The Palouse region of Eastern Washington and Idaho is famous for for its rolling hills of wheat. Until the early 2000s, it also was famous as the lentil capital of the United States, producing nearly 100 percent of nation's lentil crop. Lentils, which are commonly used as a rotation crop for wheat -- reducing diseases, requiring less fertilizer, and helping control grassy weeds -- are well suited to the Palouse's fertile soils and growing conditions. In 1937, Palouse growers harvested the first commercial crop, worth $30,000. The majority of the commercial crop has always been exported, although domestic consumption has increased. The industry peaked in 1980, when 163,000 acres were harvested, yielding 163 million pounds of lentils, worth about $43 million. Since then, due to the introduction of additional rotation crops and increasing lentil acreage in other states, Washington's lentil production has steadily decreased. By 2021 it made up only 12.7 percent of the nation's total production. In 2019, Washington farmers harvested 68 million pounds of lentils on 62,000 acres, worth nearly $14 million.
Lentils (Lens Culinaris) are part of the legume family known as pulses. Legume refers to any plant that grows in a pod, and pulse refers to the dry, edible seeds within the pod. Other common pulses include dried beans, chickpeas, and split peas. Lentils are planted in April or May and harvested in late summer. The pods usually contain two seeds each. Lentils come in large and small sizes and in a variety of colors, including yellow, red, green, brown, and black. They are sold with or without hulls, whole or split.
Lentils are among the earliest domesticated plants, although findings from Israel suggest wild varieties were gathered by humans 23,000 years ago. Some of the earliest evidence suggests humans were cultivating lentils in 8000 B.C.E. along the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now northern Syria. As agriculture spread from the Middle East, lentils were introduced in Europe and Egypt, showing up in Greece by 6000 B.C.E. and in Egyptian tombs at Thebes dating to 2400 B.C.E. Lentils even show up in some translations of the Bible, in Genesis, when firstborn Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for lentil stew.
Eventually, lentils made their way into Western Europe and then to the Americas in the early sixteenth century via Spanish and Portuguese explorers. Today, lentils are a staple of the Mediterranean diet and are popular in Middle Eastern and Indian diets, with India accounting for approximately half of the world's lentil consumption. Lentils are often considered a meat substitute in vegetarian diets because the tiny pulses are rich in protein and provide B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and zinc. Despite their nutritious advantage, however, lentils didn't catch on with U.S. consumers until well into the twentieth century.
Lentils Sprout on the Palouse
In 1916, J. J. Wagner (1884-1964), a farmer from Farmington in Whitman County, planted Persian-type lentils in a pair of 60-foot rows in his orchard from seed he received from a fellow Seventh-day Adventist. Encouraged by Brother Schultz, a minister from Germany, to plant more and sell them, Wagner planted about an acre of lentils the next year. He sold the crop to B. L. Gordon, a wholesale house in Spokane, for 9.25 cents per pound, making approximately $130 on the Palouse's first lentil crop. Wagner developed a successful mail-order business for his lentils, especially among Seventh-day Adventist congregations, academies, and businesses. Prices ranged from 6 cents to 13 cents a pound. In 1928, Wagner planted a "Chilean" type of lentil, which was in bigger demand due to its larger size.
During those early years of lentil production, Wagner mowed, windrowed, and hand-pitched his crop into a combine for threshing, making for a labor-intensive harvest. In the early 1930s, two inventions helped pave the way for future, large-scale production. In 1932, James E. Love, from Garfield in Whitman County, invented a flexible, floating cutter bar for combines that followed the contour of the ground, making it possible to harvest lentils in a single operation. Love and Horace D. Hume created the Hume-Love Company to manufacture the cutter bar that same year. In 1934, the company developed the first tined pick-up reel for grain combines, significantly reducing crop losses and increasing the efficiency of the cutter bar.
