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Discoveries with Impact

Leading the world in lentils

Research and innovation by U of S scientists has been the key to Canada’s global success in pulse crops, with a great measure of credit going to Al Slinkard who paved the way.

When the University of Saskatchewan went to Idaho looking for a pea breeder in 1971 to bolster the ranks of its fledgling Crop Development Centre, Al Slinkard didn’t take long to make up his mind.

Along with his work on developing a variety of Austrian winter pea to local conditions, Slinkard’s dual role as a grass breeder posed a nagging problem: He was severely allergic to grass pollen. Besides, after 15 years at the University of Idaho, he felt the university lacked emphasis on research and didn’t support his program very well.

So on a frigid Feb. 1, 1972, Slinkard began a career at CDC that would make Canada the global leader in lentil exports, and put Saskatchewan at the heart of the country’s pulse industry, even though 45 years ago lentils, dry peas, chickpeas and other pulses were a negligible part of the province’s agricultural landscape.

Slinkard’s role as a dry pea researcher at the barebones three-person CDC operation was to develop protein crops to supplement the starch crop of wheat and oilseed crop of canola then getting underway. A glut of wheat and low prices were strong incentives to find alternative crops for Saskatchewan farmers.

Along with researching varieties of dry peas, Slinkard also acquired accessions from the United States Agriculture Department’s lentil collection and grew out the 10 most promising varieties for testing because he knew from experience that the climatic requirements for both crops were similar.

Of the seven varieties that grew, he selected two green lentils that looked promising – one was a large seeded variety he named Laird for Rosetown area farmer Tom Laird, who left $25,000 in his will to the CDC, and a small seeded variety he called Eston.

Not wanting to release both varieties at once, he introduced Laird in 1978 and Eston in 1980, marking the beginning of what would grow to become a $2.5-billion industry for Canada over the next three decades.

The 2015 crop year saw about 3.9 million acres of lentils and 3.7 million acres of dry peas grown, and that year lentils even topped wheat and canola as Saskatchewan’s top agri-food grain export to more than 150 countries. 

In 2014, farmers in Saskatchewan grew 96 per cent of Canada’s lentils, 99 per cent of its chickpeas and 64 per cent of its dry peas. Pulses also advance environmentally sustainable agriculture through biological nitrogen fixation that supplies the needs of subsequent crops, gives farmers crop alternatives for their rotation and create export-related processing sector jobs. 

Since the release of Laird, which became the world’s most widely known lentil variety, CDC scientists have produced more than 200 varieties of pulse crops and another 250 varieties of grains.

Saskatchewan’s approximately 15,000 pulse growers rank among the top supporters of CDC research, paying a levy through their organization to supplement government, university and other private industry funding. 

Slinkard says one of the best decisions he made was to hire Albert Vandenberg in 1991. He took over the lentil program when Slinkard retired in 1998 and expanded it to the red varieties that are a staple of South Asian countries. Four researchers now work on pulse crops, with Vandenberg working on lentils and faba beans, Kirstin Bett on common beans and lentils, Bunyamin Tar’an on chickpeas and faba beans and Tom Warkentin on soybeans and peas.

The university’s pulse crop research and breeding group is a major partner in chickpea and pea genome sequencing initiatives. The university leads the international lentil genome-sequencing initiative which is developing molecular markers that will help breeders incorporate desirable traits into their crosses and accelerate variety development.

 

Sarath Peiris is a communications contributor with U of S Research Profile and Impact