Farming

Farmers Trial Climate-Friendly Chickpeas in Upstate New York

Published by
Liz Susman Karp

“The first year we didn’t know any better,” recalls farmer Carl Taber of his initial attempt to grow a small plot of chickpeas at Taber Hill Farm, his family’s 550-acre farm in Mecklenburg, New York, in the picturesque Finger Lakes region. But he planted them too late, so the plants didn’t canopy, and the result was beans that were too difficult to harvest.

“The doggone things were still green,” he chuckles. Weed control also became a big problem. But the plants had flourished into maturity with pods and seeds, so Taber saw that the legumes could grow on his land.

This was a big step in a region where the crop has never been grown commercially. Taber was inspired to experiment with the crop after joining an industrious experiment begun in 2020 and spearheaded by the Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development (SCOPED). The goal is to determine whether chickpeas can be produced in this area of upstate New York. If the project is successful, the area could provide a much-needed source for the legumes as farmers in the United States are not currently growing enough to meet the increasing demand.

The idea arose when SCOPED’s Executive Director Judy Cherry met with executives from Ithaca Hummus and Antithesis Foods, a Cornell University startup based in nearby Ithaca that produces garbanzo snack foods, and discovered the companies were spending a great deal of money and energy transporting chickpeas from Arizona and Washington because they were not available in-state.

Seizing the potential for the region’s farmers to diversify, develop a new market, and promote farms’ long-term growth, Cherry contacted the New York Department of Agriculture and Cornell Cooperative Extension to identify any previous chickpea growing efforts in the state. There was no historical data, and no one could definitively say that it had been tried.

Jason Goodman, CEO of Antithesis Foods (left), with Carl Taber.

Taber and Cherry recall that prevailing opinions and assumptions in the area’s agricultural industry about the prospect of growing the crop in upstate New York were all negative. People cited the wet, cold, and humid climate, the region’s shorter growing season, and a lack of proper soil. No one knew for sure if existing varieties or further breeding might overcome potential disease issues, said Brett James Chedzoy, senior research educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County.

And yet, a successful experiment that saw farmer growing several varietals in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, just a couple-hundred miles south but still decidedly in the Northeast, provided a glimmer of hope and possibility. Cherry and SCOPED decided to give it a try.

After the first year, the project is showing some signs of success: Antithesis Foods representatives hand-harvested and tested a few of the beans Taber picked after his first planting and found them suitable for use in its products. And, if the project pans out, it could result in a new crop for diversified farmers in the region.

A Legume with a History

Chickpeas are one of the earliest cultivated legumes, dating back to 8500 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent. They are considered the third most important pulses in the world (after beans and peas) because of their high protein content and because they can be grown as part of a diverse and regenerative approach to farming. They require little water, have a low carbon footprint, and can be used as a cover crop to break up cycles of weeds and disease.

Underscoring their value is the fact that chickpea seeds are the only non-grain seeds included in the top nine seeds stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the doomsday backup seed storage facility in Norway.

There are two main types of chickpeas: kabuli, the beige-colored knobs that are prominent in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking, and desi, which are smaller and usually black, though they can be yellow, green, or light brown, and are an integral part of Indian cuisine.

While Canada is a major chickpea producer, in the U.S., chickpeas are typically mostly grown in Washington’s Palouse region and the Northern Plains, as well as in Arizona and California, climates markedly different from that of the Finger Lakes, which is cold and temperate and receives a lot of rain.

A Climate-Friendly Crop with a Ready-Made Market

When Cherry approached Taber, who is also the chair of Schuyler County’s Industrial Development Agency, about trying out the crop, he was intrigued. The avuncular farmer is the fourth generation to farm his land, which has been in his family since his great-grandparents moved there before the turn of the 20th century.

A combine harvesting at Taber Hill Farm.

The family has grown hay, oats, and various seed crops and tended a herd of Holsteins whose milk they sold along with cheese that Taber’s sister produced. In 2015, however, the family sold the cows, after finding they couldn’t earn enough to make it worth keeping them.

Taber, who currently grows triticale, corn silage, and soft winter wheat, hopes to be able to grow chickpeas economically, getting the yields and process needed to provide a return. He considers the opportunity “serendipity, really,” he says. “I’m trying to navigate this post-dairy thing. If I ever get it figured out, I’ll feel lucky.”

He’s not alone. Taber notes that since 2010, 1,712 dairy farms have closed in the state. Those farmers who had supplied their herds or others with feed needed other crops to grow.

Benefits of growing chickpeas extend beyond enabling farmers to diversify what they grow. Like all legumes, they can draw nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, lowering costs (synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is expensive to produce and purchase) and potentially promoting carbon sequestration. “With carbon credits starting to be a pretty popular subject, I think there’s a whole lot we could be doing here,” says Taber, who is passionate about sustainability.

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Chickpea plants also possess a deep taproot that can naturally break the deeper compaction in the soil, relieving the farmer from having to do it mechanically. “There’s a lot going on in the soil—bacteria, funguses, insects, and everything—and if we can keep rotations and healthy roots in that soil to hold it in place to keep those microbiota and everything happy, it’s better than trying to grow extra ears of corn or something in rotation,” adds Taber.

The chickpea project also appealed to him because a market had already been identified. As the popularity of plant-based products continues to rise, “it’s an unusual situation to be in as a farmer, because we have a demand. We have a market if we can produce a crop to meet it,” Taber says. “So often as farmers, we’re producing a crop and then trying to look for or develop a market to expand. It’s there if we can do it right.”

USDA data shows retail sales of pulse products have risen from less than $10 million in the late 1990s to an estimated range of $700-800 million in more recent years.

