American chickpea farmers had a bumper crop this year, and they can’t sell it

A fresh chickpea, straight from the field.
A fresh chickpea, straight from the field.
Image: AP Photo/Larry Crowe
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American chickpea farmers had a great year in the field, planting some 330,000 acres of the legume, up from 250,000 in 2017, and enjoying ample rainfall that led to high yields. Except now most of those plump garbanzos are sitting in storage, waiting for buyers.

Traditionally, India has been the primary endpoint for American chickpeas; the country is the largest consumer of chickpeas and lentils in the world, and typically imports about half the US crop. But Indian chickpea farmers have had two excellent years in a row, lowering demand. To protect its farmers, India also levied 50% tariffs on imported lentils and 66% on imported chickpeas. “India has taken this step against all suppliers, really to protect its own domestic market,” Pete Klaiber, vice president of marketing for the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, told The Spokesman-Review.

While India has long employed tariffs to help its farmers, a trade dispute with the US over Indian steel, as well as increasingly thorny trade battles around the world, are compounding the issue for American chickpea farmers. “The U.S. pulse industry will continue to suffer low prices until the trade disputes are resolved around the world,” Tim McGreevy, CEO of the U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council, told the Independent Record in Montana, a major grower of chickpeas. (Chickpeas and lentils are both pulses, a subcategory of the legume family.) Spain, China, Mexico, Columbia, Peru, and Pakistan are also major importers of American chickpeas; exports to China and the European Union have fallen drastically because of tariffs, while other countries are waiting out the resulting price fluctuations to place orders.

“It was a bit of a rollercoaster,” Allen Druffle, a chickpea farmer in Washington State told NPR. “It was one of the best crops we’ve ever harvested. And then to see the pricing take a 40 to 60% fall is really unfortunate. If you’re talking real numbers, in February of 2018 I sold chickpeas for 50 cents a pound—and today they’re trading at 18 cents a pound.”

One reason US farmers are planting more acres of chickpeas is an increase in domestic demand, as American diners awake to the pulse’s delicious possibilities. The American appetite for hummus has grown exponentially in recent years, and vegetable-loving, Mediterranean-centric chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi have made them a new household staple in the US and EU. Alison Roman, author of Dining In, recently published a chickpea and coconut stew in The New York Times that quickly went viral.

But chickpeas are not the only staple crop sitting in silos as a result of US president Donald Trump’s trade conflicts. American soybean farmers are also hanging on to their crop and waiting for better prices, as Chinese imports of soy have dropped 90% since 2017.