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…
Read More: Lentil Farming in Washington – HistoryLink.org