“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.
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.
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.