plant pathologist, the project director for the four-year grant, said the main barrier to lentil production is root rot disease.

“Root rot is a major threat to the lentil industry in North America and worldwide and there are few effective management options,” said Burrows said. “For foliar diseases we have fungicides, but for soil borne diseases like root rot, there are not many options.”

Of the fungal root rots, Fusarium is the major problem for farmers, and Canada, especially, has been dealing with Fusarium root rot for a long time.

“Fusarium is the most predominant and difficult to manage of the root rot causing fungi,” she said. “We know root rot has been a problem in Canada for longer than here because they have been growing pulse crops for many more years than us.”

Part of working with the root rot disease complex involves artificially infesting fields with Fusarium in Montana and North Dakota.

Those research centers in Montana involved in the project include: Bozeman, Havre, Moccasin and Sidney, and the centers in North Dakota involved include: Carrington, Hettinger, and Minot. One center will be a control.

At North Dakota State University’s Carrington Research Extension Center in Carrington, Mike Ostlie, agronomist, said CREC has been growing different varieties of lentils for many years.

“We have a long history of growing lentils here at the research center. Lentils can absolutely be grown in this part of North Dakota,” Ostlie said.

Ostlie hopes the grant will give them more information on lentil agronomics.

“While lentils do well in the Northern Plains Environment, we need to update our lentil production practices,” he said.

The grant is broad, allowing for many aspects of lentil production to be looked at. Manuals about growing lentils can be updated from the new information gathered from both Montana and North Dakota research centers.

“There are some basic agronomic issues we need to find out. With fertility, lentils are a legume so we’re not too concerned about nitrogen, but what about sulfur? There is a potassium component to the sulfur, as well,” he said.

CREC will also be studying different varieties of green lentils, finding out about yield and determining best management practices.

“There have been a couple of producers in the Carrington area who have tried lentils, and in drier years, it is a really good crop for most of the state’s producers,” Ostlie said.

In wetter years, producers need to keep “an eye on things,” and add fungicides as needed to protect the crop.

“We know that adds to the input costs,” he said.

Diseases, such as Fusarium root rot and foliar diseases are issues that Ostlie hopes can be managed or solved as a major part of the grant.

“One of our biggest considerations is we do not want tight rotations with broadleaf crops and lentils, which can cause diseases,” he said.

Miller pointed to the fact that solidifying lentil agronomics practices could be huge for farmers.

“Surely there are production aspects unique to Montana waiting to be discovered and with more than 500,000 acres in some years, even a 5 percent bump in yield will be economically important,” Miller said. “This project aims to refine local agronomic practices for lentil that maximize yield and minimize root disease.”

Understanding root rot will be a complex endeavor, since agronomy and disease likely interact with genetics. Plant height differs; seed size varies and seed color has wide variability.

The USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, University of Idaho and MSU wrote the grant, organized the first stakeholder meeting and wrote the Pest Management Strategic Plan.

“Our primary mission is learning more about the disease complex, developing resistant varieties, figuring out agronomic practices that are beneficial in preventing root rot, and investigating whether any of the things we test affect the nutritional quality of lentils,” Burrows added.

Stakeholders for the grant include lentil producers, plant pathologists, research agronomists, food lab scientists, agronomists, plant geneticists, industry representatives and others in Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Canada.

“Stakeholders (lentil growers) identified what kind of research they needed and what they wanted us to investigate,” Burrows said. “This entire project is a stakeholder-identified and stakeholder-driven project, and we would not have developed this plan without their support, encouragement and investment.”