The popularity of quinoa, a little seed packed with protein, continues to grow as consumers search for more nutritious and possibly gluten-free grain alternatives. However, quinoa can be rather pricey -- up to $8 a pound retail, based on $3,000 a ton commercial -- because the majority of what Americans buy comes from South America. The primary regions for quinoa are the coastal valleys and dry mountains of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
Kevin Murphy is a plant breeder at Washington State University. He says the availability isn't keeping up with demand, so there's an effort to encourage local quinoa production on small and medium-sized farms in the U.S. "Our small-scale growers are mostly vegetable growers who are looking to diversify their rotations and also to break up disease a little bit. And then add the high-value seed crop to their marketing capacity, too." Many of these growers sell products at farmers' markets and online. While gardeners may find quinoa time-consuming to harvest, producers of larger plots experience more success using a combine with a sorghum header attachment.
A seed of the goosefoot plant (Chenopodium quinoa), quinoa is considered a grain, but is actually classified as the fruit of this plant. It's in the same botanical family as sugarbeet, table beet, and spinach. The time from planting to harvest is 110-to-150 days, depending on the variety and the number of growing-degree days. Quinoa is somewhat drought-tolerant and thrives in sandy-loam to loamy-sand soils with low nitrogen, but needs a temperate climate: 90-degrees or higher can destroy an entire crop, and too much moisture causes quinoa to sprout.
Successful growers in the U.S. include White Mountain Farm in Colorado and Wild Garden Seeds in Oregon. Experts say quinoa has the potential to be a viable alternative for producers in most of Canada, the Rocky Mountain region, and the Pacific Northwest. Murphy believes that through proper seed selection, quinoa will grow throughout the U.S. "You have to find a variety of quinoa that is adapted to your latitude because there are some day length sensitivity issues. So, we want to grow a day length-neutral variety," Murphy says. "That way as the days start getting shorter and winter starts coming on, the quinoa will mature, otherwise it won't mature, so that's a really key thing."
Quinoa is protected from pests and birds by a bitter exterior called saponin, and this layer needs to be removed to make the grain ready-to-eat. Commercially, this process might be aided by soaking the seeds in water vats, or milling the seeds using machines such as a rice polisher. Some agriculturalists encourage development of a saponin-free variety of quinoa to increase production possibilities. However, because of saponin's natural pest prevention attributes, this reduces the need for insecticides, prompting growth in the organic market.
-Additional reporting by Jodi Henke
-Photo of Kevin Murphy with quinoa courtesy of Washington State University