By Javed Sidiqi, Eric Bishop Von Wettberg and Valerio Hoyos Villegas
Chickpeas (Cicer arietinum L.) are an annual grain legume known for their high nutritional value and nitrogen-fixing properties. Chickpeas can provide benefits to agricultural rotations by reducing fertilizer inputs, in addition to producing a marketable crop. Chickpeas are widely loved in dishes such as hummus, falafel and curries and can also be ground into a flour for baking into breads and desserts.
While chickpea demand is increasing in the global market, currently there is almost no chickpea production in eastern North America. Chickpeas are well adapted to semi-arid climates, with much of their production occurring in drier parts of South Asia, in Mediterranean climates, and in seasonally dry regions in North America, like the Northern Great Plains and the Palouse of the Pacific Northwest. In more humid climates chickpeas tend to suffer from a range of diseases and have lower yields compared to other crops.
New and Old Uses for Chickpeas
In North America, chickpeas have traditionally been available to consumers as a dry pea that requires soaking and cooking, as a canned whole bean, and in processed forms (primarily prepared hummus, but also as flour). Chickpeas come in two types: the light-seeded Kabuli types (named after Kabul, Afghanistan) and the smaller, darker-seeded Desi types that are often used in dhal. Several commercial varieties of both Kabuli and Desi type chickpeas have been developed for western North America. Sierra, a monoleaf cultivar developed in the Pacific Northwest, is the most widely produced variety in the United States. The leading cultivar in Saskatchewan, Canada, which leads North America in chickpea production, is CDC Frontier.
More recently, new uses have been found for chickpeas. A source of plant-based protein, chickpeas can be used to replace meat in pasta sauces, stews, tacos, meatloaf and burgers. Roasted chickpeas can be enjoyed as a crunchy snack. Although not yet common in North America, roasted chickpeas have a long history in Turkey, where they were originally domesticated some 10,000 years ago. Chickpea flour is gluten-free and can be used as a low-glycemic and high-protein alternative to wheat flour in baked goods, including cookies, blondies and brownies.
There are a few subclasses of chickpeas that may have other specialty uses and are well-suited to small organic growers focused on sales at farmers’ markets. In many regions where chickpeas have a long cultural history, such as the Middle East and Ethiopia, there is a tradition of preparing green-seeded chickpeas. Green-seeded chickpeas can be eaten like edamame or used like a fresh green pea. Consumers may need some education to use these varieties, but their preparation is similar to edamame. In many regions, green chickpeas are harvested from immature plants ahead of the normal dry bean harvest. Frozen green chickpeas, which have been released in a limited number of U.S. grocery markets, are harvested this way. However, there are some chickpea cultivars that have a “stay green” phenotype, where the seed remains green after maturity. Two of these cultivars, CDC Verano and CDC Jade, were recently released by the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan for western Canadian conditions and are available under license to growers who want to try them (cdc.usask.ca/crop-innovation/crops/chickpea.php).
Another specialty use of chickpea is in popper form. Although all dry chickpeas can be prepared (deliciously) by roasting, a few chickpea varieties “pop” like popcorn when roasted. The Experimental Farm Network in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, carries a variety of popping chickpeas, the “Hannan Popbean,” that was bred by the great Dr. Carol Deppe in Oregon.
Chickpeas are best adapted to environments ranging from arid to semi-arid. However, efforts are underway at the Pulse Breeding and Genetics Laboratory at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, to develop cultivars adapted to the humid conditions. Some of the goals of the McGill chickpea breeding program involve yield and agronomic adaptation, plant architecture, flowering time and determinancy, and processing qualities. McGill University has screened over 1,200 entries of Desi and Kabuli chickpeas to identify suitable parents for its breeding program and will continue screening in the years to come. To date, approximately 1% of the materials screened have shown suitability under field conditions in Quebec, in zone 5a. Although further testing and breeding are required, the fact that adapted materials have been found is an encouraging first step in the development of a chickpea option for growers in the Northeast. Further information on the advancement of the chickpea program at McGill University can be found at pulsebreeding.ca.
