Chickpea plants are putting their roots down in Central New York, and successful harvests would pack not only a nutritional, but also an economic punch in the Ithaca area and beyond.
A partnership between Cornell, Schuyler County, Ithaca Hummus and other groups launched the chickpea-growing initiative last year. Before actually placing chickpeas in the local New York soil, the seeds of the ongoing partnership were planted to help Antithesis Foods — the Ithaca-based maker of Grabanzos — simplify its supply chain and cut costs.
The Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development organizes and manages the chickpea-growing project for Antithesis Foods. The Partnership is a collaboration between public and private sectors to both spur the growth of and offer continued support to various “clusters” of businesses across the county.
Jon Beckman, the chairman of the Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development, met Jason Goodman and Ashton Yoon, co-founders of Antithesis Foods, at the Grow-NY event, an annual competition for food production startup companies in Central New York with millions of dollars of prizes.
While at the competition, Beckman began discussing the Antithesis Food’s supply chain with Goodman and Yoon, in addition to Frank Cavallaro, the chief operating officer of Ithaca Hummus. He learned that each company sourced their chickpeas from out west, primarily Arizona and Washington.
Building on the relationship he sprouted with Antithesis Foods at the Grow-NY conference, Beckman put Goodman and Yoon into contact with Judy Cherry, executive director of the Schuyler County Partnership For Economic Development. As Goodman and Yoon walked Cherry through their complicated and “fractured” supply chain, Cherry asked why they couldn’t source the commodity locally.
Goodman and Yoon responded that New York state simply did not grow chickpeas. Cherry wanted to see if they could change that.
“As Ashton, and Jason walked me through all the different places that they were getting their supplies from, and as someone who understands the cost of logistics, I told them ‘you’re just leaving so much money on the table here,’ Cherry said. “It costs money every time you move something — even moving something small has an inherent cost.”
According to Cherry, being co-located with a supply chain helps a business wield better control over its costs. Considering the benefits of sourcing their main commodity locally, Goodman and Yoon — with the support of Cherry and the Partnership for Economic Development — were on board with the chickpea-growing experiment.
“A lot of costs get tagged on to freight costs,” Yoon said. “Just shipping one pallet is anywhere between $200 and $400, so that adds a huge amount of money to every shipment. If you can grow the chickpeas and then process them into your end product in the same place, you’re saving money and it’s a lot more sustainable.”
Goodman added that growing their main ingredient locally would also improve the quality of the product.
“We would know how they’re being planted and have some input into what we might be able to do with them, or what gets planted or what seeds you choose. That can definitely help the final product.”
After assessing the chickpea market and collaborating with the Cornell Cooperative Extension to determine the viability of chickpea growing in the area, the project asked Carl Taber, a seasoned farmer and the chair of the Schuyler County Industrial Development Agency, to plant the first batch of seeds on his farm in Trumansburg. Despite the risks inherent in growing a new crop, he accepted the task.
Last year marked the first growing attempt. Taber planted three varieties of chickpeas across three acres of land. According to Cherry, the team ran into some “hiccups” after they planted the seeds late, confronted a weed problem and had a late harvest.
Nevertheless, the team learned from the pilot run, and the small scale experiment indeed found some promising success. One of the varieties of seeds even survived two December snowfalls.
“We collected them from the field, we processed them and even though we just made it into a little lab scale, it worked,” Yoon said.
“We were able to use them on a very small scale, but the chickpeas that we harvested made a crunchy thing with our method,” Goodman added. “So we just need to make a lot more of them and harvest them.”
Encouraged by last year’s success, the chickpea growing endeavor will continue. The team will attempt to scale the crop into a productive supply. Taber remarked, however, that some challenges remain, and must be overcome in order to ensure a future for chickpeas in the area.
“A question that remains is the overall economics of production, whether or not we actually grow this crop and grow it to sell at a reasonable profit.” Taber said. “This is also agriculture, so there aren’t a lot of guarantees. You’re dealing with changes in weather from week to week or month to month, and every season is a little bit different.”
Even though the original purpose of the chickpea growing initiative was to support Antithesis Foods, the benefits of local production would reach a wider group of individuals and corporations. Local chickpea production would help supply a bustling market for the legume already concentrated in Ithaca and spanning the nation.
“There are plenty of people that want to buy chickpeas,” Goodman said. “It’s not just Antithesis foods — Ithaca Hummus is a national brand and they are probably buying these things by the carloads.”
Farms in the area would benefit from a new crop as well, according to Taber.
“We have a market, and we’re trying to see if we can produce the crop to fill that need, but there’s more than just supplying these companies with just their commodity,” he said. “It’s also another crop that the farms can use to help them diversify.”
The market for chickpeas has swept the nation. According to Taber, pulse-based product sales — products made with legumes such as chickpeas — have grown from $10 million in 1990 to $700 million in 2017.
In consideration of the national demand for chickpea products, Cherry believes the crop has a “nice trajectory for growth.” She sees potential for successful local harvests to supply markets in New York City and even Toronto.
Taking what they learned from last year’s experimental batch of chickpeas, the team has already seen greater success for the 2021 growing season. In addition to planting the seeds on time, they have stemmed the weed problem that plagued the fields last year and can better gauge the optimal harvesting schedule. The three varieties of chickpeas they planted have already sprouted.
“We didn’t even get the chickpeas delivered until mid June in 2020, but this year we had them in the ground in May, so that we were way ahead of the curve there,” Beckman said. “With the chickpeas in the ground early enough, they’ll form their own protective canopy to keep weed growth to a minimum. So it’s headed in the right direction.”
As the original beneficiary of the Schuyler County initiative, Antithesis Foods harbors especially high hopes for securing a local chickpea supply, especially as they extend their product line and make an ingredient portfolio based on chickpeas beyond their popular chocolate covered product.
“If it winds up working, we have no qualms of changing our chickpea supply to do it,” Goodman said. “Maybe the whole world will be eating chocolate covered chickpeas and chickpea-based pizza from chickpeas grown in Trumansburg.”
This story was originally published by The Ithaca Times as a part of The Cornell Daily Sun Ithaca News Fellowship.