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Company to begin growing chickpeas on Maui

Several varieties of chickpeas grow in a test plot on Maui. After promising results in nearly two years of chickpea trials, Maui business Chic Naturals plans to grow 5 acres of chickpeas in Waikapu early next year. The goal is to have 100 percent locally grown chickpeas in the company’s products by 2020, said Shaun Bayles, who founded the business with his mother, Joan Bayles. Photo courtesy of Shaun Bayles

Mother-and-son duo Joan and Shaun Bayles have always tried to give their chickpea snack business a local touch, baking them in small batches in their Haiku facility and tossing them in herb and spice mixes inspired by Maui flavors. But there’s one thing the Chic Naturals founders have long had their sights on — locally grown chickpeas.

Because chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, aren’t produced commercially in the islands, the Bayleses have had to look elsewhere — namely Washington state — to get their supply. But in a few years, they hope, that will change.

“We’re putting our first commercial crop in the ground — 5 acres next year,” Shaun Bayles said. “It’s great from our company’s standpoint, but one of our passions is that it just drives us nuts that 90 percent of our food here in Hawaii is imported. We have some of the best growing conditions in the world . . . and here we are completely reliant on the rest of the world and the Mainland for our food sources.”

Almost two years of promising trials with chickpea cultivation in Maui County have opened the door to what the Bayleses hope will be a new chapter for their business and a rise in awareness over the potential of chickpeas in Hawaii. The chickpeas that the Bayleses will plant in Waikapu early next year with the help of Pacific Biodiesel will make up 20 to 30 percent of Chic Naturals’ products in 2018. By 2020, Chic Naturals’ goal is to have 100 percent locally sourced chickpeas.

The goodness of garbanzos has won over the Bayleses. After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease about 10 years ago, Joan Bayles cut meat out of her diet and started roasting and flavoring chickpeas as a plant-based protein boost. Friends liked the crunchy snack so much, they convinced the Bayleses to take them to a farmers market. The Bayleses sold out.

People didn’t know what it was at first. (“Garbanzo beans. That’s hummus, right?”) But with the right marketing and a well-timed trend toward healthy food alternatives, the product grew in popularity. The Bayleses sold out at the Made in Hawaii Festival and went to market in 2012. They got orders from mom-and-pop stores, independent grocers and big-name businesses, too: Safeway, Target, Whole Foods Market and Foodland, to name a few.

“My mom literally used to walk around with it in a Ziploc bag,” Shaun Bayles said. “Now here I am . . . standing in Foodland, doing a demo with our bags on the shelf.”

Using 100 percent Hawaii-grown chickpeas “has been a goal of ours since day one,” he added.

In 2015, Shaun Bayles wrote a proposal with Amjad Ahmad, a researcher with the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Department of Tropical Plants and Soil Sciences. Ahmad, who studied chickpeas in his native country of Iraq, explained that the plant can flourish even in areas of low soil fertility and low water availability. They’re a great protein boost in a vegetarian diet, and chickpea hay can even be used in animal feed. Perhaps one of its most attractive qualities is its ability to help restore soil.

“It’s a good crop to include in crop rotation to improve crop quality (and) reduce need for chemicals and fertilizer applications,” Ahmad said.

In January 2016, the men were able to get a $50,000 Specialty Crop Block Grant from the state Department of Agriculture. That led to trials of 22 varieties of chickpeas on five different islands. They planted chickpeas at the Kula Agricultural Park, the University of Hawaii Maui College and in Hoolehua on Molokai — a half-acre in total. Ahmad said this type of research is best in small plots.

“The chickpea growth, yield and quality on Maui County were very promising, and I have selected about 10 varieties that performed very well there,” Ahmad said. “The county chickpea trials results were within the top locations suitable for chickpeas throughout the state.”

Meanwhile, Maui-based Pacific Biodiesel started talking to Ahmad about soil fertility and drought-resistant crops. In June, the company harvested its first 14-acre crop of sunflowers in Waikapu.

“He (Ahmad) suggested that chickpeas could be a great rotational crop for the sunflower due to their ability to ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen and survive with minimal water,” said Kim Sloan, public relations associate with Pacific Biodiesel. “We would also be able to use our same combine that we use to mechanically harvest our sunflowers.”

The company worked out a deal with Chic Naturals. Chic Naturals would provide the seed, and Pacific Biodiesel would provide the land, do the farming and deliver the harvested chickpeas to Chic Naturals to be cleaned and processed. Pacific Biodiesel also expects its food-grade operation to be ready next year, and the Bayleses hope to use the sunflower oil on their chickpeas.

“We believe Maui should invest more in diversified local food production,” Sloan said. “Chickpeas can be a part of that, along with other nutritious staple crops. This fits within our company’s sustainable, community-based model of agriculture, clean energy and food.”

Ahmad said that the goal is to promote chickpeas amongst Hawaii farmers. He said he’s gotten requests from more than 20 local growers for chickpea startup seeds. Maui Tempeh Co. and Zen Island Kitchen in Pukalani have also expressed interest in making products out of locally grown chickpeas and other legumes.

Savings are not exactly the reason behind Chic Naturals’ push to go local. Because of land and labor costs, Shaun Bayles said it will likely cost his business the same to use local chickpeas instead of shipping them from Washington state.

“Sourcing the garbanzo beans here locally isn’t necessarily about the business,” he said. “It’s about addressing food security, soil restoration. Yeah, it benefits us as a business for sure, but it’s more important to us to be locally relevant.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.