Good start for field pea growers

Burdette Kister holds field peas from one of his fields north of Scottsbluff. The crop is new to Kister, who decided to plant peas after he ran short on his four-year water allocation and didn't have enough water to plant corn and alfalfa on those fields.

SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. — Considering the conditions field peas had to survive during the first year of major production in the Panhandle, the crop has done well, and growers are ready to go again in 2014.

A shortage of water and a growing interest in field pea production combined this past year to create an opportunity for area farmers. Stateline Producers Cooperative expanded from dry bean production to include field peas this year and added 300,000 bushels of pea storage at its Bridgeport facility.

“The quality and size are good, and considering the challenges, the crop is about as good as it can be for the first year,” said Courtney Schuler, business development manager for Stateline Producers Cooperative.

Although it sounds a bit strange to talk about acres of dry edible peas, the crop has gained popularity as a human food. Schuler said there are ready markets for human and pet food, as well as USDA food aid programs.

Schuler said harvest began July 8 and was to wrap up soon.

“Yield has been all over the place,” Schuler said last week. “With the drought and hail, yields have been from 15 to 60 bushels on dryland, and 30 to 65 on irrigated.

“In the northern Panhandle, they saw a real nice field suffer a one-half to one-third loss, because of hail, while they were harvesting.”

She said hail was isolated but devastating where it hit, and growing season moisture ranged from 10 inches to less than 2 inches across the region.

The crop's ability to thrive with little water is what attracted Burdette Kister, who farms north of Scottsbluff.

Water allocations set by the North Platte Natural Resources District restricted groundwater use to 14 inches a year for four years, or 56 inches total to be used any time during the four years.

“I had to make use of the water I had,” Kister said last month. “I had only 9 inches left.”

Kister said Mark Watson, an Alliance-area farmer who has grown peas for many years, told him that peas could be grown with only 6 inches of water.

An added benefit is that peas add nitrogen to the soil. That increases yields when wheat is planted after the peas are harvested.

That sounded good to Kister.

“I never dreamed of growing peas,” Kister said. “This is a new adventure, for sure.”

Schuler said more than 100 growers harvested most of the 25,000 acres they planted.

So far, disease and pests have not been a major problem, but that is because the crop is fairly new to the area. Schuler expects more problems to surface as the crop becomes more popular.

One necessity for growers' future success will be crop insurance, Schuler said.

“We're working with the RMA (Risk Management Administration) to get an actual policy for peas,” Schuler said. “Producers need regular coverage, and not have to jump through hoops to get it.

“When growers are trying a new crop, insurance is something they need.”

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