The Midwest has long been known for its vast fields of corn and soybeans, but there is a new crop on the rise — peas. With growing consumer demand for sustainable and plant-based protein options, farmers are adding peas as a crop rotation because it’s profitable, drought tolerant and can improve soil health. Plus, the legume can reduce a farm’s carbon footprint.
In the past, vegetarian and vegan foods were often seen as niche products, catering only to a small subset of consumers. But in recent years, plant-based meat, milk, cheese and protein bars have emerged. While the majority of these products are derived from soy or wheat gluten, peas are making their mark.
In many grocery stores, Beyond Meat’s ‘ground beef’ is now in the freezer aisle; its top two ingredients are water and pea protein. PeaTos, which boast the tagline, ‘Junk food taste, made from peas,’ are similar to Cheetos, and the brand Ripple offers dairy-free pea-protein milk, half-and-half, yogurt, ice cream and protein shakes.
The global pea protein market is projected to grow from $465 million in 2021 to more than $1 billion by 2028 and consumers can expect to see twice as many pea protein products on supermarket shelves by 2028. The latest research from USDA estimates that people are consuming two more pounds of legumes per year than they were in 2000.
Unlike soy and gluten, pea protein is not a major allergen. It is also a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids, making it an attractive option for those looking to supplement their protein intake without consuming animal products.
Peas are also attractive on the farm. Bacteria in their roots can extract nitrogen from the air, reducing farmers’ need for synthetic fertilizer. And it takes only 71 gallons of water to produce one pound of peas, compared with soybeans which need 257 gallons. That makes peas a more drought-resistant option in regions prone to dry spells.
Eric Thalken, an organic cattle, soy and corn farmer in Dorchester, Nebraska, first planted 40 acres of peas in 2016 to diversify his crop rotations. “Modern wheat varieties are bred to yield high, but also require a lot of supplemental fertility, which in organic production is very expensive,” he said. “At the time, peas were the most economical third crop in our rotation. They performed very well on a very dry year — better than wheat would have.”
In Nebraska, where cattle is a $12 billion a year industry, farmers are finding that peas are a good complement to livestock production. On Thalken’s farm, for example, peas are planted in early spring and harvested in July. “This allows us to grow a forage crop to graze cattle from July on,” Thalken said. “It’s actually a really good fit with cattle.”
Thalken isn’t alone. Crop acreage in Nebraska for field peas and other pulses, such as lentils and chickpeas, increased from 10,000-20,000 acres in the mid-2010s to roughly 80,000 in recent years, according to a report by the Nebraska Farm Bureau. Currently, North Dakota, Montana and Washington lead the nation in pea production.
“Ten years ago I would have never considered growing peas, but more and more farmers out here … are doing it for the soil benefits and to sell to companies that make those plant-based meats,” said Butch Smith, a farmer in Galena, Kansas. “There’s definitely a market for those products now, and that market wasn’t here 10 years ago.”
Smith especially likes the way peas help replenish the soil with nitrogen. “We realized peas are one of the only plants in the world that create their own fertilizer, so we asked ourselves, why aren’t we planting these,” he said. Smith plants about five acres of peas a year, and found soil health has improved and weeds declined.
Laura van der Pol, a soil health research scientist, led a recent study out of Colorado State University that found the addition of legumes are especially helpful to soils in areas with higher drought risk and hotter temperatures.
“Peas are a reasonable choice especially in the semi-arid region of Colorado and Nebraska,” she said. “They have a short growing season and thus consume less water compared to longer-lived crops, can be planted and harvested early in the season thus offering some soil protection during periods of rainfall.” She also said they minimize field operations when other higher-value crops need more attention.
By reducing the need for fertilizers produced with fossil fuels, peas also can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture. “Legumes themselves are nutrient-rich,” she said. “The high nitrogen content of their seeds means they are a great protein source for people with a much lower environmental footprint than animal-based proteins.”
But the crop has seen extreme price volatility. Pea prices rose to a 27-year high in 2021 — a result of weather-reduced yields, lower global supplies, and reduced domestic production. This year, the USDA expects prices to fall back as production rebounds.