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Quinoa Is Coming  

Frank Morton

Quinoa is making steady headway into food consciousness and agricultural production in the western US and Canada. Aside from whole food cuisine, the gluten-free market for alternative grains has become a mother of invention for quinoa’s potential in snack food, food processing, and nutritive enhancement of prepared foods. The high protein and mineral content, and the textural diversity among the varieties, makes quinoa a desirable and adaptive ingredient in the hands of food makers.

In the arid west where farmers are always looking for new dry-land crops, research stations are testing varieties and planting dates to find rotational matches with wheat and other overwintered grains. One proposal is to follow winter wheat with a late June planting of quinoa for harvest in early October before heavy rain. This might avoid flowering during the highest temperature periods, which commonly causes pollen sterilization and crop failure.

Quinoa is also bringing out the entrepreneur in farmers who want to get away from commodity crops. In eastern Idaho, farmer Jeremiah Clark has invested in a quinoa seed cleaning facility, begun developing his own quinoa variety, and organized 15 growers into a 400 acre production initiative. The Palouse region of Washington/western Idaho is perfectly poised to be a quinoa production center, IF someone will invest in a processing plant to clean saponin from the seed. Around Saskatoon, Canada, the NorQuin (Northern Quinoa) Corporation has organized enough growers to produce almost 2000 acres of quinoa, but still needs to import Bolivian/Peruvian seed to meet food processors’ demand.

Closer to our home, Blake Richard of northern California has shown his mild coastal climate around Eureaka to be a successful dry-land quinoa growing area. After 17 years of adapting seed originally from White Mountain Farm in Colorado, he now sells quinoa to Whole Foods through a relationship with Lundberg Family Farms of Richvale, CA. Lundberg is fully committed to becoming a major supplier of domestically grown quinoa, and has been testing our Wild Garden quinoas for a few years now. You can now buy our ‘Red Head’ and ‘Cherry Vanilla’ at Whole Foods in the Lundberg White Domestic Quinoa package. This is an honor for me, to be honest.

There are several basic breeding problems to begin solving in quinoa. Yield is important, but stalk strength is the primary issue. We find it easy to “over-yield,” by application of water and fertility, with the predictable result being broken stems and branches, or toppling (lodging). Selection for stalk strength and lodging resistance comes along with any other yield increasing strategy in quinoa.

Another basic issue is downy mildew, a defoliating disease that significantly reduces yield. It often accompanies overhead irrigation or high humidity. We found some very good resistance in our breeding trials this year, especially in an upcoming variety called ‘Ivory.’

Seedhead sprouting from prolonged rain during the harvest window is a serious risk for maritime region growers. As little as 24 hours of wetness can induce seed sprouting in fully matured seedheads of susceptible varieties, while better wet-adapted types will remain sproutless for 36-72 hours or more. Our ‘Red Head’ out-performed all others (once again) in a serious sprouting challenge this season. Our latest successful ‘Red Head’ selection went for 9 days of wetness without sprouting.

Lygus bug continues to be the most serious challenge of all if it occurs in the growing area. These immature-seed suckers completely eliminate the yield if they are established at the onset of flowering. The only effective strategy at present is avoidance of lygus hot spots. Our experience has been that isolation from other farm fields by forested borders is a successful approach. We’ve had less success with neem, but in principle it should interfere with the lygus life cycle. The work continues.

Originally published in the 2017 Wild Garden Seed Catalog.

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