Mid-Columbia farmers embracing the chickpea

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldAugust 30, 2013 

WALLA WALLA -- Strong prices and no-till farming have caused more Mid-Columbia farmers to embrace chickpeas as a rotation crop.

Many of the growers served by Walla Walla's Blue Mountain Seed have chosen to raise chickpeas instead of dried peas the past two years, President Gary Ferrel said.

Blue Mountain Seed started receiving the first of the new crop Aug. 15, Ferrel said. Dry weather this year moved chickpea harvest up for some farmers.

The company's chickpeas are grown on more than 10,000 acres. Washington farmers are growing about 92,000 acres of chickpeas this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's up significantly from 2000, when farmers only grew about 10,000 acres statewide.

Exact county acreage is not available, but an estimated 20,000 of the acres are in Walla Walla and Columbia counties.

Ferrel's brother, Greg, grows chickpeas as a rotation crop with dryland wheat at Ferrel Seed Farms about six miles east of Walla Walla.

Their farm was an early adopter, with their father first planting about 65 acres of the crop -- also called garbanzo beans -- about 27 years ago.

Recently, more farmers have embraced chickpeas as a chance to get a higher price for a rotation crop and as a way to improve soil health.

The price for chickpeas reached a peak of 50 cents per pound in 2011, Gary Ferrel said, dropping to about 42 cents last year.

This year, chickpeas are selling for about 35 cents a pound -- still more profitable than the 17 cents per pound that dried peas are getting, he said. Those prices mean farmers are likely to choose to keep growing garbanzos.

No-till farming has allowed other farmers to get in on the good prices. That's because garbanzo beans need more water than dried peas, and tilling the land before seeding can soak up water, Greg Ferrel said. His dryland fields are in an area that gets about 23 to 24 inches of rainfall each year, normally plenty for the crop.

Greg Ferrel started harvesting earlier this week, steering his combine through some of his 250 acres of chickpeas. He estimated it would take him four days, yielding about 1,600 pounds an acre, just a little above average.

"Chickpeas have just done very well on this farm," he said.

The dried garbanzo plants look like wizened, foot-high trees. Pods hang from their "branches," each containing a single, white garbanzo bean that resembles a small brain.

Looking closely at a garbanzo bean, it's possible to see the shape of a chick's face with a small pointed beak.

Using garbanzos as a rotation crop with wheat cuts down on the fertilizer bill for the wheat planted next year, Greg Ferrel said. The plants put nitrogen back into the soil.

He's noticed his wheat yield grow by 15 to 20 bushels per acre when the wheat is planted on a field that just had garbanzo beans instead of planting after another wheat crop, he said.

The area's growing conditions have helped Blue Mountain Seed and its farmers find a niche, Gary Ferrel said.

Being able to plant earlier in April than other areas such as the Palouse and having cool weather until after the garbanzo beans are already forming in their pods means that growers in Walla Walla and Columbia counties can grow large, premium garbanzo beans that are 9 to 10 millimeters, he said.

The large garbanzo beans are not destined to be eaten in hummus, although the demand for the healthy spread has helped the industry grow. Instead, most beans processed at Blue Mountain Seed are sold to brokers and exporters, who then sell them overseas. Spain, India and Australia are the top three customers, Gary Ferrel said.

The Walla Walla Select brand of chickpeas is loaded into 100-pound and 55-pound bags for export, Gary Ferrel said. The 55-pound bags are headed for New Zealand and Australia.

In Spain, they are sold in glass jars so customers can see the quality and size, he said.

Some of the chickpeas will be made into flour, which is then turned into paste, Gary Ferrel said. Others will be cooked as chickpea balls and used as filling for falafel.

At Blue Mountain Seed's mill, the chickpeas go through a metal machine called a Clipper that cleans and sizes them. First, the larger dirt clods and rocks are left behind as the chickpeas continue through the machine. The beans go over screens, and the small ones drop to one side and into a container, while the larger chickpeas move forward.

The chickpeas go over a gravity deck, where air blows up and the larger, heavier chickpeas continue to move through. Then they go through a precision grader, which Gary Ferrel said is the last defense to remove small beans, splits and small foreign matter like the pod shells.

Their goal is to clean chickpeas well enough to have defects in less than 2 percent of the chickpeas they sell, which allows the company to have a No. 1 grade, Gary Ferrel said.

With two processing lines going at the same time, the seven employees of Blue Mountain Seed can clean about 1 million pounds of chickpeas a month, Ferrel said.

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