Field Peas: No Longer just an Inexpensive Rotation Crop

For years the field pea has been a low priced, relatively stable export and a useful rotation crop, but innovations in processing have begun the transformation of this ingenue into a budding agricultural star.

The field pea is a pulse, the edible seed of a plant, which is used dry in livestock feed and for human food (particularly in predominantly vegetarian cuisines). It was one of the first crops cultivated by humans over 12,000 years ago. Its short growing season and ability to thrive in poor soil helped provide early hunter-gatherers with important nutrients.

 

Over time, the field pea also became an important component of livestock feed, where it adds valuable protein to cereal grain diets. For generations of farmers, though, this easy-to-grow annual plant was a low-cost and useful rotation crop that enhanced soil nutrition and supported more sustainable farming practices.

 

Now the humble field pea (also often called the “dry pea”), is being reimagined. Its role as a cover crop continues to be important to growers across the globe, but new interest in and demand for the annual crop are fueled by rising consumer desire for plant proteins. Peas can answer these needs—and are relatively inexpensive, too.

 

Many plant-based proteins, whose popularity has surged in the past few years, are made with pea protein, as are some of the top-selling vegan and meatless protein bars, and a myriad of new snack foods.

green Pea field farm in bright day with blue sky
green Pea field farm in bright day with blue sky

The field pea is a pulse, the edible seed of a plant, which is used dry in livestock feed and for human food (particularly in predominantly vegetarian cuisines). It was one of the first crops cultivated by humans over 12,000 years ago. Its short growing season and ability to thrive in poor soil helped provide early hunter-gatherers with important nutrients.

 

Over time, the field pea also became an important component of livestock feed, where it adds valuable protein to cereal grain diets. For generations of farmers, though, this easy-to-grow annual plant was a low-cost and useful rotation crop that enhanced soil nutrition and supported more sustainable farming practices.

 

Now the humble field pea (also often called the “dry pea”), is being reimagined. Its role as a cover crop continues to be important to growers across the globe, but new interest in and demand for the annual crop are fueled by rising consumer desire for plant proteins. Peas can answer these needs—and are relatively inexpensive, too.

 

Many plant-based proteins, whose popularity has surged in the past few years, are made with pea protein, as are some of the top-selling vegan and meatless protein bars, and a myriad of new snack foods.

As consumers in developed countries continue to add plant-based proteins into their meal and snack rotation, the market for peas is poised for astounding growth. The plant-based food industry alone is projected to hit at least $1.5 billion by 2022. Innovation in processing methods that transform field peas allow them to take on significant roles in many enormous food categories, including pasta and snack foods. “The vast majority of field peas grown in this region go to value-added processing,” says Shannon Berndt, Executive Director of the Northern Pulse Growers Association, about the member growers in North Dakota and Montana. She points to companies like PeaTos, which markets itself as a producer of “junk food without the junk”. PeaTos uses pea flour to make snack foods high in protein and fiber. Using pea protein in snack foods gives them a health halo—which in turns helps boost sales.

 

Jeff Rumney, vice president of marketing for USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, says the growth in the pea market is in an “amazing transformational space.” He points out that while the market for dry, unprocessed peas is stable around the world, the value-added market is exploding. “From a food manufacturing perspective, the use of peas checks all the boxes.” When you want a snack bar that is vegan, low in price, and a non-allergen, says Rumney, the answer is peas. “And now, because there has been so much innovation, people use it just because of its price and the fact that it performs so well from a food technology standpoint.”

woman in grocery inspecting an item
woman in grocery inspecting an item

As consumers in developed countries continue to add plant-based proteins into their meal and snack rotation, the market for peas is poised for astounding growth. The plant-based food industry alone is projected to hit at least $1.5 billion by 2022. Innovation in processing methods that transform field peas allow them to take on significant roles in many enormous food categories, including pasta and snack foods. “The vast majority of field peas grown in this region go to value-added processing,” says Shannon Berndt, Executive Director of the Northern Pulse Growers Association, about the member growers in North Dakota and Montana. She points to companies like PeaTos, which markets itself as a producer of “junk food without the junk”. PeaTos uses pea flour to make snack foods high in protein and fiber. Using pea protein in snack foods gives them a health halo—which in turns helps boost sales.

 

Jeff Rumney, vice president of marketing for USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, says the growth in the pea market is in an “amazing transformational space.” He points out that while the market for dry, unprocessed peas is stable around the world, the value-added market is exploding. “From a food manufacturing perspective, the use of peas checks all the boxes.” When you want a snack bar that is vegan, low in price, and a non-allergen, says Rumney, the answer is peas. “And now, because there has been so much innovation, people use it just because of its price and the fact that it performs so well from a food technology standpoint.”

Canada is the top global supplier of dry peas, but it has not kept up with demand for processed pea protein, which is currently met mostly by the United States and China. However, Canada is now ramping up its processing capability in order to keep up with demand. Current projections by a study from Euromonitor International commissioned for the USA Pulses show demand for pulse flour and protein concentrates are expected to grow by 14 percent annually through 2023. The demand for protein isolates, currently a very small part of the processed pea market, is expected to grow by more than 46 percent in the same time period.

 

India, the largest importer and consumer of pulses in the world, leads the market for the whole dry pea. While the need in India is fairly stable, recent changes in trade agreements combined with India’s desire to become more self-sufficient, have changed the import landscape as India tries to meet more of its needs through domestic farming. Demand for dry peas in their basic form is expected to remain stable while value-added products lead growth.

 

The humble field pea is no longer simply a dry pulse used in cooking and an inexpensive rotation crop. It is an integral ingredient in the global move for more plant sources of protein and a springboard for important and exciting plant-based product development.

photo of peas
photo of peas

Canada is the top global supplier of dry peas, but it has not kept up with demand for processed pea protein, which is currently met mostly by the United States and China. However, Canada is now ramping up its processing capability in order to keep up with demand. Current projections by a study from Euromonitor International commissioned for the USA Pulses show demand for pulse flour and protein concentrates are expected to grow by 14 percent annually through 2023. The demand for protein isolates, currently a very small part of the processed pea market, is expected to grow by more than 46 percent in the same time period.

 

India, the largest importer and consumer of pulses in the world, leads the market for the whole dry pea. While the need in India is fairly stable, recent changes in trade agreements combined with India’s desire to become more self-sufficient, have changed the import landscape as India tries to meet more of its needs through domestic farming. Demand for dry peas in their basic form is expected to remain stable while value-added products lead growth.

 

The humble field pea is no longer simply a dry pulse used in cooking and an inexpensive rotation crop. It is an integral ingredient in the global move for more plant sources of protein and a springboard for important and exciting plant-based product development.


 

Ten Good Reasons to Love Field Peas

  • Cool weather crop
  • Enriches soil health with nitrogen
  • Easy to grow: loves loamy, sandy soil
  • Water thrifty
  • Good on-farm forage for livestock and an ingredient in livestock feed
  • High in protein and prebiotic carbohydrates, it can help feed a growing human world population
  • Answers the fast-growing consumer interest in plant-based proteins
  • Inexpensive to grow
  • Key ingredient in the escalating pet food market
  • Pea milk has a creamier, mild taste compared with other non-dairy milks