The Van Trump Report

Superfood “Quinoa” Looking for More North American Grower

Quinoa is a flowering plant grown primarily for its edible seeds. It became massively popular with the health food crowd in the U.S. in the early 2000s thanks to its high nutritional content. The bulk of quinoa production occurs in South America, while the U.S. imports almost half of the world’s total output. USDA scientists are working to change that, though, by creating strains better suited to North American growing conditions.

Peru and Bolivia are currently the top global quinoa producers. The plant is native to the arid Andes Mountains region where its history dates back at least 7,000 years. The ancient Incas called it Chisaya Mama, meaning “the mother of all grains,” a name that highlights the reverence for the food among Andean cultures. Quinoa is not a true cereal grain like wheat, though. As part of the amaranth family, it is more closely related to crops like spinach and chard. The seeds as well as the plant’s large leaves are edible. The top of the plant can also be harvested before flowering and eaten like broccoli. Because it is planted, grown, harvested, and consumed like a cereal crop, it’s often referred to as a “pseudo cereal.”

Quinoa’s seeds are considered a “superfood” thanks to their high nutritional content. In fact, it is the only plant-based food that provides all nine essential amino acids. It’s also a protein and fiber powerhouse, as well as a good source of other important nutrients, including folate, magnesium, zinc, and iron.  
In 2018, the value of quinoa consumption in the United States amounted to about $61.32 million and consumption is estimated to reach near $120 million by 2024.

The Quinoa plant has an enormous genetic range, including cultivars that can thrive anywhere from sea level to about 13,000 feet in altitude. It is considered a promising crop for hotter climates and poor soils, conditions that are expected to expand around the world due to climate change. 

U.S. farmers have been experimenting with quinoa for a while now but adoption has been slow due to some quirks of the plant. Plant scientist Rick Jellen at Brigham Young University, explains that the problem with some strains of quinoa is that they originated in very, very specialized climates. “Domestication in that geographic isolation means the strain has lost a lot of the adaptive characteristics needed in most of the rest of the world,” said Jellen. But new varieties have helped expand its range. 

Since the early 1980s, quinoa has been cultivated and commercially produced in the U.S. in the Colorado Rockies, especially in the San Luis Valley. Colorado and Nevada currently lead U.S. production, but it’s also taken root in the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and California. The diversity between newer varieties means some thrive in western Washington state’s maritime climate, while others grow well in the arid, high altitude of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Idaho.

Quinoa generally grows well in soils ranging from coarse sand to heavy clay and is also a salt-tolerant crop, though salinity tolerance percentages differ among varieties. Quinoa is drought tolerant and will do well on 10 inches of water or less. It will also resist light frosts, especially when the soil is dry. Weed control is one of the bigger challenges in quinoa fields. Because it is closely related to the common lambsquarters and pigweed, this limits chemical herbicide control.  

Quinoa is harvested similarly to canola and other small grains, though it usually requires further processing to remove the bitter seed coating, saponin, before human consumption. There are ongoing breeding programs to develop saponin-free varieties but I didn’t . There are processing plants in the U.S., mostly concentrated in the West, but some farms process their own quinoa. Researchers at Idaho state recommend quinoa as an early-season crop for both its beneficial role rotated with other crops and its market value. They also recommend that producers considering the crop either get contracts from the larger processors and financially account for the increased cost of trucking to the facility, or plan how to process quinoa on their own farms.

If you are interested in learning more about the potential for quinoa in your own operation, a few resources to start with include University of Idaho , Oregon State University, and the USDA.

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