Farming in the West is a business of alternatives. There are plenty of crops that can be grown in the warm sunshine and long growing season. If one crop doesn’t make money, try another. However, for many producers there are no substitutes today.

That was the case for the Dunn family of Arizona

Tim Dunn, a third generation Yuma area producer, joined a growing list of farmers who have taken the step beyond price-taker, to price-maker by getting involved in the handling and marketing of what they grow.

That crop for Dunn is garbanzos or chickpeas. Dunn not only carved out a profit niche for himself and his extended family by doing that, but he has invited other struggling growers to join him.

“I started growing garbanzos in the event the wheat market went down,” says Dunn. His first crop was in 1995. The acreage totaled 140 and it turned out to be a wise move.

Dunn began farming full time in 1989 when he finished college, and durum wheat was good for him until the late 1990s. Prices peaked in 1996, but “have been going down ever since.” Arizona’s Karnal bunt fiasco didn’t help, though the blight was never found in Yuma durum.

Durum wheat is now considered a break-even crop.

“It costs about the same to grow garbanzos as wheat,” Dunn says. It requires a little more tractor work, and it costs more to plant. He expects a profit of $100 to $150 per acre from a 2,500-pound per acre yield at a price of 20 cents per pound after cleaning and freight costs. “That’s our average yield,” he notes.

Tim is in partnership with his father, Floyd. Together, they are growing 2,000 acres of garbanzos this year, as opposed to 300 acres of durum wheat. They farm 900 acres in Yuma and 4,500 more in central Arizona.

However, the move that put garbanzos beyond the marginally profit category was the purchase and renovation of a grain cleaning and storage plant in Yuma that diversified and allowed for the expansion of Dunn Grain Co. Dunn bought the facility in 1994 and used it almost exclusively for durum for a several years.

“We still are committed to wheat, but last year we added cleaning equipment to clean garbanzos and meet canner quality cleaning specs,” Dunn says. Plant capacity is 150 tons per day. He still cleans wheat and has added black-eyed peas, Piper Sudangrass and pinto beans to his cleaning list.

Last year he processed more than 10 million pounds of garbanzos.

He and his father grew about half of the garbanzos processed at the plant last year, and another quarter was grown by other Dunn family members. There are seven members of the extended Dunn family farming in the area, and they often cooperate or pool acreage “to gain market advantage.”

But it is the other quarter of plant capacity that is expanding Dunn’s profit potential. Those beans are grown by other growers, and that acreage will expand by about 20 percent per year for an orderly growth in marketing over the next few years.

“We’re going to open it up to additional growers,” Dunn explains. Bringing in additional growers will help him create a more solid niche in the overseas market, where much of his garbanzos go.

Dunn points out that there is a huge market for the beans both domestically and overseas, but there are also major acreages grown in countries such as Canada, Turkey, Mexico and India.

“Your overseas markets use a lot of them,” Dunn says, because they are a major component of vegetarian diets. Idaho, Washington and California’s Central Valley are other major contributors to domestic production.

Dunn Grain sells a majority of its garbanzos to Spain, Italy and India, with an increasing portion going to domestic canners. The company has a price advantage because its beans are the first in the U.S. to be harvested, right behind the Mexican crop. His beans are high in quality, but the varieties grown here do not produce beans as large as the Mexican varieties.

Eileen Dunn, Tim’s wife, a CPA and the company’s chief financial officer, points out that there is an excellent advantage to processing and selling your own beans.

“There’s a value-added component to having a processing and distribution capability,” she says. In addition, the garbanzos, which are mostly shipped in 100-pound bags, gain from the personal attention of the family plant.

“You can improve the grades,” Dunn says. By sorting out small or green beans, he earns a higher grade and higher price. There can be as much as a four-cent discount for green beans, and he lowers his risk by using an electric eye sorter to cull those before shipment.

“We’re having buyers call back wanting Dunn Grain beans,” he says. “And that’s good. We’ve achieved the brand name recognition associated with quality and integrity in a short period of time.”

“Labels are built on service, integrity and following through on contracts — not all on the quality of product,” he says. Personal quality control is a great field leveler. The early market for Arizona beans also helps.

Dunn improved his odds even more a year ago when he upgraded his cleaning equipment as well as increased storage and processing capacity.

Dunn says there is a learning curve in growing garbanzos. However, it is not a steep one, because timing is similar to the timing for wheat, and the mentality is the same as growing cotton — which he also has grown.

“We prefer to plant them in moisture in December,” Dunn says of garbanzos, “but they can be watered up.”

Although some Arizona growers plant two rows on a 42-inch bed, Dunn prefers a single line on a 40-inch bed. A double line may yield more, but also takes longer to plant, and timing is critical. That’s because his beans are planted behind vegetables.

Dunn uses an inoculant to kick start the legumes, and the seed is treated for fusarium, phytophthera and pithium. It is also coated with a starter fertilizer, but because of fertilizer residues after vegetables, garbanzos require little or no late nutrients.

“You only irrigate two or three times during the whole season,” he says. Garbanzos are well adapted to the desert, and he compares them to cotton in their ability to withstand stress.

They have few insect pests, though migrating lygus can require control. Weeds are another problem, but primarily in garbanzos watered up. Those may require herbicide treatments.

“The hardest thing about garbanzos is harvesting them,” Dunn says. “They are very dry to combine.”

Branches of the plants fall into furrows, so Dunn goes to deeper furrows under certain circumstances. Plant lifters on the combine heads are used in deep furrows, but if he has a combine with flex headers he will grow flat furrows to suit that method.

“The best scenario is a flex header with an air reel,” Dunn notes, and that would be on a flat furrow. He says a grower can lose 25 percent of a crop if he doesn’t harvest properly, because those drooping branches usually bear a significant percentage of the crop.

Harvest begins June 1, basically the same time as for wheat. Garbanzos have become a good rotation not only because they provide a healthy cash flow during the summer months, but because they provide another scheduling option to Dunn’s wheat or field corn. Depending on the timing on produce coming off certain fields, the beans may suit the rotation one year, and corn the next. And Dunn doesn’t need a lot of new equipment to grow them.

He started out farming in Yuma by growing lettuce for the Nunes Co., then grew produce on his own. Now he has found that renting his high-value Gila Valley ground out to produce growers during the winter season allows him to grow his own crops for the rest of the year.