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BISMARCK, N.D. - Eastern Montana dry pea and lentil farmer Jim Squires retired this year, then watched as crops on his rented-out land withered in dry weather.

Other pea and lentil crops in the region suffered a similar fate, leaving Squires to reflect on his decision to leave the business after 40 years.

"My neighbors tell me I'm pretty smart. I think I'm more lucky than smart," he said with a laugh.

Many pea and lentil farmers in Montana and North Dakota - the nation's top producing states - found themselves unlucky this year as drought depleted their crops.

Production plummeted in the two states that typically account for two-thirds of the nation's lentil crop and more than three-fourths of the dry peas.

The most recent Agriculture Department data show U.S. pea production down 24 percent from last year and lentils down 30 percent.

Average yields nationwide for the commodities - known as pulse crops because they have pods and seeds - were only about three-fourths of what they were in 2007. U.S. production of dry peas this year totaled about 12 million hundred-pound bags; lentil production was about 2.4 million hundredweight.

"What happened was drought. That's kind of a short story," Squires said. "The peas that were there were nice quality, but there was just very little production."

The impact on prices might be anyone's guess.

Supplies worldwide are tight, which normally would boost prices. "But it's been impossible to outguess the impact of the economic crisis around the world," said Tim McGreevy, executive director of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.

Sixty percent or more of the American pea and lentil crop is exported and used to feed both people and livestock. With the financial meltdown, customers are finding it hard to get credit, McGreevy said. The pulse crop in Canada - the main U.S. competitor - also is more in demand because of the weaker Canadian dollar.

"There's not a shortage of challenges out there," McGreevy said.

One big buyer of U.S. pulse crops in recent years has been Cuba. Earlier this year, a North Dakota trade delegation led by Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson announced another large sale to the island nation - about 12,000 acres worth of pea production, along with a smaller amount of lentils. Much of the crop was to come from North Dakota.

The drop in production will have no effect on the sale because it already has been completed, said Chuck Fleming, marketing coordinator for the state Agriculture Department.

This year's conditions also are not expected to sour farmers on the pulse crops. They have grown in popularity in recent years as farmers deal with the soaring cost of fertilizer - something the pulse crops don't need. They actually put fertilizer back into the soil for use by other crops the following year.

That makes peas and lentils a valuable rotational crop with such small grains as wheat, and it should keep acres stable next year despite the rough times.

Copyright © 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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