Schuyler County farmer tries chickpea farming, a potentially lucrative new crop for upstate NY
Chickpeas are growing in a farm field in Schuyler County this summer, a rarity in New York state. An experiment is underway to see if chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, can successfully be grown in upstate New York.
If you are growing chickpeas, this is the time to do it. Loaded with protein and fiber, they’ve become a darling of the food industry; incorporated in everything from chips to pasta. Sales of hummus alone are expected to top $1 billion over the next five years, according to Entrepreneur magazine. But you won’t find them growing in upstate New York.
"I think it’s just something that no one ever thought to grow here," said Schuyler County farmer Carl Taber.
He said chickpeas traditionally are grown in more arid climates because they are susceptible to blight. And that’s the answer Judy McKinney-Cherry, executive director for Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development got when she asked a startup why it was shipping chickpeas from Arizona to Ithaca.
"Because of the climate or the soil, there was a number of reasons that a number of people made assumptions it wouldn’t work,” McKinney-Cherry said. ‘But no-one had actually tried it.”
That’s what kick-started a Schuyler County-Cornell partnership to see if they could be grown in New York state. McKinney-Cherry said Taber planted three different varietals in a three-acre plot on his Mecklenburg farm last year.
"We treated the seeds and put them in last year and they grew,” McKinney-Cherry said. “So, we knew it was possible to grow chickpeas in New York."
That led to a $6,000 pilot program this year; with buy-in from Schuyler County’s economic development agency and some private developers. Taber expanded his chickpea plot to five acres.
"I think we’ll have a really good idea this year whether or not to just drop it or continue,” Taber said. “I think it’ll take a couple of years to get the ball rolling if we have good luck this year."
Growing them successfully is a nice agriculture story. But a crop of chickpeas doesn’t benefit a farmer unless there’s a market for them. McKinney-Cherry said that won’t be a problem.
"What we would do is make sure we would have the businesses lined up to purchase with an agreed-upon price,” she said. “We would make sure the farmers weren’t left with a product they couldn’t sell."
One of those potential markets is Antithesis Food out of Ithaca. Jason Goodman is co-founder and CEO.
“Antithesis makes a line of crunchy chocolate snacks called Grabanzos,” he said. “The primary ingredient in that are chickpeas, which are also garbanzo beans, which is how we get the fun name. Switch the ‘R’ and the ‘A’ so it’s Grabanzos."
He said making that product local would be a great marketing tool.
"We’re selling at Ithaca Wegmans, we’re selling locally, we’re selling at the Cornell campus,” Goodman said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could say the chickpeas came from five miles away?"
More than that, if producers are working with farmers, there can be more customization of the garbanzo beans.
"Just planting the seeds and knowing they work is a great start,” Goodman said. “Then we can start optimizing and saying we want a chickpea with this much protein and this much fiber. And even start getting into the weeds, no pun intended, and have fun with it."
But back to the farmer, there are some things to work out. Taber is still working on that pesky potential for fungus infestation, as well as weeds. They hand pulled them last year.
"We learned that they have to be planted in a timely manner, and we had a little bit of an idea of how to control the weeds,” Taber said. “They won’t be organic because they are susceptible to blight, so we’ll have to use fungicide."
But all in all, being able to diversify a crop, with a built-in market, could be an easy sell to farmers.
“I’m optimistic, I think too many of us, especially in agriculture get stuck in ruts,” Taber said. “We do what we do because it’s what we’ve done, and it’s worked in the past. But it’s not always going to work in the future.”
“What do you have to lose?” she said. “You are going to lose a couple thousand dollars at the most. But the upside is incredible. That’s the most beautiful thing about this."
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