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Not just any old pea

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
James Brown kneels down to inspect a chickpea sprout and containers of Sabra brand hummus lines a local grocery store shelf.
SoVaNow.com / May 02, 2013
Hummus: a rich soil type, right? No? OK, then it must be a military-style SUV. Or maybe a bird.

Still no?

Seventy-two-year-old James Brown doesn’t know much about hummus, either, but he’s growing four acres of its main ingredient — the humble chickpea — on his Mount Laurel farm, which was enough this week to earn him a prominent mention in The Wall Street Journal.

“Hummus Is Conquering America,” blared the headline for a Monday WSJ article on hummus, which, for the record, is a creamy, savory spread (on crackers or as a dip for vegetables) that long has been a fixture of Middle East and Mediterranean diets. Low in fat, high in protein, and long on taste, hummus is flying off grocery shelves to the tune of estimated sales of at least $315 million annually, the Journal reports.

And growing.

Try not to look over your shoulder, Cheez Whiz.

How did a Halifax County farmer who admits he didn’t even know what a chickpea was until this winter end up playing a role in this tale? It turns out that Brown is a member of the conquering hummus army’s advance wave — a scout, if you will, for determining the viability of chickpea production on the East Coast.

“I don’t know anything about it, but I’m going to see if it works,” said Brown as he eyed the tiny spouts poking up from his dun colored fields on Neal’s Corner Road.

Brown is part of a demonstration project headed up by Virginia State University Extension that aims to see if the Old Dominion can be a reliable supplier of chickpeas for hummus producers. Not coincidentally, a mayor player in the business is Sabra Dipping Co., a White Plains, N.Y.-based food processor with manufacturing operations in Chesterfield County.

This week, Sabra announced plans to nearly double the size of its Chesterfield plant and hire an additional 140 workers over the next three years, bringing employment overall to 600 workers.

Sabra, a joint venture between PepsiCo and Israeli manufacturer Strauss Group, also is supporting the VSU Extension venture, which got a boost at the start of this year when the Virginia Tobacco Commission chipped in $185,000.

The Tobacco Commission deems chickpeas and sesame (also an ingredient of hummus) as crops with “great potential” for replacing lost income with the downsizing of Virginia’s tobacco industry. “This project has the potential to add considerably to Virginia’s agricultural economy,” reads the grant summary by Tobacco Commission staff. “It is estimated that if an individual farmer produces about 100 acres of chickpea or sesame, this project could initially help 600 Virginia farmers.”

Brown said he first heard about chickpeas at an Extension meeting this winter in Halifax. At the urging of VSU Extension agent Cliff Somerville, and with VSU providing the seed and supplies, he’s decided to give the crop a whirl.

Brown has been farming since childhood; for decades, he has raised corn, wheat and tobacco on his 300 acres of land. (Much of his farmland today is set aside for tending beef cattle.) He rotates his fields to produce fall wheat, corn and soybeans, but at Somerville’s urging he decided to test chickpeas on two plots of two acres apiece. He thinks, although he doesn’t know for sure, that raising chickpeas will be similar to raising soybeans.

“They say I can thresh it just like wheat or corn, so that’s good,” he said. This spring’s crop hasn’t required fertilizer, and supposedly chickpeas hold no appeal for deer, although VSU has advised him to be on the lookout for bugs. VSU Extension has supplied him with a specialized pesticide that he’ll use if he spots an infestation.

“If the bugs don’t bother it, I won’t have to do nothing,” he said.

Brown admits he has only a vague sense of the market for chickpeas (asked when the crop is harvested, he replied, “You asked me a thousand dollar question. I don’t know”), but he is counting on expert advice to help him get through this year’s trial run. And if it pays off? “Maybe I can stop growing tobacco.” (He has some 35 acres.) “I like growing different things.”

Sabra and VSU are hoping the same spirit spreads to other farm producers. According to The Wall Street Journal, Sabra is keen to develop a supply chain nearby its Chesterfield plant, rather than having to rely on the strained capacities of Pacific Northwest farms that form the bulwark of U.S. chickpea production. (The Tobacco Commission suggests that Sabra also imports heavily from Mexico and Canada.) VSU, meantime, is attempting to develop crop strains that can resist disease and hold up in Virginia’s humid climate. If you ever wondered why the Old Dominion previously hasn’t figured into the production of an Old World staple, that’s why.

Brown is old enough to know that chickpeas might or might not work out for him, but he’s eager to try his hand at something new. The last time he raised a specialty crop, he said, was back when he was 13 or 14 years old and a member of his school’s 4-H Club. Back then, on an acre of land that his father let him use, he cultivated a high-end breed of tobacco.

“I took it to the warehouse and sold it for a good price, top dollar,” he said. “That’s been quite a few years ago. Now I’ve gotten this age and I’m growing chickpeas. I never thought I’d do anything like this.”

His wife, Betty, cooked chickpeas for the first time earlier this year and proclaimed the taste not to her liking. (But James Brown enjoyed the boiled beans, and he likes hummus even more, having tried it for the first time just recently: “Good with crackers. It’s something different, anyhow.”) Twenty-one-year-old grandson Cordaro helps out with the rest of the farming operation, but he hasn’t warmed to the chickpea experiment: “He said, ‘Grandddady, you do it.’”

Hummus conquers America, one acre at a time.

(For the April 30 Wall Street Journal article, “Hummus Is Conquering America/Tobacco Farmers Open Fields to Chickpeas; A Bumper Crop,” visit Wall Street Journal)







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