Planting Time and Density
Chickpeas grow best in the St. Lawrence Valley of Quebec (zone 5a) when planted between late April and early May, depending on soil temperature. A soil temperature of at least 45 F is needed, with warmer temperatures likely to result in higher germination rates. Kabuli chickpeas have fewer branches and require a higher seeding rate at 120-190 pounds per acre compared to Desi chickpeas that have multiple branches and need a lower seeding rate at 80-95 pounds per acre to allow sufficient plant density for grain yield and disease and weed management.
Challenges of Lack of Determinacy
Chickpeas are indeterminate plants and continue flowering and setting pods under favorable growing conditions, leading to challenges associated with yield, harvesting, and fungal diseases. However, introducing controlled stress of moisture at flowering stage by withholding irrigation helps accelerate chickpea maturity. Kabuli chickpea matures on average in 110 days while Desi chickpea matures a week earlier under normal growing conditions. In northeastern North America, late summer and autumn precipitation is common, making imposing controlled moisture stress more difficult.
Soil Type Preference
Chickpeas perform best on well-drained soils such as sandy and silt loam with a neutral pH (6.0-7.0). Saline and wet soils are not suitable for growing chickpeas. Maine soils have been characterized by loamy soil, sand loamy soils and fewer alluvial soils compared to loamy and sandy soils in Quebec, which can be suitable for growing chickpeas. Although globally there are reports of chickpea production on clay-rich soils in places like India, we expect growers attempting chickpeas on heavier clay soils will face greater struggles. We recommend that all growers inoculate their seeds with chickpea-specific rhizobial powder, as chickpea rhizoba are distinct from other legumes grown in our region. Chickpea inoculants are available from many suppliers.
Chickpea Diseases and Insect Pests
Globally chickpeas suffer from a range of diseases, all of which greatly limit production. Perhaps the most problematic in cool climates is Ascochyta blight, which is thought to have led to a 2,000-year abandonment of chickpea cultivation early in Mesopotamian agriculture. Ascochyta has not been reported on chickpeas grown in eastern North America, but this is likely due to it having not yet been introduced rather than crop resistance to it. Other leading diseases in chickpea-production regions are Fusarium blight, Stemphylium and damping off (particularly Pythium). There is not yet enough information in northeastern North America to know how widespread these diseases would be, although we expect growers who rotate chickpeas into fields with damping off, or with intensive potato production, to face particular challenges. Another problematic disease is white mold, which also occurs on common beans.
In western North America insect pests are not usually a major threat to chickpea production. Globally, the fall armyworm (Helicoverpa amigera) is a major pest, eating developing seeds in pods. Leafminers are also a widespread pest. We have not experienced these pests in chickpea trials performed in Quebec or Vermont, nor have we heard reports of them from the few chickpea growers with whom we correspond in Maine. However, we expect growers to face a range of insect pests as production increases.
Although the chickpea market is growing at the global level because they provide a good source of plant-based protein, smaller growers can benefit from chickpea production to generate income and improve soil fertility and soil health in crop rotation with low input costs. As a fresh bean, or as a value-added product like chickpea flour and roasted chickpeas, chickpeas can be sold at farmers’ markets, in addition to direct sales to local restaurants and grocery stores in an unprocessed form.
Chickpeas are an ancient crop that many may want to grow in the Northeast, and we are very interested in hearing from growers to understand challenges that may emerge. We are hopeful that growers can succeed in growing this widely loved crop, and we want to learn about your challenges.
About the authors: Javed Sidiqi is a postdoctoral fellow and Valerio Hoyos Villegas is an assistant professor and lead breeder for the pulse breeding and genetics laboratory in the Department of Plant Science at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Eric Bishop Von Wettberg is a professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont. If you would like to communicate with the authors, contact [email protected] and [email protected].
This article was originally published in the winter 2023-24 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.