The U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council doesn't expect Northwest acres to dip if a Virginia-based hummus company wants to grow more chickpeas closer by to reduce its reliance on the Pacific Northwest.
A recent Wall Street Journal article indicated that the Sabra Dipping Co., LLC, hopes to develop a secondary source of supplies in case of a crop shortage due to failures in Washington or Idaho, the primary growing area for the crop.
Chief Technology Officer Tulin Tuzel told the Capital Press the company's chickpea farming in Virginia is for research purposes. Sabra's hummus manufacturing facility and research and development center are located in Virginia's Chesterfield County.
There are a "handful" of farmers participating, Tuzel said. It could one day lead to the ability to increase chickpea supply in general, and the Northwest specifically.
"One of the things we may discover is a bit about the ideal varieties of chickpeas for various climates and regions throughout the U.S.," Tuzel said.
Todd Scholz, director of research and information for the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council in Moscow, Idaho, said Sabra is one of the council's members.
"Virginia is a damper, more moist climate, hotter, and so chickpeas may work in places, but we still think we're going to be a major producer," Scholz said of the PNW. "It's a crop you have to learn how to grow and you have to have adapted varieties."
Crop failure is possible, Scholz said. The likeliest scenario is the disease aschochyta blight, but there are resistant varieties and fungicides, so he believes the region is safe for the next few years. Ascochyta blight would be a factor anywhere, Scholz said.
"We're planting a lot more acres, we're a lot more exposed to whatever might happen," he said. "It does make you more vulnerable to whatever climatic conditions you have here."
But even if Virginia starts planting chickpeas, it's going to take them a few years to select for adapted cultivars and actually become a production zone, he said.
Scholz said Hinrichs Trading Company in Pullman, Wash., one of the region's largest chickpea processors, is also interested in expanding acres into Arizona, Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado. As Montana pulse producers find the ability to raise chickpeas, that might put more pressure on the PNW than Virginia would, since they have similar conditions, Scholz said.
If the price remains strong, Northwest farmers will continue to raise chickpeas, he said.
"I'm way too optimistic right now to be looking at a decline in acres," he said with a laugh. "There's still a lot of potential for hummus as a snack food, so there's still a lot of room for chickpea production yet."
Sabra Chief Marketing Officer Ken Kunze said Sabra has 60 percent of the hummus market, with demand increaseing steadily. He estimates the hummus industry is more than $580 million.
"We see the biggest areas for growth every where we look," he said. "Most Americans are not yet eating hummus."
The USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council is working with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to develop an International Year of the Pulses in 2016, Scholz said.
Sabra is owned by PepsiCo in the U.S. and Strauss Group in Israel.