Creating Virginia chick peas

Chick peas grow in a Virginia field. Photo by Ralph Robbins, executive director of the Virginia Israel Advisory Board
Chick peas grow in a Virginia field.
Photo by Ralph Robbins, executive director of the Virginia Israel Advisory Board

The growing fields of Virginia, once home to tobacco and now awash in soy beans, someday may be the place to grow chick peas, the key ingredient in hummus.

Virginia State University is developing a new, fungus-free, chick-pea seed that Sabra Dipping Company hopes will become an ingredient in its hummus, thereby saving the company millions of dollars in transportation costs. Chick peas currently are grown in Washington state, Idaho and Asia. Its 18-inch tall plant has a white flower that sprouts a pod about the size of one joint on an index finger. From that pod, one or two roundish chick peas grow.

Virginia State University professor and research scientist Harbans Bhardwaj is famous in Virginia for bringing canola to the state for use in biodiesel fuels. Since 2010, he has turned his skills to the chick pea, a plant his father grew in his native India.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture gave the university $50,000 to come up with a chick pea Virginia can call its own. The Virginia Israel Advisory Board (VIAB) also has been actively involved in the project, working to obtain the funding to improve Virginia’s economy and job growth by encouraging Israeli companies to locate in the Old Dominion. Sabra is the joint operation between PepsiCo and the Israel-based Strauss Group that opened its Chesterfield factory in 2010. It has since added a research facility there.

When Bhardwaj started, he studied 1,300 varieties of chick peas, seeking one that would be free of fungus and agreeable to the Virginia growing season. Back then, he estimated his chance of success at 50-50, he said.

By 2012, he had reduced that number to 30 varieties, some of which were planted at the university with the others going to two farmers who work in different parts of the state with differing weather and soil conditions.

One farmer, James Brown, just finished his second growing season, this time planting on two, two-acre plots. They did well, he said, adding that he never ate chick peas before this and has become a fan. “They are high in protein and low in fat,” he said.

Three growing seasons has upped Bhardwaj’s optimism. He now rates his chances of success at 70 to 75 percent. “We have made some progress. Hopefully I think we are on the way,” he said.

Bhardwaj hopes to sell a small amount of chick peas to Sabra by 2016. According to the scientist and Ralph Robbins, executive director of VIAB, Sabra officials want to operate their plant with three shifts daily to handle chick peas grown on about 150,000 Virginia acres.

Meanwhile, Bhardwaj sifts through this summer’s chick peas, checking each one for signs of fungus. “The disease, it looks like somebody put a torch to it,” he said. The worse the plant is affected, the more burn spots there are.

He uses only natural selection to come up with the hardiest variety. Once that is accomplished, he will use that seed to grow others that will be planted each April and harvested around the end of June to the beginning of July, he said.

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