The hummus among us, Virginia’s next cash crop?

He grew up on a citrus farm in Punjab, India. The earth stuck to his boots much like the soil runs through his veins today. Harbans Bhardwaj PhD is an agronomist who spends his time developing new crops at Virginia State University’s (VSU) Randoph Farm.

Dr. Bhardwaj experiments with new ways to grow crops, especially creating drought and disease resistant strains of legumes, which is VSU’s new crops program that Bhardwaj started in 1991.

He’s now working with chickpeas at the request and partial funding of Sabra Dipping Co. The chickpea could be the replacement for tobacco, which is declining in sales, for many Virginia farmers. With Sabra located right in Walthall, the chickpea makes for a symbolic relationship between the farmer and Sabra. Chickpeas are used in the product of hummus, a dip that has become ever more popular with a growth in the market of over 36 percent since 2010.

Bhardwaj has had a history with chickpeas being a mainstay in his home country.

“In Punjab state, we grow a lot of chickpeas and we eat a lot of chickpeas,” said Bhardwaj. “So I started working with chickpeas in 1996 and later wrote a paper and that went fairly well.”

About three years ago, VSU was contacted by the Sabra Company. Bhardwaj, being the head of the new plant department, was charged with experimenting with chick peas as a new Virginia crop.

“And knowing I had worked with chickpeas several years ago, Garret Hart [of the Chesterfield Economic Department] and Sabra (relocating from New York to South Chesterfield)  thought we could solve the problem growing chickpeas in Virginia. We wrote a proposal to the Tobacco Commission to explore some new crops and chickpeas was one of them and there were five, six or seven types of them,” Bhardwaj said as the VSU agronomist as this reporter bounced along is his pickup truck through the moist fields with sprouts of chickpeas just emerging from the soil.

The challenge is finding a strain of chickpea that is not susceptible to a fungus known as ascochyta rabiei, a fungus that long has threatened the chickpea crop in much of the U.S. The chickpea is best grown in the northwest were the fungi is less prevalent. Sabra ships many tons of the legumes from Washington, Oregon and Idaho, as well as from Israel where the Strause family who have partnered with Pepsico Inc., on the Sabra brand, originated. The fungi is present in the soil pretty much everywhere Bhardwaj said but typically only attacks the chickpea plant turning it black. He is also working on a plant that when tilled under, in theory, kill the fungi and allow the chickpea to be planted organically without crop rotation.

Also experimenting with canola, Bhardwaj said they will soon plant the other ingredient in hummus; the sesame seed, which is processed to produce sesame butter or paste, that completes the typical hummus recipe.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “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.”

Growing demand for hummus has pushed up prices for chickpeas, spurring farmers to increase production. The average price that farmers received for chickpeas was 35 cents a pound last year, a 10-cent increase over the mid-2000s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Sabra’s ‘Center of Excellence’ is now home to experts in all areas of food manufacturing and we are eager to put our findings to work as we continue to change the way consumers around the world dip and spread,” stated Tuzel on the Sabra website.

Bhardwaj is also working at planting the chickpea earlier in the season, hoping to push the plant to ripen before the ascochyta rabiei has a chance to affect the plant. Bhardwaj has a number of sections of dark earth fields where he is experimenting with different types of growing technics and different varieties of chickpeas. One variety, called Desi is multi-colored and though different colors, once processed and the skin removed have the same beige interior.

The Sabra expansion, which will focus on research and development, has added 117,000 square feet to the company’s 131,000-square-foot manufacturing and research facility.                   

Chesterfield Administrator James J.L. Stegmaier, recently touted the expansion saying the new facility had received its certificate of occupancy and the county would soon see some activity in the new building.

The expansion will also add 140 jobs at the plant and bring the employee count to about 500 at the factory where the company’s popular spread is produced. Governor McDonnell offered Sabra $850,000 in incentives to expand in Chesterfield.

Bhardwaj is confidant that Virginia will be producing the main ingredient in hummus in just a few years.

“It will take about three years to solve the problem, but we will,” Bhardwaj said. “My field is about patience.”

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