Hummus company opens new avenues in the sesame market for Oklahoma and Texas growers

Take a couple cups of chickpeas, some chickpea liquid, half cup of water, around one-quarter cup sesame tahini, canola oil, lemon juice and some spices and seasoning, mix it all together and you have a middle eastern dip known as hummus.

Walk down any supermarket aisle and Sabra brand hummus is the obvious leader in the hummus space and has been popular since the company started in 1986. In fact, Sabra maintains 60% plus category market share, and since the pandemic started, the demand and buying power of this product has only increased.

For Sabra, high quality ingredients—specifically tahini, a condiment made from ground sesame seeds—are front and center when it comes to the standards of their hummus’ flavor and texture. Developing its own flawless hummus sesame seed varieties and cultivating them on American soil is the ultimate cherry on top.

“Plant-based food diets are quickly expanding throughout the USA and the world, so it is no surprise that there is a desire to expand production acres for ingredients that fit into that category,” said Mario Vazquez, senior sourcing manager for agronomist products at Sabra.

Oklahoma and Texas may seem like unlikely vehicles to carry Sabra’s new sesame seeds to the United States since hummus dates as far back to Egypt in the 13th century, but these two states are poised to play a major role in Sabra’s transition and improve the hummus caliber they strive to achieve.

“When it comes down to our hummus, the reason we are the market leader in the category is because of the quality and the authenticity of our product,” said Susan Hickey, Sabra senior director of procurement and sustainability. “That all starts with the ingredients, which is what we make from sesame, a critical ingredient in our recipe. It can make or break the flavor profile and quality of the hummus. We have spent many years researching sesame seed around the world to identify the attributes in sesame seeds that develop into a gold standard tahini. We’ve known that if we could isolate those qualities and then combine them in the right way, we could further improve the quality and sensory experience of the hummus by developing the seed that will create better tahini.”

Although sesame seeds are not a new crop to North America, in the U.S. they are mostly grown for the oil market rather than for tahini purposes. Hickey said the sesame growing in fields across Oklahoma and Texas the last few years is perfect for sesame oil, however it does not contain the right sensorial properties that Sabra would designate for use in tahini. Much like other crops such as wheat and sunflowers, each destination market is looking for specific characteristics. When it comes down to sesame, these end markets are scrutinizing oil content, protein, and sugar content.

Mission possible: the perfect tahini

Sabra partnered with Equinom, a FoodTech startup seed-breeding specialist, for six years to develop a proprietary non-GMO sesame seeds that possessed the ideal flavor and texture for the perfect hummus. The seed breeding is now complete and Sabra has even filed a patent application to protect the varieties.

“The attributes currently do not exist in one sesame seed anywhere in the world,” Hickey said.

During Sabra’s quest for the ideal sesame seed for tahini, they also developed a desire to grow those seeds in the U.S. Sabra makes its hummus using chickpeas grown in the Pacific Northwest, so it was logical to grow American sesame seeds too.

“We believe it is very important to support the U.S. agriculture and farming communities. So when we had the opportunity to develop something new and decide where to grow it, it was natural for us to want to replicate the supply chain we have with our chickpeas and grow them here in the U.S.,” Hickey said. “In addition to that, it also will help to decomplicate our supply chain.”

Sabra has been sourcing its sesame seed from overseas prior to its first crop of American-grown sesame seed, so shifting where the ingredients are grown will markedly improve traceability, predictability and quality of seed.

“We have been very aware of the complexities within our food chain. Actually the current global food crisis we are experiencing with COVID-19 is also revealing the importance of food supply chain and how critical it is to the well-being of people,” Hickey said.

Oklahoma and Texas were optimal locations for Sabra to concentrate recruiting growers for several reasons.

“We targeted this area from a climate standpoint, because sesame likes to grow in dry, hot conditions,” Hickey said. “Additionally, this region of the United States is very suitable for sesame and it is already an established crop there. It made perfect sense to focus on this area for our growing needs as well.”

Vazquez said sesame fits in perfectly with Oklahoma and Texas climates because it is drought resistant, so once a stand is achieved, the field is more than halfway there. Additionally, it is an ideal rotational crop for those areas and the crops they plant.

“Growers need choices to fit in their rotation and to expand the crop range that they can consider for their farm,” Vazquez said. “It is also an excellent choice for failed cotton since planting could be later in the season, up until the end of June.”

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Open sesame, and new avenues for sesame

Sabra has produced test crops the last three years with positive results and now the company is preparing for the first product-ready harvest this year. Hickey said the test crops indicate Sabra’s new varieties will produce similar yields to the current sesame varieties. She said some fields even yielded above average.

“Although yields vary depending on locations, we have produced dryland sesame at 750 to 800 pounds clean weight without optimizing production practices,” Vazquez said. “We have more than doubled this yield in irrigated land.”

In 2020, Sabra will have about 30 different fields in various locations around Kiowa County, Oklahoma, and north of Lubbock, Texas, Vazquez said.  

“Right now, they are focused on building the credibility of the variety,” Hickey said. “We understand that this is how our growers make their livelihood and they need to have confidence that what they put in the ground is going to deliver the economic benefits they need for their families.”

Hickey said the company is particularly looking for producers who have experience growing sesame to raise the new seed in the beginning, however, Sabra expects sesame markets to double this decade, so novice sesame producers may eventually start cultivating this crop exclusively for Sabra hummus.

“Being able to offer growers an alternative variety that still performs from a yield standpoint, but will also go into a different product category and market that is U.S.-centric, is a pretty enticing combination for that grower base and really gives them another outlet and market to be able to sell into,” Hickey said.

Sabra is partnering with SESACO, the largest and most experienced sesame production company in the U.S. and they are still actively signing up growers to raise Sabra varieties this year and they plan to increase the number of acres in 2021 and build off the successes they anticipate with the fall crop. To learn more about opportunities for planting and being referred to a partner, contact Vazquez at [email protected].

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].