Field Peas show promise in Maine Potato Crop Rotation Research

Field peas in a demonstration trial at UMaine's Aroostook Farm. (Courtesy: University of Maine Cooperative Extension, 2013)

In the search for a third rotation crop for potatoes, trials at the Aroostook Research Farm in Presque Isle are showing some promise for field peas, a crop that once had a successful run in the region until the 1970s.

Jake Dyer, an organic grain farmer from Benedicta, has been researching alternative crops with the Maine Potato Board as potato growers are looking to improve their soil and find a third viable crop to add to potatoes and grains in their field rotation cycle.

In a project that the Maine Potato Board funded, Dyer led a trial last summer, growing plots of chickpeas, lentils and field peas — crops grown in other northern climates.

“I thought it could be a good fit for potato-grain cropping systems,” Dyer said of the group of crops known as pulses, plants in the legume family harvested for their dry seed, such as peas, beans, clover and lupine, during a presentation at the recent Maine Potato Conference in Caribou.

“It can be grown and produced using existing equipment. Worst case scenario, it is a beneficial cover crop,” he said.

The pulses are gaining in popularity, Dyer said. They’re gluten-free, high in fiber and protein, and they are used as ingredients in processed and fresh foods, and for livestock and aquaculture feed. The trial last summer included chickpeas and lentils, two pulses that are high in value but also harder to grow, even in the drier climates of Montana, North Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Dyer said he wanted to try growing them, to test them out, along with field peas, which he and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension have been growing in trials for several years.

In rough comparison to oats, the most common two-year rotation crop with potatoes and usually sold for animal feed, the pulses would have higher input costs. The grower needs to inoculate the seeds with a beneficial bacteria for the plants to fix nitrogen in the soil. But they also could have a higher return, Dyer said. Farmers can sell peas to food processors or use them as livestock feed.

Dyer said he’s talked with a company in Prince Edward Island, W.A. Grain and Pulse Solutions, that is looking to source green and yellow peas, fava beans, lentils and lupines from Atlantic Canada. Farmers in Prince Edward Island, Canada’s top potato producing province, also are in need of a third rotation crop.

The company is expecting to contract for more than 1,500 acres of production this year and would like to reach 5,000 acres in the Maritimes, Dyer said. He thought there might be some potential there for Maine growers.