By Trevor Bacque
Lentils are still relatively new in Canada. Having only been grown commercially by farmers for about the last 50 years, what it lacks with a short history is doubly made up for by its health benefits for consumers and its sustainability aspects for farmers.
Lentil history in Canada
What began in the late 1960s has blossomed into a true grown-in-Canada success story. Lentils have found a permanent home in Canada, and, mostly notably, Saskatchewan, which produces 95 per cent of all lentils yielding an average of 2.1 million metric tonnes since 2022.1 Overall, Canada produces one-third of all lentils worldwide.2 Today, there are more than 5,000 farmers that produce lentils in Canada, most of whom are in Saskatchewan and a smaller amount in Alberta.
There are two primary types of lentils grown in farmers’ fields. The large green lentil is called the Laird lentil. This variety is responsible usually for 15 to 20 per cent of all lentil production. The more popular red lentil is about half the size of a green lentil and accounts for 80 to 85 per cent of Canada’s lentil output. Other lesser-known speciality lentils grown in Canada include French green, dark speckled, Spanish brown and black.3
Just what exactly is a lentil, anyway?
In the world of plant-based food, there are pulses and legumes. A pulse crop is a legume plant (soybeans, peanuts, peas and beans) containing dry, edible seeds (dry beans, dry peas, chickpeas and lentils) that are grown inside a pod.
Too good to be true? Think again!
Simply put, lentils are sort of a farmer’s secret weapon. They do lots of things that other plants just don’t do, which makes it the ultimate sustainable crop. In commercial farming, most farmers need to add fertilizer to the soil to help grow a crop. However, lentil plants have the unique biological trait to capture free-floating nitrogen in the air. Practically gorging themselves on the nitrogen, plants directly absorb this vital input, helping it grow and be productive. This saves farmers a tremendous amount of money as they only use about 10 per cent of their regular nitrogen-based fertilizer. It’s also a well-known fact among farmers that the crop they grow after lentils will require less nitrogen because the lentil plants capture and store nitrogen in the ground. It can bring up the quality of that next crop, too. For example, wheat for bread production would have a higher protein content if planted after lentils compared to other crops.4
Another critical reason lentils are grown in massive numbers in Canada is because they are drought tolerant. Lentils prefer a more arid environment with less water. This is not only good news in a world that experiences rapid shifts in weather, but it also allows farmers in dry regions another field crop option that will produce well, even if they receive little rain.
It’s no wonder Prairie farmers love lentils!
Why do farmers like to grow them?
Farmers grow crops for many reasons, and one of them is “harvestability,” or how easy it is to harvest a mature crop. Lentils usually grow about knee-high, making the flat and dry lands of eastern Alberta and most of Saskatchewan ideal for the crop. Because a combine header must be quite low to the ground, the flatter and smoother the surface, the better. Just after planting lentils, farmers often roll their land—picture a steam roller literally flattening the ground—to push down rocks and squish dirt clumps to ensure the flattest possible surface.
The farmer also has countless options of where their red or green lentils may go once harvested. Green lentils, while smaller in quantity, are more of a special crop and often command a price premium in the market, the same way malt barley for beer production is typically worth more than barley fed to livestock. Red lentils are almost entirely focused on export markets and while they still pay a fair price, it’s usually less than greens.
Much of this crop’s success in Canada is thanks to Al Slinkard, a pulse breeder from Idaho who migrated north to Saskatchewan. He was the man behind the Laird lentil and, in 1978, during a year of depressed wheat prices, lentils skyrocketed in value. A decade later, the Laird lentil was the world’s most popular lentil variety. Similarly, red lentil varieties developed by plant breeders in Saskatchewan over the past 10 to 15 years have brought major success to farmers.
They are not perfect, though. Like any crop, they are susceptible to various fungal diseases, including the ghoulishly named anthracnose. The wetter the year, the more susceptible plants are to this disease, and severe instances can result in the entire plant dying and could ruin an entire field. The fungus has also developed confirmed cases of fungicide resistance. However, plant breeders, specifically at the Crop Development Centre in Saskatchewan, continue to work tirelessly to find varieties that will better resist the fungus. There are no varieties that are 100 percent resistant, which means farmers must be very diligent with their practices to ward off disease.
Because of the disease issues, farmers are recommended to plant lentils at most once every four years on the same field. However, some agrologists recommend once every six, seven or even eight years. This allows time for the residue-borne pathogens to die off.
If you ever drive by a lentil field and think it looks a little sparse, you’d be right, and it’s done on purpose. Often, rows are spaced 10 to 12 inches apart to allow for greater airflow between rows. As the crop matures and the canopy forms, it traps humidity, which is when disease can quickly form and spread.
Other ways farmers avoid these issues is by planting certified seed and not re-using seed they previously grew, a practice commonly called “brown bagging.” Additionally, harvesting in low- or no-wind conditions is helpful because disease spores are transmitted during harvest.5
Why we like to eat them
The term “superfood” gets thrown around a lot, but lentils live up to the billing. Lentils are high in protein, which makes them a tasty and popular alternative to animal-based proteins. They’re also high in fibre, both soluble and, more importantly, insoluble, which helps you feel fuller longer and aids in weight management. It’s also chalk full of essential micronutrients, such as iron, potassium, zinc, magnesium and more.6
The next time you want to impress your friends with culinary versatility while injecting a shot of protein and colour, think of lentils. But then when you eat those tasty lentils, think of farmers!
Where on earth do our lentils go?
Given that Canada produces a massive amount of lentils,7 it shouldn’t surprise you that we can’t eat them all. Canada regularly exports 90-plus per cent of all its lentils. But where? Look at this chart to see which countries buy our lentils, and in what quantities.8 With many countries incorporating lentils into their diet every single day, there appears to be a stable demand for Canadian farmers for years to come.
|2022 – 23 Total in MT
|#3 United Arab Emirates
|#4 Western Europe
|#6 United States
- https://agriculture.canada.ca/sites/default/files/documents/2023-11/Canada_Outlook_for_Principal_Field_Crops_2023-11.pdf ↩︎
- https://farmfoodcaresk.org/courses/lentils-from-farm-to-table ↩︎
- https://exploresaskag.ca/present/field-crops/lentils/#:~:text=Lentils%20started%20to%20be%20grown,seeds%20that%20grow%20in%20pods ↩︎
- https://albertapulse.com/marketing-pulses/lentils/ ↩︎
- https://saskpulse.com/resources/anthracnose-in-lentils-managing-fungicide-insensitivity/ ↩︎
- https://pulsecanada.com/pulse/nutrition-health/benefits ↩︎
- https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/cv.action?pid=3210035901 ↩︎
- LeftField Commodity Research data ↩︎