"On a field of yellow field peas, Starr brothers are using 75% less water than corn or soybeans and adding 60 pounds of nitrogen to their soil. That’s half of the nitrogen recommended for growing corn. The application and water usage footprint decreases by 62.5%."
Hastings, Nebraska is home to the Organic farming duo, Joel and James Starr, better known in the community as Starr Partnership. Their fields root all the way back to great grandpa Starr, but the Starr brothers took over the family farm back in 1984 after graduating college.
When the Starr brothers first started running the farm, the fields were conventional corn. Years later, a local county agent was organizing grower meetings in the community, and the brothers heard him talk about this concept of Organic farming.
“At first we did a lot of things wrong,” Joel Starr said. “We didn’t even use cover crops then. Now we’re using cover crops for all sorts of reasons.”
Starting their transition to organic with an 80 acre field back in 1991, the Starr brothers were far ahead of the organic farming adoption curve. Over the last 30 years, they have transitioned almost all of their land to organic with a strong focus on cover cropping and incorporating plants into their rotation that build soil health.
“We started growing PURIS peas 5 years ago,” Joel Starr said. “Honestly, it could be longer than that.”
The Starr brothers have been an influential part of the PURIS organic pea protein production by growing PURIS PP-0667 organic yellow field peas. As loyal growers to the PURIS family, the question from PURIS was,
How have peas impacted Starr Partnership?
“In the 2019 growing season, we got the peas in the ground early April,” Joel Starr said. “Typically we’re planting late March, but it was later this year because of the wet spring.”
This yellow field pea variety has roughly an 80 day maturity that’s intentionally bred to be planted earlier in the growing season compared to most crops because the seeds can germinate around 30 degrees.
“What’s really nice is we can plant it when we’re not planting anything else,” Joel Starr said. “We plant wheat in the fall and plant peas in March before we even get around to thinking about planting corn and soybeans, which I really like. Planting season is not so hectic.”
In return for having the peas planted early, harvest comes early, too.
“After harvesting the peas in mid July, we can plant our cover crop the first week in September and get a really nice season out of it,” Joel Starr said. "We have harvested the peas as early as the last week in June."
Cover crops are critical weed managers in Starr’s organic production. The Starr brothers plant a cover crop mix behind the peas that consists of 25 pounds of hairy vetch, 3 pounds of radishes, some rye and mustard seed. Incorporating radishes into the mix is a trick they learned from a speaker at the MOSES Organic Conference. Radishes have great weed management properties because the large root breaks up soil compaction. This long season cover crop mixture is helping manage their weeds to the point where they see little to no weed pressure the following spring.
“The peas also leave a lot of nitrogen in the soil, way more than my soybeans,” Joel Starr said. “I soil sampled after peas and found 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre. With soybeans you might figure 40 pounds an acre.”
Yellow field peas are superior biological nitrogen fixators that take nitrogen out of the air and convert it into a usable form of nitrogen for plants in the soil. Not only is the nitrogen boost from the peas impacting the Starr brother’s cover crop performance, but it’s having a positive effect on their entire crop rotation.
“We had corn that was going to yield 240 bushels an acre after peas,” Joel Starr said. “That was before a wind storm blew in.”
Bringing the whole system together
The peas are allowing the Starr brothers to plant a crop earlier in the spring, alleviating some of the chaos during planting season. As a result, getting the peas out of the ground early allows them to have a long and mature cover crop season that is crucial to their weed management techniques. Their fields are receiving high amounts of natural nitrogen which minimizes needs for fertilizer applications. Finally, the Starr brothers are noticing a significant decrease in overall quantity of water they use throughout the season.
“Peas don’t require much water, way less than soybeans actually,” Joel Starr said. “Soybeans require 5 to 10 inches of water, while peas are sitting at maybe 1 or 2 inches – if that.”
The Starr brothers’ fields are irrigated. Having the ability to reduce the amount of water coming out of their irrigation systems not only helps them conserve their water supply but cuts down the overall resource footprint in their Nebraska farming community.
Here’s the reality of peas in their rotation: on a field of yellow field peas, Starr brothers are using 75% less water than corn or soybeans and adding 60 pounds of nitrogen to their soil. That’s half of the nitrogen recommended for growing corn. The application and water usage footprint decreases by 62.5%.
“I enjoy growing PURIS yellow field peas for the end use – pea protein,” Joel Starr said. “I’ve even eaten the pea protein in a protein shake before.”
Growers like the Starr brothers are what make the entire plant-based, pea protein movement possible. They are contributing a consistent and quality organic pea supply, all while utilizing regenerative farming practices and making sustainable impacts in the farming community.