FOR cotton, wheat and grain farmers in northern NSW and southern Queensland, the Asian Century has already arrived at the gate.
Where once chickpeas, a staple ingredient of Indian curries, dhals and batters, were only grown occasionally, the soaring appetite for the legume in India and rising prices is rapidly changing the crops farmers plant.
Instead of chickpeas being grown once every five or six years as a small part of a cycle of growing cotton and wheat - and more because they returned nitrogen to the soil than as an export crop - today it is chickpeas that are cutting a swath across northern NSW and southern Queensland.
More than 500,000ha of grain farms - most traditionally cropping wheat - was planted to chickpeas this year, compared to less than one-fifth of that amount in 2005. The harvest now in full swing across in northern NSW is expected to produce a record 700,000 tonnes of chickpeas for export.
Combined with other pulse crops such as lentils, mungbeans, lupins and faba beans, for the first time their production is tipped to top the $1 billion mark.
Byron Birch, cropping manager for an 18,000ha property west of Moree owned by New Zealand family company Rimanui, has a team of four headers harvesting his 4000ha chickpea crop.
This year, for the first time, the young farm manager planted the same amount of chickpeas as dryland wheat on the vast property but will make much more profit from his chickpeas.
"It used to be that chickpeas were the rotation 'break' crop after three or four years of wheat; now it is becoming like chickpeas are our main crop and wheat is the odd crop in between," Mr Birch said.
"You can sow it when conditions are drier, it copes better with less rain than wheat, you use much less fertiliser and the prices are higher. No wonder we are making better margins per hectare from our chickpeas this year than our wheat. It also means much less stress when you know if it doesn't rain for a few weeks or months, your chickpeas will still yield well while your wheat might have shrivelled away to nothing."
Pulse Australia president and pulse trader, Peter Wilson, predicted yesterday that the incentive for northern grain farmers to grow more chickpeas will grow.
"I find it interesting when the government talks about the approaching Asian Century like it has just worked out where Asia is, when the grain industry has been dealing with Asia for 60 years," he said yesterday from Pakistan.
Read more on The Australian.