While USDA and University of California plant breeders develop new and improved garbanzo bean varieties, dry-bean processors hope to see the crop revived as a rotation with cotton, tomatoes and onions on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Researchers, growers, and processors met recently for a field day at the West Side Research and Education Center at Five Points to view test plots. Steve Temple, Cooperative Extension agronomist at UC, Davis, showed a dozen varieties he is monitoring there this year.

Garbanzos, also known as chickpeas, are a popular salad ingredient and were once grown mostly in coastal California valleys. During the 1990s they were also planted in the San Joaquin Valley, and by 2001, production in California peaked at about 370,000 hundredweight.

In 2003-2004 output in the state was only 70,000 hundredweight. Lack of demand due to expanded production elsewhere in the U.S. shrank California's ability to market and its acreage. The 2004-2005 crop might signal an upward trend and is expected to be about 110,000 hundredweight.

Temple said he planted commercial varieties Sierra, Dwelley, HB-14, and HB-16, along with two experimentals from UC, Riverside breeder Giles Wains, and a half-dozen experimentals from USDA's breeding facility at Washington State University at Pullman, Wash. Temple duplicated the same varieties in his trials in San Joaquin and Solano counties, and the plots were to be evaluated through harvest.

Research priorities

Current plant breeding research priorities for garbanzos in California include seed quality, temperature and regional acclimation, and resistance to Fusarium and other diseases.

Fred Muehlbauer, research geneticist with the USDA station at Pullman, was a guest at the field day and traced his involvement with varieties used in the Palouse region, composed of parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and in California.

“We need to be tuned into finding material better adapted to California,” said Muehlbauer, who came to Pullman in 1969 to work in peas and lentils and in 1989 began breeding of garbanzos for resistance to Ascochyta blight after the disease caused heavy losses in the Palouse.

With material from Turkey and India, he developed what became known as Dwelley and Sanford. When the blight problem re-emerged and pressured those varieties severely in 1999-2000, his further work led to Sierra.

USDA plant pathologists learned that Dwelley and Sanford were resistant to Ascochyta Type I but highly susceptible to its Type II. Sierra has good resistance to the first but only partial resistance to the second.

Muehlbauer theorizes that the Ascochyta population was originally a mix of the two types. “When resistance to Type I was found, it gave Type II a niche, and that's what caused the problem in 1999-2000. So now our breeding efforts are focused on maintaining resistance to Type I and building on Type II resistance.”

Last year he found one line that has good resistance to Type II and possibly also has some defense against a third type of Ascochyta reported by plant pathologists overseas.

Selections challenge

To fully challenge potential selections, the Pullman scientists inoculate the blight directly, use infected crop debris from the previous season, and then sprinkler irrigate in the evening for high moisture to promote the disease.

In addition to blight resistance, he also screens for seed size, shape and color and later segregates for yield and other agronomic traits. “Anything that survives is put into preliminary screening trials, preliminary yield trials, and then advanced yield trials, such as those at Five Points. In most years, 200 to 300 plants survive for further testing and selection,” Muehlbauer said.

One of his successful lines, I-604, a fern-leaf type, was recently approved for commercial release and will be called Dillon. At first, UC-5 and other fern-leaf types had problems developing uniform maturity and formed many small beans in the top of the plant. That caused a shift to breeding with simple-leaf types that had more maturity and consistent seed size when grown in the Palouse region. However, he has since returned to using fern-leaf material to maintain seed size and improve on the yield potential.

Most Palouse region growers keep crop residue on the surface during the winter and spring as a measure against soil erosion, but Muehlbauer has long recommended that garbanzo trash be plowed under or disked in as an exception to the widely accepted conservation practices.

While he and other USDA geneticists are breeding for disease resistance, he added, the surface trash is at odds with the breeding purpose and provides a host for the pathogens, encouraging rapid development of new, more virulent forms.

“We recommend distance between a new field and a former field. That works for single owner, but problems come when his field is next to a neighbor's blight-infested field. Distance helps but is not a complete solution for the trash on the surface,” he said. Most Palouse growers plant garbanzos no more often than every three years.

He said clean seed is another defense against Ascochyta. “You need to select for disease-free or low percentage infection seed and treat it with a combination of fungicides and insecticides to eliminate the great majority of infection. Then after crop emergence, if they see any signs of blight, growers will spray with Bravo and if needed, other materials.”

According to Muehlbauer, the reason for releasing Sierra was its slightly larger seed size, lighter color, and slightly higher yield than Dwelley. A consistent medium-to-large seed size has been a strong quality of Sierra, whether the yield was 25 sacks to the acre or 40.

Large seed size is important to the garbanzo processing industry but some are putting too much emphasis on it. Muehlbauer said processors in Washington have separated the larger garbanzos and sold them for canning at a premium, while relegating the smaller seed for planting, Muehlbauer said.

Compound problem

“I cringe when they do that because the new stands planted with the small seed will have greater lack of uniformity. Seeds are small for many reasons, mixture, disease, or mutation. By planting only the smaller seeds you only compound the problem. The smart thing would be to skim off the big ones for planting and get rid of the little ones.”

Stan Murray, a veteran proponent of garbanzos and now a consultant for Air-Way Farms in Fresno and other California processors, said they are an ideal winter crop for rotation with cotton, tomatoes and onions on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. He estimates garbanzo planting in the state this year at possibly 8,000 acres, or about half what they were five years ago.

The main virtue of garbanzos, Murray contends, is they are grown during the winter. “You plant them in November or December, and they are very tolerant to cold. They develop from late March to early June and are direct harvested in late June or early July.

“They are an excellent crop to enhance flocculation of soil particles and promote nitrogen fixation. When inoculated with Rhizobia, they can give a carry-over of nitrogen of between 60 and 70 units for the next year's crop, and they need less water than wheat does.”

Murray said a satisfactory new variety would need to yield 40 sacks to the acre and have consistent seed size, along with other desired traits.