In order to protect his mail-order market, Wagner refused to sell any lentil seed to local seed companies. But in 1936, a farmer who acquired Chilean-type lentil seed from Wagner sold his seed to the Washburn-Wilson Seed Company of Moscow, Idaho. The Moscow seed company began contracting lentil acreage to farmers throughout the Palouse. Farmers in Whitman County formed a cooperative cleaning and packing establishment for both lentils and peas. In 1937, the Spokane Spokesman-Review estimated that farmers in Whitman County made $30,000 off of lentils. At the annual pea growers meeting that year, nearly 1,000 farmers heard Herman N. Wilson, president of Washburn-Wilson Seed Company, declare that lentils were "something for all of us to be thinking about" ("Pea Lands ...").
At first, Wagner wasn't happy that lentils were being commercialized. He would come to change his mind:
"Now we thought all was lost out of our hands, and it was bad for a year or two with prices down to 3½ cents a pound. Yet a good thing was happening through all this, and crops increased until there were thousands of acres planted. This created competition on the open market until the price even reached 15 cents a pound. We shipped lentils for 30 years, and once in two weeks, I had 65 checks to take to the bank" ("My Life History ...")
The budding lentil industry received another boost in 1938 when the Spokane Seed Company decided to concentrate on processing and marketing dry peas and lentils. The Spokane Chronicle called Farmington the lentil capital of the Inland Empire, as farmers within a 10-mile radius harvested roughly 15,000 bags that fall. Shipments of lentils were going to eastern markets as well as Cuba. A year later, the Spokesman-Review called Farmington the largest lentil-producing area in the world.
Production and Value
Lentils, along with dried peas, quickly became a viable alternative for the Palouse's wheat crop. As the price of wheat rose and seeding conditions changed, alternative crop acreage fell, and vice versa. Despite the ups and downs of the market, lentil acreage steadily increased. From those initial acres in 1937, Palouse farmers planted approximately 3,000 acres in 1948, rising to nearly 12,000 acres in 1957.
Lentil production held steady through World War II, as the pulses became an important protein in the face of meat scarcities. In early 1943, lentils, including lentils for seed, were added to the ration list by the Office of Price Administration due to heavy demand by American and Russian armed forces. However, the agency quickly reversed itself, saying if the lentils were to be planted, no rationing would be involved. "If the farmer doesn't look too hungry and the ration board is satisfied he means to plant his beans instead of eat them, a certificate will be issued for the number of points necessary to buy the quantity of seed authorized," the Spokesman-Review reported ("Bar Pea ...")
After the war, lentil production in the Palouse fluctuated. Rising prices increased production, which in turn decreased prices, followed by a decrease in production, until prices increased again. By 1960, harvested lentil acreage in Washington had hit 37,000 acres, yielding 26.6 million pounds, worth $2.2 million.
Until the early 1960s, lentil growers had little to no financial recourse when a natural disaster hit their crops. But in 1962, the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) announced a guaranteed production plan for lentils beginning with the 1963 crop for Whitman and Spokane counties in Washington and Benewah, Kootenai, Latah, and Nez Perce counties in Idaho. Previously, only wheat and barley were eligible for all-risk protection. Crop protection proved critical in 1977 when severe drought hit the region. Washington State University reported that precipitation in Spokane from September 1976 to April 1977 was 31 percent of normal. The drought caused lentil production in the Palouse to drop to its lowest point in 20 years. It got so bad that the FCIC stopped selling crop insurance for spring crops a month earlier than normal due to the increasing risk of drought-related crop disaster. "This is the worst weather I've seen here in over 50 years. Everyone you talk to says it's the driest in memory," one farmer said ("Rain Late ...")
Washington farmers harvested 90,000 acres of lentils in 1977 with an average yield of only 230 pounds per acre, a drop of 78 percent from the previous 10-year average of 1,037 pounds per acre. Some Whitman County farmers harvested fewer lentils than they planted. One farmer reported a yield of 19 pounds an acre in an area where lentils were typically seeded at a rate of 75 to 80 pounds per acre.
