In west-side fields, there's a legume poised to play a bigger role in shoppers' diets -- and in California agriculture. It's the garbanzo bean, also known as the chickpea. Here in the central San Joaquin Valley, you'll see it in two forms. The next few weeks bring the harvest for the young, green chickpeas prized among Hispanics, Indians and other ethnic groups. By mid-June, they'll have turned into the more familiar yellowish-tan beans sold dried or in cans.
Chickpeas, similar to other legumes, are attracting more attention because they're a cheap source of protein. At a time of rising food prices, wholesalers and retailers see more demand for beans. "People are counting their pennies and going to cheaper items," says Lee Perkins, president of Pacific Grain and Foods, a Fresno dry foods wholesaler, packager and bulk supplier to the food service industry.
Typically, sales of beans and rice in the company's retail store start to fall off in May as grilling season starts. "Usually, we sell more barbecue seasonings and spices," Perkins says. But not this year. "Beans and rice are back up."
Though garbanzos are more expensive this year, they're still cheap when compared to many cuts of meat. At this time last year, the retail price of garbanzos was 45 cents a pound, says Gary Daloyan, a research writer at Pacific Grain. Now, one pound of dried beans sells for between 89 cents and $1.25.
The fresh garbanzos, the plant's "immature seeds," are more pricey, says Morgan Murray, general manager of Califresh of California, a Sanger-based pioneer in the marketing of fresh garbanzo beans. The typical retail price for a pound of these green legumes is $2.99-$3.49. Though they cost more than dried or canned chickpeas, the green legumes benefit from their status as a trendy food. So says Phil Lempert, food editor of the "Today Show."
"Edamame out," he recently said on the show. "Garbanzo in." He also pointed out that fresh chickpeas are low in salt and rich in potassium.
Because of the demand, Murray says Califresh could sell about 5 million to 6 million pounds of fresh chickpeas in 2008, compared to about 850,000 pounds during the company's first year of operations in 2003. Califresh's fresh garbanzos are sold in select Save Mart, FoodMaxx, WinCo Foods, Food 4 Less and FoodsCo stores, among others.
Additional fresh garbanzos will be sold at local swap meets and by street vendors -- a trade that has a long history of theft. During a field day last week at the University of California's West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points, researcher Steve Temple told stories of garbanzo farmers camping on their fields to prevent poachers from ripping up garbanzo plants for the young, green legumes.
Temple, a grain legume specialist with the University of California at Davis Cooperative Extension, says he even once lost parts of a research trial to poachers.
But Murray says the theft problem is "not a big issue now." Many of the street vendors simply buy fresh chickpeas from local farmers, he says.
While shoppers see them as food, researchers see other potential in chickpeas. At last week's field day, about 25 industry members listened to Temple describe the importance of garbanzo beans.
These and other winter legumes "will definitely have a role 10 to 20 years from now in California agriculture because of low water requirements and nitrogen fixation," Temple says.
Chickpeas' ability to add nitrogen back to the soil replaces some of the need for nitrogen fertilizer -- an item that's becoming more and more expensive, he explains. That's because of the rising cost of natural gas, which is used in the production of fertilizer.
Of course, the extent of chickpeas' expansion in California depends on an interplay of economic, political and environmental factors.
Along the Pacific Coast, chickpea production peaked in the early 1960s because of exports to Cuba, Murray says. But the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba killed that trade. By the late 1970s, only a few hundred acres of chickpeas remained along the coast.
As more Americans ate chickpeas in the 1980s, imports from Mexico and Turkey rose, Murray adds. That piqued the interest of California farmers.
The 1990s were chickpeas' heyday in the central San Joaquin Valley. For example, crop reports show that Fresno County had 21,000 acres of garbanzos grown for the dried market in 1995, with a value of $13.7 million.
The growth of the garbanzo-bean farming in the Valley turned it into "the heart of garbanzo area," Temple says.
By 2006, Fresno County had only 3,000 acres of chickpeas grown for the dried market, with a value of $2.4 million. (Fresno County crop report statistics for fresh chickpeas are not available.)
The local drop is partially because of water conservation on the west side. About a third of the land in the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, which includes prime farmland for garbanzos, is not in production.
While chickpea acreage has dropped in the Valley, it has grown in areas such as Colusa, Yolo and Sutter counties, Temple says.
Also, record prices for crops such as corn and wheat prompted farmers to abandon garbanzos this year. "Wheat is a very easy crop to grow," Perkins says. "With garbs, you have to weed, fertilize and nurture them."
These factors have left Perkins scrambling to find more garbanzos to stock his company. Chickpea acreage is down in California, North Dakota, Washington, Idaho, Mexico and Canada, he says.
He's keeping an eye on the harvests, which gradually move north from Mexico to Canada. Perkins will likely pin his hopes on Canada's harvest.
"All I can do right now is pray that they have a bumper crop," he says.
The smaller supply means higher prices for garbanzo farmers. In the 1990s, growers were paid about 25 cents for a pound of garbanzos, Perkins says. Now, "I'm willing to pay 50 cents a pound," he says.
He expects more farmers to plant garbanzos next year because of rising prices.
"I can't say [the acreage] will double," he says, "but it will definitely rise next year."
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