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Chickpea pioneer’s innovation gave Inland Northwest vital crop

Jim Evans, who died June 26, farmed the family land overlooking the Lewiston/Clarkston valley for more than 30 years.
Jim Evans, who died June 26, farmed the family land overlooking the Lewiston/Clarkston valley for more than 30 years.

The next time you have a big scoop of hummus – and if you’re like me, that’ll be any second now – spare a kind thought for Jim Evans of Genesee, Idaho.

About three decades ago, Evans and his father pioneered a chickpea crop on the family farm overlooking the Lewiston/Clarkston valley. In conjunction with university and government researchers, the Evanses took a crop that was almost completely disregarded, provided land to test and modify it, weathered a brutal crop-killing blight, and helped make the humble garbanzo bean a regional success story.

These days, farmers in the Pacific Northwest plant more than 80,000 acres of chickpeas, driven largely by a surging market for hummus.

“It’s the fastest-growing snack food in the United States,” said Tim McGreevy, a longtime friend of Evans and the CEO of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council in Moscow. “And most of that hummus you’re consuming is coming from right here in the Pacific Northwest.”

A fourth-generation farmer, Evans became a true force in Northwest agriculture before he died June 26 at age 55.

“He was a very loving, kind, generous man,” said his wife, Diane. “He could talk to a fence post and get a reaction.”

Evans served in leadership positions in many agricultural organizations, and he helped lead the effort to establish peas, lentils and chickpeas as subsidized federal crops in 2002. He provided land for crop testing for more than three decades – not just for chickpeas, which became his main focus, but also for varieties of other crops and new ways of controlling weeds and insects. He hosted an annual barbecue and tour of regional farms to showcase new varieties and research.

“He was a real benefit to the farm community,” said Larry Smith, a retired University of Idaho extension educator. “It’s not everybody that has the time or energy or willingness to take on the positions he did and be a spokesman for agriculture.”

Evans was generous, quick with a joke, and loaded with home-spun sayings – some fit for publication and some, in the grand tradition of the barnyard epithet, not. He was interested in innovative approaches, and liked to improvise solutions to problems.

“The kids who worked for him called him ‘MacGyver’ because he could fix anything,” Diane said.

She and Jim married in 1989, and he treated her two children like his own, she said, and relished the time spent with their grandchildren.

McGreevy, who spent a lot of time with Evans in Washington, D.C., trying to twist arms and change minds, said Evans charmed a lot of political types in the Capitol. He drew a big laugh in one Capitol hearing room by saying, “Mr. Chairman, it’s raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock today,” McGreevy said.

Evans was born in 1956, and graduated from Genesee High School in 1974. After spending a year at the University of Idaho, he returned to the family farm – which he called “Rimrock University.” His father, Sanford, provided plots for trial crops at the time, and farmers in the area had been casting about for a new crop in those years.

One day, Fred Muehlbauer, of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service at Washington State University, dropped by with some chickpea seed.

“I gave them this bag of seed – I think it was about 75 pounds,” said Muehlbauer, who’s now retired. “That was one of the first fields of chickpeas (in this region).”

After a couple years, though, the Evanses were hit by a blight that wiped out the chickpeas, and threatened to end the experiment. Innovation can be costly to a farmer, and other new legumes – such as fava beans – have had unsuccessful trials in the region. But Muehlbauer and others worked on finding a disease-resistant strain of the chickpeas, testing different varieties and hybrids on the Evans farm.

By the early 1990s, a couple of blight-resistant strains were developed – named “Sanford” and “Dwelley” after the two farmers who’d supported the research, Sanford Evans and Dwelley Jones of Walla Walla.

“From there, the industry just took off,” Muehlbauer said. “It’s grown by leaps and bounds the last few years.”

For all his hard work and advocacy, one of Evans’ favorite sayings was “You can’t put a price on a good time.”

“That was always a reminder to me that life is to be enjoyed, and Jim enjoyed the time he had here,” McGreevy said. “It was too short, really.”

Evans died of complications from a liver condition. One of his last wishes was that people would have a joyous remembrance of him – thus the celebration at Hall’s Corner Bar.

“He wanted a wake,” McGreevy said. “He said, ‘Now, McGreevy, I want there to be laughter. The world isn’t ending.’ ”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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