As hummus, a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine, gains popularity among Americans seeking healthful snacks, tobacco farmers open their fields to chick peas and Pepsico undertakes to develop new hummus food science with an Israeli company, Strauss. Both businesses see massive potential in developing American chick pea strains for a number of good reasons, some perhaps less good. Let’s start with the good: homemade hummus or that bought from a kiosk which makes it fresh, is high in protein, low in salt and fat, and can be free of artificial additives. Made with inexpensive chickpeas, it can easily be whipped up at home.
But in America, the Mecca of fast food, the quickest way to a consumer’s heart is through store-bought pre-made, conveniently packaged eating opportunities.
Market-research firm Information Resources Inc. says US food retailers rang up $530 million in sales of “refrigerated flavored spreads” (a food category dominated by hummus), a 25% jump over 2010.
That chickpea-jonesing trend (it’s also a crunchy snack!) has caught the attention of major food companies like Sabra Dipping Co. (a joint venture of PepsiCo, Inc. and Israel’s Strauss Group Ltd), and Kraft Foods Group, Inc., which owns Athenos, another big hummus brand.
Sabra hooks Americans on hummus through free sampling events staged in major cities, distributing over ten thousand 2-ounce tasting packages in a single day. The company kicked off its first national television ad campaign earlier this year.
Sabra 2012 sales reached an estimated $315 million.
Like quinoa shortages, tiny chickpeas have become a hot commodity and forward thinking manufacturers are preparing for a potential shortage.
To meet demand, Sabra’s manufacturing plant near Richmond, Virginia will undergo an $86 million expansion. And to reduce its dependence on the primary chickpea-growers in the Pacific Northwest, Sabra wants to cultivate a commercial crop in Virginia.
“We need to establish the supply chain to meet our growing demand,” says Sabra’s chief technology officer, Tulin Tuzel. “We want to reduce the risk of bad weather or concentration in one region. If possible, we also want to expand the growing seasons.”
Sabra also seeks to identify new chickpea varieties.
Sourcing chickpeas locally will lower shipping costs, and come with a healthy perk of reduced transportation emissions.
So Sabra is lobbying farmers in the heart of American tobacco country to grow chickpeas, an easy sell as declining cigarette sales has dramatically changed the economics of farming tobacco.
Compared with corn or wheat, chickpeas are a tiny crop, but lucrative.
Last year’s US harvest reached a record 332 million pounds, up 51% from 2011, with a record value of $115.5 million, according to the USDA.
In addition to heightened hummus production, chickpea demand from Spain, Turkey and Pakistan also has led farmers to increase plantings.
But it’s not a simple substitution of seeds: experts say the state’s high summer heat and humidity could prove a significant obstacle to chickpea viability. (Is this an invite for genetic modification?)
With Sabra financial support, Virginia State University is working on identifying a variety more suited to the climate. Agronomist Harbans Bhardwaj thinks Virginia farmers may be able to grow the crop on a commercial scale within three years. The university has recruited farmers to plant on-farm trials.
According to the Wall Street Journal, James Brown, a 72-year-old tobacco, corn and soybean farmer in Clover, Va., said he knew nothing about chickpeas when an agent from Virginia State called him several months ago and asked if he would plant the bean.
He said he jumped at the opportunity because he is looking for ways to make his roughly 300-acre farm more profitable.
Brown planted four acres with chickpeas in mid-April. That week, his wife served him the first chickpeas he’d ever eaten. “They tasted pretty good,” the farmer said.
Image via soggydan