The 1960s served up French Onion dip, and in the 1980s, no self-respecting crudité platter would be caught dead without a bowl of Ranch dressing front and center. We’re a people enamored with dunking things into sauces and spreads, whether it be a retro dip, guacamole, salsa or the latest darling on the block, hummus.
The Middle Eastern dip made from chickpeas and tahini hasn't merely arrived in the world of mainstream snacks; it's poised to grab the crown. The clearest marker of this, aside from the ubiquitous presence of hummus in supermarkets across the country, is in the numbers. The maker of the county’s most popular brand, Sabra Dipping Company, was founded in 1986 to serve the Jewish community in Queens, N.Y. The company has grown from $16 million to $800 million in six years.
Fueled by a desire for healthier snacks, we’re gobbling up this high-protein, low-fat spread, and manufacturers are responding with broader distribution, new flavors and increased production. Which means the industry needs to get its hands on more chickpeas.
Sabra currently depends on the county’s main chickpea growing area, the Pacific Northwest, for the bulk of its beans, but the company is looking to expand its horizons. They’ve turned to Virginia where farmers affected by dwindling tobacco sales are looking for new profitable crops to plant.
Sabra already has a hummus factory in nearby Richmond, Va.; the ability to source products locally is a sound financial (and eco-friendly) move. And although Virginia’s high humidity could wreak havoc on chickpea crops, the company is hoping that this secondary source of legumes will serve as backup should there be a dreaded chickpea crop failure in Washington or Idaho.
"We need to establish the supply chain to meet our growing demand," says Sabra executive Tulin Tuzel. "We want to reduce the risk of bad weather or concentration in one region. If possible, we also want to expand the growing seasons."
Our hummus-mania has been a boon to farmers who deal in chickpeas; the average price has gone from 25 cents a pound in the mid-2000s to 35 cents a pound now. Last year’s total haul weighed in at 332 million pounds, up 51 percent from the previous year, according to the USDA.
James Brown, 72, a tobacco, corn and soybean farmer in Clover, Va., said he knew nothing about chickpeas before he was approached by an extension agent from Virginia State asking if he would plant the new legumes, reports The Wall Street Journal.
Eager to make his 300-acre farm more profitable, Brown accepted. The farmer planted four acres of chickpeas in mid-April. Having never tried chickpeas before, he tasted them for the first time that week.
"They tasted pretty good," he said, echoing the sentiments of much of the rest of the country.
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