by Karl H. Kazaks
CLOVER, VA — James Brown has long been a diversified farmer, growing corn, wheat, beans, and tobacco as well as raising cattle. This year, though, he planted an entirely new crop: chickpeas.
Brown is one of four farmers in Virginia participating in a test project organized by Virginia State University, to determine if chickpeas could be a viable (high-value) commercial crop in the commonwealth. Brown is one of two participants from Halifax County. The other two are from Surry and Greensville Counties. The project is funded in part by Sabra Dipping Company, the country’s largest maker of hummus. (Chickpeas are the main ingredient in hummus.)
Farmers were selected based on two criteria. They had to be interested in growing a new crop and have available land and equipment to grow the crop (what you would need for growing soybeans, using a different planter plate).
Brown met those criteria and then some, said Cliff Somerville, small farm outreach agent at VSU and one of the main organizers of the chickpea demonstration.
“Mr. Brown has been very successful in the other crops he’s grown,” Somerville said.
Each of the farmers planted four varieties of chickpeas to, Somerville said, “get an idea of which variety responds best to this general area.”
This year can be characterized as a learning experience — one particularly challenged by heavy rainfall and high humidity.
“The wet weather created a lot of problems for farmers no matter what crop you grow,” Somerville said.
Brown’s chickpea crop basically got washed out, “mainly because of the amount of rain he got,” Somerville said.
“We had a rough year because of rain,” Brown agreed.
The Greensville County farmer had the same problem and decided to replant — but didn’t get a good response the second time, either.
Next year, Somerville hopes, the test will continue. If it does, he will make a few modifications. For one, he will double the seeding rate. He will also make sure that the correct planter plate gets used with each variety. Some varieties of chickpea tested were a little larger and some were littler smaller than typical soybeans.
He will also plant about two weeks earlier. (This year, Brown planted on April 16.) The earlier planting, Somerville figures, will lead to less risk of earworm damage to developed pods.
Brown said he will plant on 36- rather than 30-inch rows, to make cultivating easier. VSU provided participants with the seed and chemicals needed to grow their test plots and helped pay for fertilizer. The farmers provided labor and equipment. VSU is also testing other specialty crops, including edamame, seedless watermelons, sweet potatoes, and machine-harvested butter beans.
Brown used conventional tillage with his chickpeas. Because of the rain, he was able to cultivate only once. The crop, already hurt by the rain, was also impacted by crows.
“They love chickpeas better than I do — and I love them,” said Brown.
Next year, Brown intends to plant chickpeas near his house, to keep a closer eye on crow pressure.
Brown, who at 72 years old has been farming all his life and full-time since 1972, farms about 300 acres. He was only able to get off about half of his wheat this year because of the spring and summer rains. His tobacco crop (almost 40 acres) has been decent, however, since he got it planted early enough, by April.
Because of the rains, he said, “Late tobacco, ain’t nothing to it.”
The rains, despite leaching fertilizer from the soil, has had a side benefit — cleaner ground leaves. “We’re not fighting dirt,” Brown said. “Buyers love it.”
This year, Brown won’t have a chickpea harvest — there’s not enough to warrant starting up the combine. But he’s not discouraged.
“You may fail one year,” he said, “but you go back and try again next year.”
by Karl H. Kazaks