Scientist aims to boost diminutive crop

Lentil harvest
Agriculture technician Jarrod Pfaff harvests lentils at WSU’s Spillman Farm
assisted by student worker David Hanson. (Photos by Linda Weiford, WSU News) 
PULLMAN, Wash. – It’s harvest season and the Palouse is a patchwork of amber and bronze. Quick, before it’s gone – look closely and you’ll see an understated wonder of our landscape.
The Palouse pumps out more than a million pounds of them annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And though our so-called “Lentil Capital of the World” celebrates this tiny, lens-shaped legume each August with a national festival and bike race, far more people consume it overseas than here in the United States. In fact, 75 percent of the crop grown in this region is exported to lentil-loving places such as Spain, India, Italy and Mexico.
USDA plant geneticist Rebecca McGee blows the thin coating away
from just-picked lentil seeds.

“Lentils have an identity problem that they don’t deserve,” said USDA plant geneticist Rebecca McGee, an adjunct professor at Washington State University who oversees the nation’s lentil breeding program at the Pullman campus for the federal Agricultural Research Service.
“Unfortunately, a lot of Americans don’t realize how versatile they are,” she said, plucking pods off the spindly, honey-colored plants grown at WSU’s Spillman Agronomy Farm a couple miles from campus.

In France, cooked lentils – the seeds inside the plant’s pods – are integral to a variety of dishes. In India and parts of the Middle East, they are a cornerstone of cooking fare.
Here in the U.S., they’re often associated with hippie food and winter soups.
“I think we’re getting beyond that,” said McGee. Thanks to marketing efforts of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council ( in Moscow, Idaho, lentils are slowly earning a bigger place at the kitchen table, she said.
Object of desire
In her job as a plant breeder, McGee tinkers with the crop’s genes to make the seeds taste better, pack more nutrients and produce higher yields to feed the hungry around the globe. She also works to make the plants less vulnerable to foes such as disease, cold temperatures, hungry insects and certain herbicides.
Spillman Farm
The research farm is located two miles from the WSU Pullman campus.

Inspecting her plant rows at the Spillman farm, McGee split a pod with two finger tips, removed two seeds and tossed them into her mouth. As one of the nation’s top lentil breeders, it’s clear that she savors the subject of her research. Moving from one variety of lentil plant to another, she bit into the seeds and chewed, sampling them the way a viticulturist might taste subtle differences between wine grapes.

Lentil as a team player
Foodies and health-conscious consumers alike can enjoy lentils, said McGee. Each seed – roughly the size of a flattened eraser head – is a storehouse of nutrients and dietary fiber. And though lentils are low in fat, they make people feel full on less. Sold in packages and bulk, they have a long shelf life, are inexpensive and are super-easy to prepare. 
lentil seeds
Lentils are the seeds harvested
from the plant’s pods.

Ah, and the flavor. Cooked, the seeds taste rich, nutty and earthy, easily melding with other ingredients.

A recipe in “The Pea and Lentil Cookbook” (USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, 2000) that McGee keeps in her office calls for pureed red lentils to make hummus, a popular spread typically prepared with chickpeas. In other recipes, lentils are a key ingredient in stuffed mushrooms, lasagna and even apple muffins.
The Next Big Thing?
During a return to the Spillman farm a week later, an orange combine topped with two yellow umbrellas to block the sun rumbled over McGee’s knee-high lentil plants. Agriculture research technician Jarrod Pfaff navigated the machine through the golden landscape overlooking Pullman.
Pfaff, who’s also mayor of Garfield, Wash., has deep roots in Palouse crop country, hailing from a family of farmers that goes back several generations.
“I’ve spent a lot of hours on combines,” he said during a brief break. “Lentils are harvested later than peas but earlier than chickpeas.”
The lentils Pfaff is harvesting on this hot August morning are new varieties developed by McGee and fellow researchers in the breeding program. The seeds will be weighed to determine yield potential and analyzed to determine nutritional load, how they cook and how they taste.
Eventually, a new variety could emerge that’s the Next Big Thing on the Palouse, said Tim McGreevy, executive director of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.
McGee “is a breeder’s breeder,” he said. “She has a passion for plant breeding and the goal of developing new lentil varieties that do well.”
Why does the tiny lentil flourish on the Palouse? First, credit our warm, dry summers – necessary to prevent mildews and soil-borne diseases that affect lentils.
But lentils still need moisture, and the region’s soil provides just the right support, explained McGee. Silty and high in organic matter, the soil retains water for long periods while sharing it with the roots of the plants.
And one more thing: Lentil plants, through a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria, can convert nitrogen drawn from the air into nitrogen in the soil – a process called “nitrogen fixation” that improves soil fertility.
“This makes it a great rotation crop,” said McGee, offering yet another example of how lentils are small, but mighty.
Imagine the Super Bowl
Meanwhile, as McGee delves deeper into her research, the humble lentil continues to turn up in other places besides soup pots. More restaurants serve them in salads and alongside steak.
WSU Catering purees them to make moist and tender cakes on sale to the public. And packaged lentil chips are appearing on more and more store shelves, said McGreevy of the Palouse area’s pea and lentil council.
“We don’t have a Super Bowl ad yet,” he said, “and I want to stress the word, ‘yet.’”