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Peas, lentils buck downtrend in US farm exports

A willingness to go anywhere in world trade is one reason that dry peas and lentils were the only nonsubsidized agricultural commodity in the United States to show an increase in exports in 1985, which was not a banner year for American agricultural exports. For more than 4,000 growers in Idaho and Washington, pea and lentil production was the difference between profit and loss on their annual balance statements, says Don Walker, export manager at the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council here.

Compared with other major crops produced in the US, such as wheat, corn, and soybeans, peas and lentils are not a major crop. About 150,000 tons are grown a year, virtually all of them within a 300-mile radius of this town, which lies along the border between Washington and northern Idaho. But unlike the mainstays of American agricultural exports, peas and lentils are bucking the downward trend in US exports.

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Overall US farm exports have been steadily declining since they reached a peak of $43.8 billion in 1981, according to US Department of Agriculture figures. This year American farmers will export an estimated $27.5 billion.

More than 80 percent of the annual pea and lentil crop grown in the US is exported to such destinations as Colombia, Algeria, India, and Taiwan. The vast majority is shipped via containers through ports in the Puget Sound or through Portland, Ore.

Seven years ago, not one pea was sold in India; last year growers exported 30,000 metric tons, almost a quarter of total production. In part, the success can be attributed to India's gradual liberalization of imports. While major agricultural imports are still handled by the government or governmental institutions, India now permits imports of some commodities by private traders under open licensing.

But the rise in pea and lentil imports is fundamentally a consequence of India's drive toward self-sufficiency in wheat production, Mr. Walker says. Over the years, the Indian government has diverted vast numbers of acres of land that were once devoted to production of so-called pulse crops, like peas and lentils, to wheat production, while domestic production of pulses has been relegated to lower-producing and marginal lands.

Traditionally, Indians and Pakistanis have been major consumers of pulse crops. They are an important source of protein in lands where there are cultural restrictions on other protein sources such as meat. While production has been falling in India, the population has been increasing. Consequently, India has had to fill the gap by importing more peas from the US.

To expand the market for peas and lentils, the USA Pea and Lentil Council opened a trade office in New Delhi four years ago. Other marketing efforts have included sponsorship of Indian trade team visits to the US, cooking demonstrations, and participation in Indian food shows. Earlier this year the council sponsored major trade shows in Calcutta and Madras.

In Madras, the delegation spent much of its time handing out little packages of lentils (a lentil is a lense-shaped legume rich in protein). The council also places advertisements in Indian magazines and is considering advertising in movie theaters, the most popular entertainment in India.

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The council is also working on a program to sell large quantities of peas to the Pakistani Army, as well as other traders in Pakistan, and providing peas and lentils to Afghan relief groups. Sales to Pakistan have been increasing steadily in recent years, says Walker.

The US competes with Turkey, Canada, and to some extent New Zealand in exporting peas and lentils to the subcontinent.

The industry is keeping an eye on China, which could become a major producer and exporter of peas and lentils, council manager Harold Blaine notes. This year, for the first time, the Chinese exported some lentils to Europe, but the council is not sure if this was because of a production surplus or was a way to raise hard currency.

``It's a bit scary,'' says Blaine, noting that the Chinese could have a big impact on the world lentil market.

Elsewhere on the Pacific Rim, pea and lentil growers have had to use ingenuity to develop market niches in Taiwan and Japan. In Taiwan, peas are used to make clear noodles and, oddly, used for pigeon food.

In Japan, the industry has developed a market for Austrian winter beans, which are used in making bean paste and are less expensive than Japanese azuki beans.

The industry is also considering trying to obtain money from the federal government's new Targeted Export Promotion program to promote peas and lentils as health food in Japan.

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