(CBS News) Hummus, a staple of Middle Eastern diets for centuries, is exploding in popularity across the U.S., prompting an uptick in chickpea crops, primarily in the Pacific Northwest. Last year, the U.S. harvest of chickpeas, the primary ingredient in hummus, was up 51 percent from the previous year.
Ronen Zohar, the CEO of Sabra, the lead hummus producer in the U.S., hopes to expand chickpea farming to tobacco country -- namely, Virginia -- to meet growing demand.
"We want to make sure we have enough chickpeas," Zohar told CBS News' Chip Reid, "And we want to reduce the risk we have now by growing chickpeas only in one part of the country."
72-year-old James Brown, who has been working his family's farm in southern Virginia for over five decades, told Reid he is experimenting with planting chickpeas, despite his family's rich background in the heart of tobacco country.
"My father was a 'bacco farmer, my grandfather was a 'bacco farmer and my great granddaddy was a tobacco farmer," Brown said. "This is my first time planting chickpeas.How the tiny chickpea is beating big tobacco
Sabra's largest hummus plant is in Virginia, just south of Richmond and not far from James Brown's farm. Researchers at nearby Virginia State University are trying to determine which of the many types of chickpea varieties grow best in the Southern climate. The research team, funded in part by Sabra, invited Brown and other farmers in the area to join the experiment.
Sabra CEO Zohar believes encouraging Virginia-based farmers to grow chickpeas is "wonderful solution" to address both the decreasing demand for tobacco and increased demand for hummus.
For his part, Brown planted only four acres of chickpeas on his 300-acre farm this year, but if the harvest goes well, he hopes to plant more in the future, with the hope of raking in "some big bucks" thanks to the U.S. hummus boom.