Washington chickpea growers seeing bean bonanza

When Greg Ferrel planted chickpeas at his Walla Walla farm for the first time 25 years ago, he was one of a handful of farmers to experiment with the crop.

Now, he estimates 40 to 50 farmers grow chickpeas in Walla Walla and Columbia counties, many using it as a rotation crop as he does with his 1,000 acres of dryland wheat.

A steady price helped along with an increasing U.S. demand for hummus has prompted more Washington farmers to grow the crop in the past five to 10 years, making Washington the largest producer of chickpeas in the nation.

Cathleen Williams of Kennewick and her sister, Charlene Flanigan of Touchet, planted chickpeas on their farm near Waitsburg this year. Williams said the price of chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans or ceci beans, at 40 cents per pound makes them an attractive alternative to dry peas, which sell for 12 cents to 14 cents per pound.

Chickpea production in Washington has boomed since 2000, with total acres going from 10,000 to 80,000. Ferrel, who represents Washington on the U.S.A. Dry Pea & Lentil Council, estimates 15,000 of those acres are in Walla Walla and Columbia counties. Exact county acreage data is not available for the crop.

Washington farmers produced about 39,800 metric tons of chickpeas last year, about 48 percent of all the chickpeas produced in the U.S. last year, according to the U.S.A. Dry Pea & Lentil Council. Idaho represented about 35 percent of chickpea production.

The chickpea yield has been exceptional in Eastern Washington for the past two years, Ferrel said. That, combined with prices above 30 cents per pound, have led farmers to add more acres or, like Williams, to take the plunge.

And Pete Klaiber, director of marketing for the council, said prices have stayed up despite increased production because of a demand that he only expects to increase.

About 13 years ago, more than 90 percent of U.S. chickpeas were exported. Now, he said that is closer to 50 percent.

Most of the rest is made into hummus, a smooth paste eaten as a dip or a sandwich spread. Klaiber said hummus is likely to continue to grow in popularity as manufacturers add new flavors.

Hummus is replacing onion dips and other higher-calories snack foods, he said.

Washington is a great place to grow chickpeas using dryland farming, Klaiber said. The Palouse and Walla Walla areas receive enough moisture for the crop, and the weather pattern is typically perfect, with moisture in the spring but a dry period before harvest.

Ferrel, a Western Pea & Lentil Grower Association senior board member, said they plant the seeds in late April or early May. He estimates he will harvest his chickpeas in early August. Most growers won't start chickpea harvest until Aug. 19, and Williams doesn't expect to start harvesting until mid-September.

Williams said she and her sister planted about 50 acres of chickpeas as a trial this year instead of dry peas on the farm that has been in the family since the late 1880s. If chickpeas work out, the sisters may add more next year.

So far the crop is going well, and Williams said they've been fortunate to dodge storm damage. They also have 3,000 acres of wheat.

While it costs a little more to grow garbanzo beans, she said if they get more in the long run, it will end up being a good crop.

"This is an experiment," said Williams, who also owns Catering by Cathleen.

Ferrel Seed Farms is growing 75 acres of chickpeas for seed production and another 240 acres of the crop this year.

Ferrel said they used to raise a lot of peas, but wanted to try something else. Chickpeas was the answer.

"They've been a very good crop for us," he said.

Chickpeas do need more water than peas, doing best with about 16 to 18 inches of rainfall a year. But they also have a strong taproot that can extract water up to 6 feet down in the soil, Ferrel said.

"They are a great manipulator of water," he said.

Chickpeas have less bug problems than dry peas. Ferrel said he has only sprayed three times for bugs in 25 years with the chickpeas, while peas required spraying every year.

The fungus-caused disease ascochyta blight used to be a problem with chickpeas, but new varieties resistant to the disease started coming out in 1994, Ferrel said.

Between new varieties and better fungicides, Ferrel said it hasn't been a problem.

One concern is deer and elk, which find the plant a tasty treat, Ferrel said.

"The deer can hurt you, but the elk will kill you," he said.

The chickpea plant gets about 16 inches tall and looks like a beanstalk with fernlike leaves, Ferrel said. The plant will put out little white flowers, and from those blooms, pods form. The pods contain the actual chickpeas.

Chickpeas take 120 days to grow and can't be harvested if wet, Klaiber said.

The chickpea bush will dry up, wither and turn brown before harvest, Williams said. When they harvest, she plans to try to make her own hummus.

Harvesting the chickpeas requires some adjustments to a combine "and off you go," Ferrel said.

The average yield is about 1,400 pounds per acre, Ferrel said. But in a dry year, farmers may only get 1,000 pounds. Last year, when the weather was perfect, some farmers got up to 2,200 pounds per acre.

Chickpeas also put nitrogen back in the soil for the next year's crop, providing a nice boost for wheat, Klaiber said.

Ferrel and Williams will send their chickpeas to Blue Mountain Seed for processing. The Walla Walla company is owned by Ferrel and his brother, Gary Ferrel.

Blue Mountain Seed has seen the amount of dried peas go down and chickpeas increase, Greg Ferrel said.

The chickpeas are run through a cleaner to get stems and dirt out. The split chickpeas and small ones are discarded. Then the processed chickpeas are packaged in a 100-pound bag and sold.

Most chickpeas that stay in the country are made into hummus, although some are canned. Klaiber said the hummus production facilities are on the East Coast, where hummus first took off.

While this year looks good, Klaiber said the cool wet spring meant chickpeas were planted later than normal, which means rains or frost could occur near to when some growers will be harvesting.

Ferrel said his plants are still throwing out pods right now. The flowers are starting to disappear. It will be another month before he will be able to tell what his yield will be.