Hummus success sparks chickpea interest in other regions
By MATTHEW WEAVER
As the popularity of the Middle Eastern dip hummus grows in the U.S., the number of acres of chickpeas planted in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere is expected to increase, an industry spokesman said.
Some 90,000 acres of chickpeas were planted this year in Washington state, the dominant production area in the U.S. That's a 13.2 percent increase over last year.
Sabra Dipping Co., a Colonial Heights, Va., company that makes about 60 percent of the nation's hummus, is experimenting with growing the crop in Virginia, sparking a concern that Pacific Northwest growers may lose their dominance in producing the crop.
A spokesman for the U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council doesn't expect Northwest acres to dip even if Sabra is successful in cultivating chickpeas on the East Coast.
A Sabra official said the company, owned by PepsiCo in the U.S. and Strauss Group in Israel, hopes to develop a secondary source of supplies in case of a crop shortage due to failures in Washington or Idaho.
Sabra 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 in Virginia's Chesterfield County.
There are a "handful" of farmers participating, Tuzel said. It could one day lead to the ability to increase the chickpea supply in general, he said.
"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 Pacific Northwest. "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 an outbreak of aschochyta blight, but resistant chickpea varieties and fungicides are available. Ascochyta blight would be a factor anywhere the crop is grown, he 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 the research in Virginia is successful, it's going to take years to select for cultivars and become a production zone, he said.
Scholz said Hinrichs Trading Co. in Pullman, Wash., one of the region's largest chickpea processors, is also interested in expanding acreage into Arizona, Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado.
As Montana pulse producers raise more chickpeas, they might put more pressure on the Pacific Northwest than Virginia, since that state has similar growing conditions, Scholz said.
As long as 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 demand for hummus is steadily increasing. He estimates the hummus industry generates revenues of more than $580 million a year.
"We see the biggest areas for growth everywhere we look," he said. "Most Americans are not yet eating hummus."
Hummus is a mixture of blended chickpeas -- also called garbanzos -- that is combined with spices and Tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds. Selling points for hummas are that it is cholesterol- and gluten-free and has no trans fats.