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Producer Profile: Curtis Hoffman, Proof That Pulses Fit in Eastern Alberta (PCN Fall 2013) OCT 21 2013 | Consumers and Producers | Pulse Crop News

This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Pulse Crop News.

Sarah Weigum

Tracking down Curtis Hoffman for an interview in late August posed a challenge. He had hay to bale, a new hopper-bottom arriving soon, and peas almost ready to combine. While these are typical late-summer jobs for an Alberta farmer, harvesting peas is a fairly new item on Hoffman’s to-do list. This is only the second year that the Oyen-area farmer has produced the pulse crop.

“This is traditionally a cereal area,” said Hoffman. “Up until 2008, it was pretty much wheat, oats, and barley. Now with price increases, people are trying new things.”

Hoffman tried peas in a big way last year, planting 75 per cent of his 2,000 acres to Golden and Meadow yellow peas. In the past, Hoffman had a third of his land in three-year alfalfa stands.

“The biggest thing we’re trying to do here is improve the soil health on our farm,” explained Hoffman. While alfalfa, also a legume crop, fixed nitrogen in the soil and gave the land a break from cereals, it did not always provide consistent cash flow, prompting Hoffman to look for alternatives.

“The alfalfa market can be up and down, but peas are a little more stable.” He marketed his peas through the Battle River Railway at Forestburg and Prairie West Terminal in Kindersley, SK, earning $8-9 per bushel. Hoffman appreciates having another grain to market, giving him more diversity and risk-management in the fluctuating grain trade.

After growing only peas and canola last year, Hoffman put his own land back into cereal production for 2013, but he planted peas on 240 acres of land he rented from a neighbour who normally grows cereals. Instead of chemfallow, the neighbour turned the land over to Hoffman for a year to produce peas.

“Hoffman is looking forward to reaping the rewards of growing cereals on his own pea stubble.”

“My landlord loves it,” said Hoffman. “He doesn’t have to spend the time doing chemfallow and gets the benefit of the nitrogen next year.” He added that other neighbours have expressed interest in having him seed peas onto their stubble. He has seen the number of regular pea growers in the area increase from two to about a dozen in the last few years.

This year, Hoffman is looking forward to reaping the rewards of growing cereals on his own pea stubble. He has a 400-acre field that he split into three sections last year with peas on the ends and canola in the middle. This year, the entire field is in wheat, giving him evidence of the better plant stand that follows pea production.

“Visually, it’s incomparable. You can look down the middle and see exactly where the peas were grown,” said Hoffman. While the final wheat yield will complete the picture of the benefits provided by rotating peas into his crop plan, other advantages have already been apparent to Hoffman.

“[The peas] really mellow the soil out,” said Hoffman. “We typically have a lot of solonetzic soil, and the one field we grew peas on last year broke up like a dream.”

He also values the early maturity of peas, which spreads out his harvest work load. The new hopper bottom bins he bought for this harvest will aid in his harvest management of peas this year. They come complete with aeration, and Hoffman plans to take some of his peas off one to two per cent tough and dry them.

“With the amount of pea acres we had last year, it all came ripe at the same time,” Hoffman said. “At the end of the harvest, some peas came off at 12 per cent, and we had a lot of cracking.”

With experience gained, Hoffman is looking into other potential pulse crops. This year, he cooperated with the Chinook Applied Research Area (CARA), providing them with some land to plant trial strips of Snowbird and FB 9-4 faba beans and a numbered variety of soybeans. He said he was skeptical of the soybeans for most of the spring and summer because they looked so poor, but they have surprised him as the season progressed.

“The soybeans are starting to impress me now. The pods are actually filling out,” he said. The faba beans also look promising. Along with the strip trials on his land, CARA had plot trials nearby. The Imposa faba beans grew the tallest, and that piqued Hoffman’s interest, as he is always trying to add biomass to his heavy soil. Snowbirds are a more common variety and are also an option for planting next year, provided that harvest goes well on the trials. Hoffman sees CARA as one of his greatest resources for sound agriculture knowledge that directly applies to his growing conditions.

“The CARA trials are probably the biggest determinant for what I grow out here when I switch varieties,” said Hoffman. “The best thing about it is that the trials are on your land, on your soil. What might do great at Lacombe might not do well at all out here.”

If Hoffman had a wish list for improving the pea varieties currently available, better standability would definitely be at the top. For now, he relies on his Honeybee header’s ability to shave the ground close enough to get lower lying pods. He’s even considering planting lentils in the future, so he is clearly not cowed by a harvest challenge.

Over one million acres of pulses are planted in Alberta each year. This number is steadily rising, thanks in part to producers like Hoffman who are changing the crop landscape in east central Alberta. To track Hoffman’s adventures in farming, follow him on Twitter at @freedom_speech1.