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Growing chickpeas in Hawaii

What does a chickpea want? Not much, according to Dr. Amjad Ahmad. That’s why the UN declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses: Legumes, or pulses, are able to grow—and give bountiful nutrition to humans and animals—with relatively few inputs. They’re drought tolerant, and thanks to nitrogen-fixing rhizobia, they need little fertilizer. Dr. Ahmad, in Honolulu's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, is well positioned to speak on what chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, require. He studied them in his native Iraq, and now he’s trialing ten varieties in six locations on five islands here. 

“My most important question was, can we grow chickpeas in Hawaii?” he explains. “The answer to that is yes.” Now he’s asking more questions. Sustainability, he notes, involves three factors: people, planet, and profit. Can we grow food in ways that will nourish those who eat it, that will help and not harm the earth in which we grow it, and do so in ways that provide a living wage for the growers and processers? Two of these three are settled; profitability is being worked out. Harvesting by hand is labor intensive and cuts into profit, so now he’s investigating mechanical harvesting possibilities.

Chickpeas in the field. Photo courtesy: CTAHR
 

Sales won’t be a problem. So far, Dr. Ahmad is the only one planting chickpeas here, but the market is waiting for growers to embrace the crop. The popularity of hummus, made with garbanzos, is spreading exponentially, and he’s partnering with a Maui company that makes a variety of chickpea snacks—including surprisingly tasty brownies!—that has long been searching for an Island-based grower of the legumes. He’s confident the market will continue to expand, considering the many potential uses for the nutty round beans.

Chickpeas are high in protein and carbohydrates, but they’re not the only food source Dr. Ahmad envisions. Chickpea “hay,” the plants after the beans are harvested, is a valuable feed for ruminants and can help to support a growing livestock industry in the Islands, says Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences researcher Rajesh Jha, who tested some of the plants. The only issue? It may have a similar effect on cattle as legumes have on some people. In ruminants, the problem is mitigated by supplementing with other types of feed. For humans? Dr. Ahmad has a tasty prescription: Eat with garlic.