Jon Beckman, SCOPED’s board chairman, sees additional market opportunities in area businesses including local restaurants, the popular supermarket chain Wegmans, and stores and restaurants in New York City, noting demand for locally produced food. For a company to say, “we’re using New York-grown chickpeas, it goes a long way,” he says, adding that Taber and the other farmers he hopes will join the project might not be able to supply all of the companies’ needs, but could certainly supplement them.

To scale up the trials in 2023, SCOPED is applying for a $50,000 grant from the New York Farm Viability Institute. Ithaca Hummus, Schuyler County legislator Mark Rondinaro, SCOPED, and private donations have covered the $3,000 in costs to date.

Another New York Chickpea Effort

Peter Martens, owner of Seneca Grain & Bean in nearby Penn Yan, coincidentally also trialed an acre of chickpeas last year. The company, founded in 2019, sells area-grown grains and pulses directly to consumers and to bulk food stores, restaurants, and bakeries that mill onsite. The company also plans to sell its grains and legumes to retail consumers and partner with a local mill to produce local flours.

“I find unusual crops interesting,” says Martens, explaining why he grows lentils and multiple types of beans including light and dark red kidney beans, brown winter lentils, purple summer peas (for livestock feed), and Austrian yellow and green winter peas. For someone whose family’s farming history dates back to 1715 in northwest Germany and 1957 in Penn Yan, the challenge and potential reward are both appealing.

A row of chickpeas two weeks after planting by Peter Martens.

However, Martens is under no illusions about the prospects of experimenting. “An unusual crop has to do much more than break even; it has to make more than a common crop to make up for the added effort—and then make a margin above that,” he says.

To grow chickpeas on any scale and for the longer term, they need to be able to return a similar income as organic kidney beans, says Martens. At $1.40 per pound, that means obtaining a yield of at least 1,000 pounds per acre and, after cleaning and packaging in 25-pound bags, selling for $2.50–$3.00 a pound. He thinks the crop will be most lucrative for processors who want to add a local label and sell directly to people who live in their community.

With his experience and proper seed-handling equipment, which he already had for his other crops, Martens is well-positioned to run this test. He planted his first attempt later than ideal, in mid-June of 2021. The one-acre plot produced quite a few blossoms and pods, although very few peas made it to maturity. It was enough to know they can grow in New York, he says, but not enough to know what the challenges might be.

Based on his limited experience, Martens thinks chickpea production will be similar to that of field peas. He’ll play with them until he knows what kind of yield and challenges to expect, when to best plant, if they do well with a companion crop or are better planted alone, and where the legumes may be advantageous in his crop rotation. He’ll share his knowledge and discoveries with Taber and SCOPED.

“Until I have proven to myself that I can’t grow [chickpeas] here, I won’t accept that it can’t be done,” Martens asserts, adding that the lentils he successfully grows are not a traditional New York State crop either.

‘Gonna Keep Trying’

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Last April, with some lessons learned, Taber continued his efforts, planting five acres of kabuli varieties developed in Saskatchewan, Canada. He was hopeful, attributing the first crop’s lack of success to its delayed planting because of the pandemic and North Dakota-based Meridian Seed’s insistence that he be able to inoculate the seeds as a requirement of purchase. (The company didn’t want responsibility for bringing to the area the asochtya blight, to which chickpeas are susceptible.)

Unfortunately, unusually wet weather prevented a timely harvest and the peas showed evidence of mildew, rendering them unusable. It was “kind of a disaster,” says Taber. He had also tried to grow a small quantity of desi seed obtained from his doctor, whose family grows it in India, but that attempt failed, too. He plans to try again if he can access the seed.

Despite the obstacles he’s encountered, Taber is still optimistic. This year, he’ll plant more seeds earlier in the year using narrower rows.

SCOPED board members weeding the chickpea plot at Taber Hill Farms in 2020.

Planting well and planting timely have been the biggest challenges, Taber says. “That’s probably true with all crops,” he continues, “but we often don’t think about the planting as much as some of the other steps along the way.”

This spring, he’ll grow less and spend more time fine-tuning. Because of disease susceptibility, a little more work—like scouting, monitoring, or even tillage-like cultivation—may be required with chickpeas than the other crops he has grown.

While crop diversity is a bulwark for farms and the food system against climate change, Martens, Taber, and SCOPED are driven by innovative thinking, business planning, and to ensure farm survival and prosperity.

Planting new things is exciting to Taber—and it was an especially welcome diversion back in 2020. Particularly interested in the prospect, his spry 89-year-old mother, Jean, climbed right up onto the red grain drill to assist in the first planting.

Taber admits that farmers like himself can be guilty of tunnel vision, prioritizing maintaining their farms, finding efficiencies, and trying to make the most of their investment over long-term planning. “If I hadn’t been hit with this opportunity to plant chickpeas,” he acknowledges, “I probably wouldn’t have thought of it on my own.”

Taber estimates it will take a couple more years to determine the project’s success, but he doesn’t mind going against conventional wisdom. “When everybody says it can’t be done, have they really even thought about it?” he says. “I’m gonna keep trying until I succeed.”

Liz Susman Karp

Liz Susman Karp writes about culinary history, foodways, restaurants, and the intersection of food and culture. Her work has been published in Zagat Stories, the Nosher, Inside Hook, Modern Farmer, the Times Union, and Westchester Magazine, among others. She feels fortunate to live in New York’s Hudson Valley, where she enjoys spending time exploring the area’s rich agricultural heritage and offerings.

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Liz Susman Karp

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