Weather wasn't the only factor that hurt lentil acreage and yields. Disease, pests, and weeds also took their toll. Farmers battled periodic aphid infestations, and for many years, a lack of herbicides authorized to control broadleaf weeds in lentils dented yields. Transportation was also an issue. In 1971, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) went on strike, shutting down all West Coast ports for 130 days. With the majority of the lentil crop going to overseas customers, lack of exporting capabilities meant there was no way to ship the pulses. To make matters worse, growers had limited storage options. "This is hurting so many, because we have a record-breaking crop now, and no way to ship it or no place to store it. We're trying to find places now," said Patrick C. Johnstone, president of Spokane Seed Company ("Strike ...")
Railroads were a vital part of the lentil industry, but in 1989, the Union Pacific Railroad Company announced plans to abandon 69 miles of rail between Colfax and Spokane. At the time, the industry estimated that lentils filled 200 to 400 railcars a year on those lines. Growers appealed, saying that losing the lines would increase road traffic and raise shipping costs by 10 to 12 percent. The appeals weren't successful, and the lines were abandoned in 1991.
Despite the obstacles, the lentil industry kept moving forward. From the drought-induced low in 1977, lentil farmers quickly rebounded with bin-busting harvests in 1980 (163,000 acres, worth $43 million), 1981 (146,000 acres, worth $22 million), and 1982 (150,000 acres, worth $21 million). The majority of the lentil crop (75 to 80 percent) was still exported, and the industry's customer base had shifted from Europe to Africa. Algeria, which took 45 percent of the crop in the 1979-1980 marketing year, was the biggest customer. Egypt and Colombia also were major markets.
The increase in lentil production wasn't due only to increases in acreage, however. Industry funding for research, mainly conducted by Washington State University and USDA's Agricultural Research Service, contributed. In 1969, researchers released "Tekoa," a better yielding variety with larger seeds, a more uniform color, and fewer disease problems than the other Chilean-type lentils being grown. "Red Chief," a red lentil, was released in 1979 to target the Middle Eastern market. In 1989, "Emerald" was released. Rather than turning brown when cooked, this variety stayed green, which the industry hoped would appeal to consumers.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the Palouse still produced the majority of lentils in the U.S. and Canada, but a major shift in the industry was about to happen. In 1982, Canada produced more lentils than the U.S. for the first time, increasing competition for foreign and domestic markets. The Canadian industry got its start in 1971, when the University of Saskatchewan established the Crop Development Centre to develop new crops to improve economic returns for Canadian farmers. After a few stumbles, Canadian production took off from less than 1 percent of the total U.S. harvest in 1976 to 7 percent more than the U.S. harvest in 1982.
The Palouse would remain the top U.S. lentil producer for another 23 years, but domestic competition was also growing, spurred by a new $12 to $15 million subsidy for peas and lentils included in the 2002 Farm Bill. In 2005, both North Dakota (130,000 acres) and Montana (170,000 acres) farmers planted more lentils than Palouse farmers (85,000 acres). From that point on, the Northern Plains would dominate U.S. lentil production. Lentil acreage in Washington state slowly declined from 78,000 acres harvested in 2010 to 62,000 acres harvested in 2019.
From the beginning, the commercial lentil industry in the Palouse relied primarily on foreign markets. As with other commodities, growers marketed their lentils through group efforts, and most growers organizations represented farmers in both Washington and Idaho. State-specific organizations tended to work very closely with the other state's counterpart.
The first lentil-specific group of farmers, the Pioneer Lentil Growers Association, was reported a mere four years after the initial commercial crop was planted. Another early effort at organizing growers came in 1949 when the Pacific Northwest Pea Growers and Dealers Association filed incorporation papers. The association's purpose was to work as an industry on legislation, freight rates, and selling methods. Although lentils were not specifically mentioned, the organization shared staff with other pea and lentil organizations and was instrumental in future lentil marketing efforts.
