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Montanans have grown lentils for two decades, at times producing more lentils than any other state. But growers and scientists still have many questions about managing the crop that is said to be uniquely suited for the northern Great Plains and Pacific Northwest.

Take root rot, for example. Caused by complex fungi that thrive under dry conditions, it’s a major threat to the lentil industry in North America and worldwide.

“We are just shooting in the dark on how to mitigate it,” said Charlie Cahill of Scobey, a grower and owner-operator of a seed company with his wife, Tammy.

Looking for answers, Montana State University has received a $3.2 million grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. It allows MSU Extension Plant Pathologist Mary Burrows, along with a team of scientists from Montana, North Dakota and Washington, to conduct a four-year project investigating root rot and effective ways to prevent or overcome it. The multidisciplinary team is composed of agronomists, food scientists, plant geneticists and plant pathologists as well as farmers, industry representatives and other stakeholders from Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Canada.

“Lentil is a crop that kind of snuck up on us in Montana from trivial acreage in the 1990s to over 700,000 acres in 2017,” Miller added. “There was never much focused research on lentil agronomy in the USA.

 

and the Northern Plains in particular, because the acres didn’t warrant it. Best management practices are not well researched.”

Understanding root rot is a complex endeavor, since agronomy and disease likely interact with genetics, Miller said. Noting that lentil genetics vary widely, Miller said plants range in height from short to very short. Seed size probably varies fourfold. Seed color ranges from light green to rose-orange to speckled or black.

“Understanding the interplay of agronomy, genetics and disease is a big goal, and this grant will help us take an important step in that direction,” Miller said.

Burrows’ team has four main goals for the “Building a Better Lentil from the Ground Up” project. They plan, for one, to characterize the major species of Fusarium, the predominant and most difficult to manage of the fungi that cause root rot. They will explore the interactions of those species and the role of seeds in establishing and spreading the disease.

Secondly, the researchers want to develop plants resistant to root rot using rapid breeding methods. Thirdly, they plan to study the effect of farm practices on the severity of root rot and its impact on plant health, seed yield and nutrition. Farmers and scientists, for example, aren’t sure how often to plant lentils in rotation with wheat. Some alternate the crops every other year. Others wait two years before planting lentils on the same plot.

The fourth goal involves sharing findings with stakeholders and educating the next generation of scientists. Part of this goal is supporting a graduate student exchange program between the United States and Canada.