Scotland could profitably grow 15 times more peas, beans and lentils than it currently does – and moves are afoot to create the processing and marketing infrastructure that will allow these environmentally-friendly crops to proliferate.

Pulses are healthy, cheap and nutritious, and offer a substantial benefit to the environment through their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen and thrive without artificial fertilisers. However, Scotland does not have a well-established legumes supply chain to support and encourage more growers to escape the cereals rut many have become stuck in.

To put that right, six farmers from the south and east of the country are now working with processors, wholesalers and researchers to establish a clear route to market for locally produced pulses, under the auspices of a Soil Association Scotland-led Rural Innovation Support Service group.

Group member Elizabeth Massie, of 300-acre mixed farm Pressmennan, near Dunbar, in East Lothian, plans to put more pulses in her rotations: “Pulses aren’t that developed in Scotland yet, but to get a crop growing that requires less fertiliser, that you can sell, and is better for your soil, seems like a no brainer to me.

“We’ve farmed in quite a conventional way for over 50 years and have become quite cereal-based," she admitted. "That’s our main income stream, but since we’re pouring a lot of money into fertiliser and other inputs, I felt we needed to broaden our rotation a bit more. I looked at pulses as they’re something we can put in as a combinable crop. We tried a small field of peas which went well and didn’t require any fertiliser, so I started thinking whether there were opportunities for different markets, and how I could get better at growing them.

“Pulses are a key part of not using as many inputs, so should reduce costs. Our yields might come down, but profitability will stay similar. And the benefits to the soil for not putting on as much chemical fertiliser is a real driver for me. It was incredible seeing the wildlife that was in our herbal ley last summer. It made us all smile!"

James Hutton Institute researcher Dr Pete Iannetta has been evangelical about pulses for some time: “The irony is our feed and food systems are legume-dependent, yet we import most of our high-protein legume grains, and almost all are for animal and aquaculture feed. That means we forfeit the potential soil benefits from cultivation, and human-health benefits from direct consumption.

“By using pulses in cropping rotations we can improve soil and increase the range of crops grown, plus reduce disease and pest incidence, lowering pesticide dependency. Currently, only 1% of Scottish arable cropped land accommodates pulses – this could be fifteen times higher," he claimed.

“If you want to protect environmental, human health, and have truly sustainable economics, then legumes are the vehicle. But the market pull is more important than the production push. We don’t have any serious milling facilities or hulling facilities in Scotland – so it’s not just that we need to grow pulses, it’s that we need the capacity along the value chain to process as well, and we don’t currently have that in Scotland.”

Soil Association Scotland's Ana Allamand, who facilitates the RISS group, said: “This is an industry that could be developed with benefits for everyone. The group now plans to set up a peer-to-peer network to explore varieties and routes to market.”

The other farmers involved on the group are Doug Christie, of Durie Farms, Fife; Gordon Caldwell, of Caldwell’s Vegetables from Turnberry, Ayrshire; James Porter, of East Scryne Farm, Angus; Mike Hyatt, of Baleveolan Croft, Isle of Lismore; and Kirsty Black, of Arbikie Highland Estate Distillery, Angus.