As most farmers know, Saskatchewan, represents more than 90 per cent of chickpea production in Canada, so what happens in Saskatchewan is usually a good indication of what’s going on across the country. Western Canada saw an increase in chickpea production in 2012, even though growers struggled with some familiar setbacks
Overall, though, last year was a good year for chickpeas. Saskatchewan acreage increased from 104,000 acres in 2011 to 175,000 acres, while yields increased from about 1,600 to 1,800 pounds per acre.
Carl Potts, Saskatchewan Pulse Growers executive director says the increase in production this year was driven primarily by strong prices in late 2011 and early 2012. In the last half of 2011, he says chickpea prices increased substantially. “And that held into early 2012, which when growers are making their planting decisions, they looked at some of those strong prices and reacted accordingly.”
This year, acreage was up from previous years, too, but then fluctuations in acreage are the norm. “A previous three-year average is about 100,000 acres,” says Potts. “But chickpea area has ranged, if you look back at the past 10 or so years, it’s ranged a lot from 80,000 acres as a low back in 2008-09 up to more than 1.1 million in 2001-02.”
Those fluctuations, says Potts, are primarily in response to two things. “One, prices really do drive what growers choose to grow, so those increases and decreases are the result of changes in prices,” he says. “And when I talk about prices, I think it’s important to focus on relative prices — prices of chickpeas in relation to other crops.”
The other factor is that, of all the pulses, chickpeas are one of the trickier crops to grow. They’re more susceptible to climate, and they’re less resistant to diseases than other crops.
“I’ve talked to growers who had a very good chickpea crop, and then others, if they had too much moisture, didn’t have as good a chickpea crop and quality. We had a good, long harvest window in the fall that allowed growers to get off the crop in reasonably good quality as well, so that’s quite positive,” he continues.
Cory Ryland, assistant general manager at Canadian Exotic Grains in Eston, Sask., agrees. A grower and marketer of chickpeas, he says that although there are always challenges with chickpeas, there wasn’t too much to complain about this year.
“[It’s the] same issue as every year. With chickpeas, you just need to get that stress on it so it stops growing,” he says. “Every time it starts dying off and you get another rain, it starts greening up again. And with our short growing season, you run the risk of frost every year. It seems like the last few years we’ve been getting that frost. I mean, it’s not killing it. All it does is lock the green in, so that’s what you’re struggling with.”
Colour sorting, he says, is an unwelcome added expense. “Usually, it’s late enough that three to five per cent, sometimes worse, depending on how far along the crop is. It’s also determined by how much rain we get. The more rain we get, the more it wants to grow, which means if you get an early frost on a wet year it’s going to be 50 per cent green locked in. When it gets that bad you’re almost just selling it for feed or seed,” says Ryland.
This year, the frost didn’t arrive until September 17, which is about average for the region. “It wasn’t terrible. Our biggest problem out here is ascochyta. We spray probably five fungicide applications, sometimes six, just to keep the ascochyta away. And there’s where your expense is, because the cost of the chemical is quite expensive,” he says.
Perhaps one of the reasons growers are returning to chickpeas is because they’ve seen a vast improvement when it comes to varieties. Dr. Bunyamin Tar’an, a chickpea breeder, says there are three qualities they’ve been working to improve: disease resistance (particularly to ascochyta blight), earlier maturation, and increased seed size.
Dr. Tar’an says that ascochyta blight is the number one disease for chickpeas globally, but breeders have been working to create newer, more resistant varieties. Improvements have been made on the maturity rate of chickpeas as well.
“Because chickpeas are an inherently long-season crop, we breed for the shorter growing season crops and improvements for disease resistance to ascochyta, while at the same time maintaining quality of the seed,” he says.
About 90 per cent of Canadian growers produce the kabuli variety of chickpea. “For kabuli,” says Dr. Tar’an, “size and colour are important qualities. The farmer gets a premium price for the larger size. The higher, the bigger the seed size, the more premium the farmer will get.”
“Biologically, chickpeas are indeterminate,” says Dr. Tar’an. “And sometimes that’s a problem here because if the conditions are favourable, for example, if we have enough moisture and it’s still warm, the crop will really grow. At the end, the killing frost will just stop them. So what happens at the end is you have a mix of fully ripe seeds, plus the green immature seeds. Uneven maturity becomes a problem, and uneven seed quality. That’s the challenge we have with the crop.”
Dr. Tar’an says that a long-term goal of breeders is to breed for even earlier maturation to avoid this late-season greening.
So what possesses a farmer to risk early frost, possible disease and late-season greening? “You’re just going to deal with colour-sorting and greenness on a bad year,” says Ryland. “On a wet year, it’s all seed, and that’s when you lose out. There’s not too many of those.”
“But on a good year,” he says, “Chickpeas pay more than any other crop out there.” †