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.
"Flax has an adequate toolbox of crop protection products to control weeds and insects," Coleman says. "New fungicides have also been labeled on flax to help protect against diseases, both seedling and foliar."
Demand for flax as a health food will continue to increase in the future, says Roger Gussiaas, who farms 150 acres of the crop near Carrington, N.D. He has grown flax since the mid-1980s. His company, Healthy Oilseeds, helps growers in a four-state area export the crop.
"It’s good for the digestive system," Gussiaas says. "I personally take flax every day."
Gussiaas mixes his flax into orange juice. The crop also helps lower cholesterol and is used in cattle, chicken and horse feed, he says.
Flax seed costs $20 per acre, Gussiaas says. Herbicide costs are less than soybeans, while fertilizer costs about the same as soybeans. The crop can be planted before May 1 and harvested about Sept. 1.
In a good year, flax yields will be between 30 bu. and 35 bu. per acre, though some growers see yields as high as 50 bu. per acre or more. Net profits in a good year are the same or better as those for soybeans.
Hemp seeds are rich in vitamins, as well as minerals and essential fatty acids.
Industrial hemp finds Washington. Production of industrial hemp—a non-drug oilseed and fiber crop that is a species of cannabis and a cousin to marijuana—remains illegal under federal law. But advocates, including a growing number of lawmakers, are pushing for changes that would enable farmers to raise the crop without fear of imprisonment.
"It’s a great rotational crop," says Ryan Loflin, founder of Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Hemp Inc. and a third-generation farmer who is raising 70 acres of hemp as part of a state-authorized phytoremediation program. "Hemp can be planted between corn and wheat."
While it is possible for both hemp and medical marijuana industries to coexist, it is important to distinguish the two crops, explains Anndrea Hermann, president of the Hemp Industries Association, who works directly with hemp farmers as an agrologist in Canada and abroad.
For example, growing hemp and medical marijuana side-by-side will result in cross-pollination that will make both crops unmarketable. Care should also be exercised when rotating hemp with traditional row crops. Hemp is susceptible to corn borer and to Sclerotinia as a broadleaf. Planting wheat before hemp or from dirty combines, trucks or bins can result in gluten contamination.
Unlike cannabis that is used for its medicinal properties, industrial hemp contains negligible levels of the psychotropic compound delta-9-THC. It is grown for its bast and core fibers, which can be used in products such as hempcrete, plastics, pressed boards and clothing. Its seeds, which are rich in vitamins, minerals, Omega 3s and other essential fatty acids, are used in salad dressings, granola products and other foods.
"The international and national demand for hemp foods and fiber is growing at a rate that constitutes an expansion of acreage and product development," says Hermann, who also is a board adviser to Vote Hemp, an advocacy group pushing U.S. lawmakers to embrace the crop.
Canada’s Prairie Provinces—Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan—account for a majority of the 55,000 cultivated hemp acres approved in 2012. The country has permitted hemp production since 1998. Most of the crop is exported to the U.S., where food uses account for between 85% and 95% of the market, the remainder being for fiber.
In 2012, more than $18 million of the total $20 million of hemp products exported from Canada were imported into the U.S., according to statistics provided by Hermann. In the first three months of 2013, more than $6 million of hemp products were imported into the U.S.
Growers enjoy gross profits of between $200 and $700 (Canadian) per acre or more, Hermann says, based on clean dry weight contracted at 75¢ to $1.15 per pound. Profits are generally on the higher end for certified organic hemp. Input costs are similar to those for corn and soybeans, and hemp is fertilized similar to that of high-yielding wheat. Planting occurs between April and June.
Harvest for fiber occurs in late July into August, while seed harvest occurs in September or October and requires a few small on-farm combine tweaks to ensure ease of harvest and to maintain grain quality.
A push to create jobs has contributed to the flurry of U.S. lawmaker activity, says Paul Armentano, deputy director for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The organization also advocates for hemp, which is classified with all other forms of cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The exception is the hemp plant’s stalk and non-germinating seed, which makes it legal to import raw hemp stalk material and seeds that do not sprout.
The introduction of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013 marked the first time that such a U.S. House bill was followed by a companion bill in the Senate, Armentano says. Nine states have enacted a regulatory scheme for industrial hemp production, he adds.
In Colorado, which approved a law authorizing industrial hemp production starting next year, Loflin is leasing about 1,200 acres from his father. He’s growing hemp there to keep the operations distinct in the event the government were to shut him down. The law does not mandate farmers seeking state-issued hemp cultivation licenses to also seek federal approval.
"I am definitely concerned from a financial aspect," Loflin says. "I’ve invested a lot of my own money and time, and I’m trying to create jobs for a small rural community." Nonetheless, he intends to sell hemp oil, protein powders and other products.
Armentano expects conversations around the issue to become more numerous with time. It marks a reversal of a century’s worth of debate on the issue, beginning with the first state ban on marijuana in 1911.
Opportunities for hemp on U.S. farms abound. Using the crop in products such as animal bedding and feed promotes on-farm diversification, Hermann says.
You can e-mail Nate Birt at email@example.com.