Party crashers: spelt and quinoa
People growing quinoa and spelt today in western Canada may be pioneers tomorrow.
Ever heard of industrial hemp? Well, with passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, it’s now a legal crop in some parts of the U.S. as it’s been in Canada for a time. “Without the people who championed industrial hemp as pioneers, it wouldn’t be what it is today – a common crop in western Manitoba,” says James Frey, a diversification specialist at Roblin, one of four independent crop diversification centers in Manitoba.
A couple of newcomers in Canada – spelt and quinoa – are lurking in the background, much as industrial hemp once did. They are in demand as alternative foods by health-conscious consumers. Both are reliable if well managed. They can produce a good cash return, but the risks are large.
- Weed, disease, and pest control products are not registered.
- Oversupply can produce a sharp price decline.
- Buyers, brokers, or contractors can be impossible to find.
The Quinoa Option
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, quinoa contains no gluten. It is the only plant food with all the essential amino acids, trace elements, and vitamins. It is highly adaptable and water efficient.
Northern Quinoa Production Corporation (NQPC), Saskatoon, owns quinoa.com. The oldest and largest of the quinoa processors, NQPC was incorporated in 1994 and is vertically integrated. It supplies the seed and buys back the crop.
In 2017, NQPC contracted 34,000 acres of quinoa with about 135 growers in areas from southeast Manitoba to northwest Alberta. Yield potential exceeds 3,000 pounds per acre. They averaged 870 pounds per acre (50 pounds per bushel) after cleaning. A few had more than 2,000 pounds.
Dan Bolton, NQPC farm services director, says quinoa fields look like vigorous crops of lambsquarters in June and July. The yield predators are a moth and stem-boring fly, but both are relatively rare.
James Frey now coordinates variety and seeding date trials with quinoa at three centers. He says best-management practices are being developed.
“Quinoa is a broadleaf plant that has a broom-like grain head, not unlike sorghum,” Frey says. “Companies and individuals are working with it in a fairly big way.
“A good clean seedbed is very important,” Frey says. “It requires good weed management in the year before quinoa and maintaining that with herbicides or tillage to seeding day.”
If it has a clean start, quinoa appears to be quite competitive with emerging weeds.
Fertility requirements are roughly the same as wheat. Seeding rates appear to be 7 to 10 pounds per acre.
On timing, he says quinoa needs to avoid hard frosts at either end of the season.
Disease can break out in rainy conditions. Recommendations for disease control are being developed.
When mature, it can dry naturally and be straight-cut at about 8 to 10 inches high. Combine settings are similar to barley.
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The Spelt Option
Spelt is a novel crop in western Canada, mostly found on a few organic farms that grow spring varieties developed at the University of Saskatchewan. A few growers are trying it as a fall and winter cover crop for the biomass, fall weed control, and winter grazing.
Spelt products are found in health-food stores and on supermarket aisles, and they are becoming popular at private artisan bakeries. As a true wheat, complete with a Biblical reference, spelt has lots of nutrition and enough gluten for baking.
As a grain, spelt looks like durum wheat.
Scott Chalmers, diversification specialist, did demonstration trials with spelt in southwestern Manitoba for 2009, 2012, and 2013. He says that height, standability, and yield are similar to durum. It is managed like durum for fertility, weed control, and disease. Final yield potential is similar to spring wheat or bearded wheat.
Chalmers suggests spelt is best adapted to the drier conditions of central and southwest Saskatchewan. To the east, southern Manitoba has more rainfall and more risk from fusarium head blight.
“Organic growers really like spelt. It’s a very leafy crop and very competitive against weeds. Conventional farmers have a difficult time with finding a market for spelt,” he says.
One couple in southwest Manitoba, Larry and Pat Pollock of Brandon, rely on organic spelt. They grow 75 to 90 acres of spelt every year.
Spelt acres have provided most of their farm income for more than 10 years, Pat Pollock says. They add value by dehulling and processing their spelt for milling or seeding. About 80% goes out the gate as grain or seed; the rest becomes stone-milled flour or flakes.
Their market includes:
- Several bakeries in western Canada as well as one in Ontario.
- About 200 to 300 farmgate customers for the grain, flakes, and flour.
- A few farm seed customers in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
“Ready for seeding, dehulled, and cleaned, our price at the farm is now $60 (Canadian dollars, around $44 U.S.) for a 50-pound bag,” says Pollock. “You want approximately 2 bushels to the acre for seeding.”
Growing spelt is “a challenging road,” she says. Seeding and harvest are the easy parts. It has a hefty seed price and requires lots of storage. The crop is only ready for dehulling, milling, and baking after a year in storage.
“If you have organic spelt, you sell it by the bag but not by the truckload, and you do your own marketing,” Pollock says. “It can be very profitable, once you have established your niche. Once you find a market, you ordinarily zip your lips about it.”
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Manitoba diversification specialists favor a small try at quinoa, if the grower is confident about weed control.
Chalmers says, “Quinoa is gluten-free, which has become very popular. It’s becoming more of a staple like rice. Our yield was pretty decent for a novel crop, and at least two processors will take it by the truckload.”
Organic spelt may be even more lucrative, but it’s very hard to get into that market.
On the other hand, Chalmers suggests, the spelt market may just be undeveloped.
He suggests that it may need a pioneer with the vision to take it another direction, such as nonorganic production for conventional bakeries or nonconventional usage, such as cover crops.