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Company urges farmers to try growing field peas

(Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Christine des Garennes, News-Gazette, (Champaign-Urbana, Ill.), 01/05/04) -- Corn and soybeans have been the customary crops for Illinois farmers for decades, but a company from Rochelle wants to introduce a new crop into the mix: field peas.

During January, representatives from the Risk Assurance Programs Co. will be making the rounds throughout the state recruiting farmers to grow green and yellow field peas this spring.

Field peas are not like the sweet peas grown in backyard gardens. These peas are dry, shelled legumes like those found in split pea soup. The peas are crushed into flour for human consumption, and the hulls are sold for cattle feed.

In 2002, about 300,000 acres of field peas were grown in the United States, according to a study conducted by North Dakota State University. Most of the field peas grown in the Unites States are found in the Upper Plains and Upper Midwest states.

Last year, farmers affiliated with Risk Assurance Programs Co. planted about 7,200 acres in the Midwest; about 3,000 of those were in Illinois.

Come 2004, the company hopes to have 120,000 acres planted.

Field peas can be planted around the same time as oats in late February or early March. The seeds germinate when the soil temperature reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The plants mature in 85 to 90 days.

"We're advocating farmers to plant field peas in addition to the common crops they are using, to add the peas as part of a smart rotation," said the company's president, Ron Hagemann.

Introducing peas into their rotation will benefit farmers because "peas work well in lower yield environments, they break up the disease cycle and they're a non-(genetically modified) crop which, for food exporting, is a great thing to have," Hagemann said.

After the peas are harvested in mid-June, farmers can plant soybeans or silage corn, Hagemann said.

"You don't want to put all your soybean acres into peas, but look at trying some this year if you have on-farm storage of about 15,000- or 20,000-bushel bins," said Russ Williams, an employee of the company who farms in Ogle and Winnebago counties.

Of the 900 acres he normally plants with soybeans, Williams planted 600 acres of field peas in spring 2003.

Because of severe weather conditions (lots of wind and rain), he harvested the peas later than normal in mid-July.

Still, his average yield was 52 bushels per acre.

After harvesting the peas, he planted 400 acres of soybeans, which yielded a per bushel figure in the mid-30s.

"It's something producers should look at doing. It can improve their bottom line because you're spreading your equipment cost across more acres," Williams said.

As an agribusiness consultant, Hagemann said he has spent many hours evaluating the financial situations of Illinois farmers and found that most producers are mired in fixed costs, such as equipment costs and land prices.

"In order to provide profitability, we had to cut into rising fixed costs somehow," Hagemann said. By growing field peas followed by soybeans or corn, farmers "are growing two crops on one property in one growing season, but using the same equipment," he said.

Peas can be planted with the same drill farmers use for soybeans, in 10-inch rows. And they can be harvested with a conventional combine when the peas' moisture levels reach 20 percent.

"What I like is the farmer doesn't have to change anything," Hagemann said.

Cost for the seeds is about $16 per bag.

Each acre will need about three bags of seeds.

Peas can grow in no-till and conventional-till farming systems and in a variety of soil types, from clay to sandy. Based on average yields of 52.7 bushels per acre, farmer can receive up to 60 pounds of nitrogen credit per acre.

"It's a cold-season crop. It can take cold weather better than hot and can withstand freezing temperatures for up to 24 hours," Williams said.

Producers apply a desiccant at harvest time to speed up the drying process.

"A dry pea looks just like soybean at harvest time. And you handle them just like soybeans," Williams said.

Once the peas are harvested, farmers will have to store them on their farm or work with an elevator to store the peas for them.

Eventually they will be loaded into rail cars and shipped to countries like Cuba and Mexico.

More than 70 percent of the peas grown in the United States were exported, according to the North Dakota State University study.

Risk Assurance Programs Co. has secured a buyer for the 2004 peas who will ship them to Mexico, said Tess Morrison, director of the International Trade Center at the University of Illinois, an organization that helps Illinois companies evaluate and establish export markets.

"They have a firm order in hand. They are not asking farmers to grow this on speculation. The market is there," said Morrison, who helped secure export financing for the company.

Under the 2002 Farm Bill, field peas are classified as a program crop, meaning farmers are eligible for some federal crop insurance if they grow them, Williams added.

Informational meetings will be held at 10 a.m. Jan. 15 and 23 in Proud Mary's, 1003 E. Southline Road, Tuscola. For more information, call (815) 751-1345.