Meet the first chickpea farmer in Belgium

Meet the first chickpea farmer in Belgium

As Europe experiences its worst ever heatwave, the warm temperatures are having a beneficial effect on the Belgian farm Peas & Beans, where chickpeas – a Mediterranean crop – are grown.

This pulse is not adapted to cold and wet weather, but the trend of more sunny periods facilitates the growth of crops that were previously unthinkable to harvest in northern or central Europe. Thomas Truyen, a hobby farmer, who works primarily as a marketer in the seed industry, planted chickpeas on just one hectare of his family farm in 2020: “I wanted to be flexible for the future, as climate change makes our spring and summer drier, he said.

Set the right air conditioning price

According to a recent report by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), plant-based food is the most impactful investment for cutting carbon emissions of any sector, as it has the highest CO2 equivalent savings per dollar of capital invested of any sector. In Belgium, companies such as Greenway, De Hobbit and La Vie Est Belle are paving the way for new plant-based products based on legumes such as soy, chickpeas or other beans and legumes. But an increased production of raw materials in the country should also be considered, if the environmental footprint of plant-based food is to be kept low.

At the Flemish regional level, initiatives are being taken that aim to accelerate the transition to plant-based food. In 2021, Flanders’ Minister of Agriculture and Food Hilde Crevits launched a regional protein strategy 2030 with the aim of increasing the production of more plant-based and alternative protein on Flemish land, leading to the diversification of crops. The plan also seeks to encourage agricultural innovation: lupine, lentils and chickpeas are not yet grown on a scaled-up basis, but research to understand which plant can potentially thrive in the Flemish climate is underway. Truyen’s farm participates in two of the 19 projects funded by the state, where farmers, researchers, processing companies and supermarkets come together to investigate the potential of local chickpea consumption and how to optimize chickpea cultivation.

In a couple of weeks, Truyen will harvest his organic chickpeas for the third year in a row. His harvest will help further investigate the possibility of scaling up production across the country: “What we want to achieve is to build data on the average yield,” says Truyen. “Then in the long run it will be possible to calculate what costs are involved and what will be the right price for Belgian chickpeas for other farmers to assess whether it is suitable for them to grow this crop”.

Ultra sustainable, but still risky

Sowing and harvesting of chickpeas takes place between March and September, when the temperature can get a bit close to those in the Mediterranean region. However, the chickpea variety used is the same as that used in some farms in France, which can better cope with colder and milder weather.

Truyen devoted one acre to the chickpeas, while on his farm he grows crops such as potatoes and wheat which he now rotates with the chickpeas. However, one of the secrets of this crop is its extraordinary ability to mitigate climate change. The specificity of this plant is that it can grow in very infertile soil while limiting nitrogen emissions into the air, a by-product specific to certain agricultural activities. In fact, the pulse feeds itself with nitrogen particles that are emitted, facilitating the reduction of this gas in the atmosphere.

Nitrogen is a substance also found in fertilisers, which farmers do not need to use as the plant can absorb it through the air, reducing purchase costs which, due to today’s high energy prices, have made fertilizers heavy. expenditure on farmers’ budgets.

Furthermore, his organic farm uses nature-friendly farming techniques, such as avoiding the use of pesticides, which now bring pollinators back to the land. Although he needs to pull out even weeds growing side by side with his chickpea plants, he prefers it this way. A recent study found that these practices do not reduce crop productivity, while promoting positive effects on the environment.

During the first year in 2020, the farm Peas & Beans collected 3 tons of this pulse, which showed that there was a future for this crop in the country. In 2021, however, the heavy rains that caused catastrophic flooding in Europe also damaged his land, making it impossible to harvest anything more than 1 kg: “Climate change means not only higher temperatures, but especially extreme weather events,” he lamented. . At the moment, he doubts that many other farmers will follow his steps: “Changing crops overnight is risky, it’s good that they don’t go blind in this business, in agriculture everything is a trial and you have to wait at least 10 years for to make predictions, he says in the hope that with his third harvest he will be able to build the data collection further in a positive direction.

Creating a supply chain

One of the frameworks for the projects Peas & Beans participates in is to close the gap between farmers and consumers. Belgian cuisine rarely has legumes in its ingredients, and the population is not used to adding them to their meals. Truyen said he “had some work to do” to sell his first harvest, as no chickpea supply chain existed yet. But since his primary job is working in marketing, it didn’t take him long to establish his chain: “In a way, I had the dream of creating my own chain, and I needed a very popular crop, and chickpeas looked to be the perfect product,” he continued, as the popularity of plant-based alternatives has grown especially among the younger generations. Today he mainly supplies the Brussels-based Easter-inspired eatery Pois Chiche, and the world-renowned vegan restaurant Humus & Hortense, Peas & Beans also supplies bulk groceries. Now, together with his project partner, he is trying to figure out how to create a supply chain for this new potential Belgian product: “In the future, for example, we will need factories that can clean chickpeas after harvest,” he noted.

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