The Washington Association of Dry Pea and Lentil Producers (WADPLP) incorporated in 1961 to seek new uses for peas and lentils, develop programs for better seed, insect, disease, and weed control, and conduct marketing research. Gerald Miller of Garfield was elected president, and the association immediately launched an extensive membership drive with an 18-man committee. The group's first annual meeting that year had a total of 116 producers and visitors in attendance. Harold Stueckle, a pea and lentil farmer from Colfax, and vice president of WADPLP, promoted the industry during a 10-country European trip sponsored by USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service.
The first example of cooperation between Washington and Idaho lentil commodity associations happened at the end of 1961 when Stueckle, now president of WADPLP, urged Idaho growers to form their own association. He suggested that the two groups could pool their efforts to provide research, market utilization, and bargaining powers. By January 1962, the Idaho Dry Pea and Lentil Association was official.
At the beginning of 1963, perhaps recognizing the need to finance marketing and research efforts in order to grow the industry, WADPLP members proposed forming a seven-member commodity commission financed by assessments of 3 cents per hundredweight (cwt) of Austrian or winter peas, 4 cents per cwt of other dry peas, and 6 cents per cwt of lentils. At that time, the Washington State Department of Agriculture said there were 1,400 pea and lentil growers in Washington. According to NASS, the state's lentil crop in 1963 was worth $3.2 million. But not everyone favored creating such a commission. In a letter to the editor, Joe Fulton, chairman of the Committee Against Pea and Lentil Commission, said, "The forming of commissions under enabling legislation deserves your serious study, for these methods have been used successfully in the process of gradually changing other representative governments into socialistic states. They inevitably become instruments for disciplining the producer, not representing him" ("Plight ...")
Voting for creation of a commission was close, with 166 contested ballots. When the dust settled, the proposal was officially defeated 482 to 428. Growers immediately pressed WADPLP to try again in order to fund research at Washington State University. According to WADPLP directors, the university breeding program needed $25,000 every year.
As renewed efforts for setting up a commission began, the Washington and Idaho associations and the Pacific Northwest Pea Growers and Dealers Association agreed in 1964 to work together to develop new markets for dry peas and lentils using foreign market development funds from the Foreign Agriculture Service. To administer the funds, they set up the Dry Pea and Lentil Foreign Market Development Committee, which was housed within the Pacific Northwest Pea Growers and Dealers Association. Within a few years, the committee morphed into the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, which would eventually cover the entire U.S. pulse industry.
The second attempt at establishing a pea and lentil commission took place in 1965. This time, the effort was successful by a vote of 609 to 409. The Washington Dry Pea and Lentil Commission (WDPLC) was established on July 1, 1965. Growers were assessed 3 cents per cwt on smooth dry green/yellow peas, 2 cents per cwt on green/yellow seed peas, and 4 cents per cwt on lentils. Estimated annual assessments were $80,000. Mel Ensley of Colfax was appointed chairman.
A corresponding Idaho commodity commission formed around this same time. The two commissions begin searching for a joint administrator, eventually hiring Spokane native Harold Blain. At first, the Washington commission was based in Pullman, while the Idaho commission was based in Moscow. In 1968, however, the two commissions combined efforts and moved into a trailer straddling the state line between Moscow and Pullman. Eleven years later, the industry built a new building close to the same location, housing not only the two state commissions, but the offices of the Pacific Northwest Pea Growers and Dealers Association and the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council. Blain's office sat right on top of the state line, so half of it was in Idaho and half was in Washington.
In its first year, the WDPLC authorized grants relating to research and hired a home economics consultant to help develop recipes for dry peas and lentils. It also helped fund a promotional exhibit at the Osaka International Trade Fair in Japan in 1966. More than a million people saw the display, which contained varieties of dry peas and lentils grown in the Palouse. Over the next few years, the commission also participated in international trade exhibitions in Paris and Italy.
