Lentils are the pulse of the Palouse

For the Tri-City HeraldSeptember 21, 2012 

Any reason is a good reason to throw a party in Pullman. 

The weekend before fall semester begins, the town welcomes back Washington State University students and their families with the National Lentil Festival.

Yes, even a tiny, lens-shaped legume can warrant a celebration in the Palouse, and where better than in the so-called “Lentil Capital of the World?”

“I’ve been to a garlic festival, so if they can celebrate garlic, we can celebrate lentils,” said Todd Scholz, director of information and research for the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council in Moscow, Idaho.

In 1990, the year after the first National Lentil Festival, Washington and Idaho together raised about 97 percent of the lentils in the United States, said Tim McGreevy, the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council’s chief executive officer.

Twenty-three years later, Washington ranks third in production and Idaho fourth behind Montana and North Dakota, but the Palouse region isn’t about to give up its claim to the “Lentil Capital” title.

Production has remained relatively static in Washington. In 2011, 38,102 metric tons were produced, compared with 38,918 metric tons the previous year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The estimated yield for 2012 is 30,000 metric tons, McGreevy said.

However, a family rivalry is sprouting between lentils and chickpeas, both of which are classified as pulses. As the main ingredient in hummus, chickpeas have enjoyed a recent rise in popularity in the United States.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, U.S. farmers received an average price of $46 per 100 pounds of chickpeas in April 2012, compared with $22 for the same amount of lentils.

“You have to love lentils a little bit more because they’re a shorter crop,” Scholz said. “You have to like them. They’re harder for weed control, and they’re a little more finicky.”

Even though Pullman is about two hours away from the Tri-Cities, that’s enough distance for the climate to become unsatisfactory for lentil raising in this area. Lentils are planted in April and May, and they typically are dried out and ready for harvest in August.

In July, the average temperature in Pullman is 83 degrees, compared to 90 in Kennewick.

“We call lentils a cool-season legume,” Scholz said. “In the Tri-Cities, they don’t fit so well because it’s so hot in the summer, about when they bloom. The Palouse, that’s really where the lentil region is. When you get to Walla Walla even, it’s too hot to raise lentils. Farther north, it gets too wet.”

The 2012 Lentil Festival featured lentils from Palouse Brand of Pullman. Sara Mader, the vice president of sales for Palouse Brand, said the company donated at least 500 pounds of lentils from the 2011 crop for various uses.

“There was a kiddie play area where they used lentils instead of sand,” Mader said.

But Palouse Brand’s biggest contribution was made available for public consumption.

On the first day of the festival, 350 gallons of free lentil chili are parceled out to the masses. The chili is held in a massive aluminum pot and stirred with canoe paddles.

Palouse Brand lentils also were distributed to participants in the Legendary Lentil Cook-Off. The festival wanted all the cooks to use the same lentils, said Vicki Leeper, the tourism director for the city of Pullman.

The event is put on by the Pullman Chamber of Commerce, city of Pullman and WSU.

Leeper came to Pullman 23 years ago and has watched the festival grow from a one-day event that celebrated the end of harvest to a two-day bonanza that attracts almost 29,000 people, farmers and non-farmers alike.

The event eventually was moved from the end of September to mid-August to coincide with the return of WSU students.

“When it first started out, it was community-based, very similar to the Fourth of July event,” Leeper said. “Once the cook-off was added about 17 years ago, then they were entering a different kind of event.”

Last year, 127 recipes were submitted by cooks from 32 states.

Years ago, strides were taken to see whether the festival could be renamed the International Lentil Festival, Leeper said, but there allegedly are lentil festivals in India and France.

Even so, Pullman’s event is worthy of national stature. It includes a wine tasting, Friday night street fair and sporting events such as a 5-kilometer fun run and the Tour de Lentil 100K bike ride. The streets of downtown Pullman fill up Saturday for the Little Lentil Sprout Parade for children and the Grand Parade.

The festival even has its own mascot, Tase T. Lentil, a happy, huggable lentil on legs.

Leeper, who hails from California, had never seen a lentil before landing in the Palouse, but she quickly learned just how versatile they are.

The winning 2012 cook-off recipe was a French cassoulet with lentils, bacon, sausage and chicken confit, while a lentil strawberry shortcake took fourth place. Leeper even uses lentils instead of meat when making tacos for her family.

The festival’s planning committee once received a “considerable” monetary offer to change the name to the Pea and Lentil Festival, Leeper said, but the offer was turned down “because of the quirky nature of the lentil.”

“There’s an appeal to them for people who have never seen them, never tasted them,” Leeper said. “Everyone’s seen a pea.”

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