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Va. tobacco farmers turn to chickpeas, hummus to restore revenue

Wednesday - 7/17/2013, 8:31am  ET

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James Brown, 72, is a tobacco, soybean and corn farmer in Clover, Va. But this year, he's introducing a new crop: chickpeas. (Courtesy Small Farm Outreach Program)

Natalie Tomlin, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON - It's a healthy problem to have, but one that is financially troubling for Virginia's oldest crop and those who farm it.

Tobacco was the cash crop of colonial Virginia. According to the National Parks Service, London imported nearly a million and a half pounds of tobacco annually from Virginia by 1640. But that demand is no longer.

From 2000 to 2011, cigarette consumption experienced a 32.8 percent decrease, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and a 2013 study reports that only 18 percent of adults in the U.S. smoke, compared to 33.2 percent of adults in 1980.

"Tobacco farmers always have to look for alternatives and diversify we just have to be patient," says William Crutchfield, director of the Small Farm Outreach Program at Virginia State University.

Crutchfield is one several researchers helping tobacco famers find stability in a new product -- hummus.

The dip, made from chickpeas and tahini, has been a staple in Middle Eastern cultures for centuries. But its popularity has grown considerably in the U.S. in recent years.

Top-selling brand Sabra tells WTOP its household penetration increased from two points to 16 from 2007 to 2012. Sabra's Chief Technology Officer Tulin Tuzel says the company, whose largest manufacturing plant is located just south of Richmond, has grown its share from 25 to 60 percent.

And as the demand for hummus continues to boom, so does its main ingredient -- the chickpea.

Despite manufacturing the popular spread near Virginia's capital city, Sabra ships most of its chickpeas from the Pacific Northwest, the Wall Street Journal reports. But growing the legume locally could reduce costs spent in shipping and provide area farmers with a new crop.

And that is exactly what one partnership is hoping to accomplish.

The preliminary effort for determining the chickpea's viability as a crop in Virginia is taking place under the Small Farm Outreach Program at Virginia State University, which Sabra helps fund, along with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Virginia State University.

There, the program's director, Crutchfield, works with about 10 part-time agents who are former agriculturalists. These agents work one-on-one with four farmers participating in the field study.

Two of Crutchfield's farmers are located in the heart of peanut country in Southampton County and the other two are closer to central Virginia in Halifax County. Despite having more than 30 years of experience in the fields, these farmers have only recently been introduced to the chickpea.

"We're learning from each other's experience," Crutchfield says. "It's all trial and error."

Crutchfield hopes to have a harvest by October, but there is one obstacle he says they must overcome: Ascochyta blight, a fungus that thrives in humid conditions. And this summer's combination of rain and hot temperatures is giving this obstacle an edge.

"We have a concern about that because Virginia is a high-temperature, high- humidity environment, which is a conducive element of the disease," says Dr. Harbans Bhardwaj, an agronomist at Virginia State University. "It's a different environment [than the Pacific Northwest]. Virginia is hot and humid in the summer, which is something the fungal disease likes. It's a challenge for us to find some production methodology to avoid that fungal disease."

"We have our fingers crossed that we can get over the hurdle that has stumped researchers," Crutchfield says.

Bhardwaj is also trying to find a chickpea variety that can flourish on the East Coast. He says if the current chickpea variety is successful, they will multiply production and supply the seed to Sabra.

"This is my third year, and I am hopeful that within two or three years, we could have some commercial production of chickpeas in Virginia," says Bhardwaj, who adds that Sabra also has an agronomist who is testing chickpea varieties at six locations across the state.

Tuzel says testing the varieties will ultimately help Sabra learn more about agriculture, nutrition and the end product.

James Brown, one of the four farmers in Crutchfield's field study, has worked on his farm in Clover, Va., all of his life, but began growing chickpeas last spring. He says his 5 acres of four chickpea varieties are hanging in there.

"We've just had a rough year there was too much rain," the 72-year-old tobacco, soybean and corn farmer says. "Next year, I'll put them closer to my house."

Crutchfield says chickpea production is offering these farmers a new opportunity to make a profit. Although it may not make them as much as tobacco, he says it would be very profitable compared to other summer crops, like soybeans and corn.

"We are optimistic about ongoing growth and excited about the test farming taking place," Tuzel says. "It is too early to say what we will learn, but we are pleased to be working with such a wonderful organization [Virginia State University] as a partner."

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