A Push for Domestic Sales
While 85 percent of the lentil crop was still exported, the WDPLC increased its focus on domestic sales, especially as competition for overseas markets grew and research efforts resulted in larger yields. In 1968, the commissions authorized $10,000 for an advertising campaign in New York City to get peas and lentils on restaurant menus at least once a week. It also developed a series of recipe booklets for distribution through supermarket chains and newspapers. A few months later, both commissions authorized sending six pounds of peas and lentils to 50 food editors. They even developed a lentil soup recipe chosen to be served once a week in the U.S. House of Representatives cafeteria. "Consumers in other countries are more acquainted with the use of peas and lentils than we are, and that's what we're trying to correct," Blain explained ("Campaign ...")
Increased marketing efforts meant an increased need for funds. In 1982, growers voted to increase the assessment on lentils to 6 cents per cwt (increased assessments on dry peas, Austrian winter peas and chickpeas were also approved). Other domestic marketing efforts included a product kit that packaged the ingredients for two pea and lentil dishes with a recipe booklet. Consumers could write in and request a kit be mailed to them. Another 1980s marketing effort was known as PALS (Pea and Lentil Ladies). This volunteer organization of the wives of Palouse farmers and pulse processors helped promote lentils at county fairs, department stores, food fairs, and conventions.
The domestic marketing efforts were effective. Blain reported that Americans ate 25 million pounds of lentils in 1983, up from 3 million pounds 10 years earlier.
Washington lentils got another chance to shine in 1985 when Whitman County farmer Bruce Nelson called into NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman" to persuade Americans to eat more lentils. Lentils even got their own festival. Pullman has hosted the National Lentil Festival every year since 1989. The festival features the world's largest bowl of lentil chili, a lentil cookoff, cooking demos, sporting events, and a parade. Washington's lentil industry is represented by two other national and regional organizations: the US Pea & Lentil Trade Association, which dates back to 1963, represents the trade portion of the pulse industry, and the Western Pulse Growers' Association, established in 1965, addresses market development, research, and educational programming.
Into the Next Century
Changes were afoot in the state's lentil-related organizations. By 1993, the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council (USADPLC) had absorbed the Washington and Idaho growers, processors, and exporters associations. Today, USADPLC manages the research, marketing, and government affairs of the dry pea, lentil, and chickpea industry across the U.S. It represents 10,000 growers, processors, exporters, and associates. It is funded by commissions in pea and lentil-growing states.
In 1994, Harold Blain retired after 29 years managing USADPLC and the Washington and Idaho lentil commissions. Tim McGreevy, former executive director of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, took over. Besides managing the commissions, McGreevy is also chief executive officer of USADPLC and the American Pulse Association, which was established in 2010 and focuses on increasing the consumption of pulses and advocating for research funding.
In 2015, the Washington Dry Pea and Lentil Commission changed its name to the Washington Pulse Crops Commission. Currently, lentil growers are assessed 1 percent of the net sales value at the first point of sale to fund the commission.
As more consumers consider healthier diets, lentils' profile continues to rise in the U.S. The year 2016 was designated as International Year of Pulses by the United Nations, and Washington lentil farmers took part in the global effort to raise awareness and promote consumption of pulses around the world.
While the Palouse region is no longer the lentil capital of the U.S. -- by 2019, Washington ranked third in production behind Montana and North Dakota -- it has become the national epicenter of the U.S. lentil industry's marketing efforts. The building straddling the Washington-Idaho state line is now home to the Washington and Idaho state commissions, USADPLC, the US Pea & Lentil Trade Association, the Western Pulse Growers Association, and the American Pulse Association. Growers are still heavily dependent on foreign markets to sell their crops, and despite the decrease in acreage, the tiny pulse remains an important rotation option for Washington farmers.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.