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Demand Hoes New Rows

July 27, 2013
By: Nate Birt, Top Producer Deputy Managing Editor google + 
CoverCrops FlaxHemp
Niche crops such as (from left) chickpeas, flaxseed and hemp are being planted from Washington to North Dakota as farmers seek to fill demands in the market.  

Farmers experiment with chickpeas, flaxseed and hemp

For many Midwest farmers, corn and soybeans are as essential as bread is to butter. While that’s not going to change any time soon, if ever, niche crops such as chickpeas, flaxseed and industrial hemp have a toehold on farmland—and in some cases have the interest of advocacy groups and lawmakers.

Farmers, distributors and plant specialists say these new crops, while relatively inconsequential when compared with overall U.S. agricultural acreage, help satisfy consumer demand while presenting opportunities for producers.

Chickpeas hum as hummus booms. Growing demand for hummus among consumers is pushing chickpea growers in Washington to boost their acreage for the crop, says Gary Ferrel, manager of Blue Mountain Seed Inc. in Walla Walla, Wash. Farmers appreciate the beans, also known as garbanzos, for their agronomic benefits.

"Chickpeas put a lot of natural nitrogen in the ground, so it decreases your fertilizer requirements for the following wheat crop," Ferrel says. In the Walla Walla Valley, winter wheat yields can reach 100 bu. or more per acre when rotating with a legume such as chickpeas every third year.

On average, Northwest farmers plant between 10% and 25% of their total acreage to chickpeas, which are a 120-day crop. Rotation is restricted to roughly once every three years because of the risk of inviting seed and soilborne diseases.

"We’ve had some profitable years with them, and we just hope America keeps loving hummus," says Ferrel’s brother, Greg, a fifth-generation farmer who began raising chickpeas in 1986. "It’s great for you," Greg notes. "I try to have hummus as a snack when I can. I’ve had a lot in the tractor this year."

Chickpeas are graded and marketed by size (large, small and feed-quality)either per hundredweight or per pound. Yields in the Walla Walla Valley are between 1,300 lb. per acre and 1,900 lb. per acre under dryland conditions. Large beans average 40¢ to 45¢ per pound. Smaller beans are generally 8¢ to 10¢ lower, and feed-quality beans are $100 per ton.

Farmers hope for a crop in which large beans account for at least 75% of total acreage, Ferrel says.

Raising chickpeas isn’t without challenges. The crop is a poor competitor for weeds, the worst of which are prickly lettuce and dog fennel. Some chemicals are labeled for treating those pests, Ferrel says. The other major challenge is blight, which hits chickpeas while they are flowering and close to producing pods. In fact, Idaho banned chickpea production in the late 1980s because of extreme blight conditions. Weed resistance also has occurred in some locations.

Chickpeas originated in Turkey. India, Turkey and Mexico are the world’s top chickpea producers. Since 2008, growers in the U.S. have enjoyed favorable prices because of strong demand, weather problems in other world regions and cutbacks on acreage in Canada. In the U.S., the crop is also grown in Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Nebraska, Colorado, California and the Dakotas, according to the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.

Flaxseed acres are expected to remain steady in coming years because of the crop’s rotational benefits

Flaxseed scientists eye yields. Flaxseed is facing a new test in Northern Plains states such as North Dakota. While the cool-season oilseed has been grown in the U.S. for more than a century, crop acres recently dropped from 600,000 to 300,000 in the state, explains Sheri Coleman, executive direc­tor of AmeriFlax. However, acreage is expected to remain steady in the next one to three years because of its rotational benefits.

"Crops such as corn and soybeans have been increasing significantly in the northern region of the U.S. and have resulted in a loss of many acres of flaxseed," Coleman says. "We are working closely with North Dakota State University in supporting its flax breeding program to develop new higher-yielding flax varieties for the North Dakota region to maintain our competitiveness."

The state produces 90% of flax grown in the U.S., and flax accounts for roughly 10% of the average grower’s overall crop mix, Coleman says. It requires a 50-day vegetative period, a 25-day flowering period and about 35 days to mature.

Net returns are $75 per acre on owned land and $46 per acre on rented land, according to the most recent data available from North Dakota Farm Management.


An exclusive flaxseed breeding program at North Dakota State University aims to identify high-yielding varieties that will be a benefit to the region.

While identifying ways to handle flax straw has posed a challenge to producers in the past, agronomic advances are helping.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Seed Guide 2013
RELATED TOPICS: Crops, Other Crops, Production

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