To the uninitiated, the field of quinoa stretching out in front of Percy Phillips looks like acres upon acres of lambs’ quarters and, in fact, the common weed is a close genetic relative.
This, however, is no patch of weeds.
The 10-acre field near Portage la Prairie is one of several sites supplying grain to his company, Prairie Quinoa, this year and is his most recent experiment to see if the crop is viable as a large-scale commercial commodity.
“The issue is whether or not we can take one or two of the varieties that I’ve got going and simply put them in a John Deere air seeder, seed with conventional equipment and get a yield that is interesting to farmers,” he said.
The Portage la Prairie resident is one out of a small but growing number of Manitoba producers who have tried their hand at quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), and one out of an even smaller number who have produced it successfully.
At less than 1,000 acres expected this year, the crop is still very much a niche market in Manitoba, and falls far below the 3,000- to 5,000-acre threshold that the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation says it would need before granting it insurable status. According to seeding intentions submitted to the MASC, 975 acres of quinoa were anticipated this year, a jump from last year’s 671 acres but below 2015, when a record 1,399 acres were expected.
When compared to five years ago, however, quinoa acres have leapt. The crop enjoyed a sudden surge in 2014, rising from 140 acres the year before to 765. Prior to that, Manitoba counted only 249 acres of quinoa in 2012.
Phillips was one of those early growers.
Starting in 2011, after a holiday to Peru where he saw quinoa grown in its home environment, Phillips began experimenting with the crop, starting with a small patch.
“I very quickly realized that I am not a plant breeder; I’m an engineer and so, if you put the variables down as to what you need — soil type, location, rainfall and all the rest of it — and you do an analysis of what we’re looking for, it became obvious to me that I had to find the variety or varieties that will grow well in Manitoba,” Phillips said.
The search for a Manitoba-friendly variety turned Phillips back to South America. After explaining his needs to industry representatives in Bolivia, one of the main quinoa-producing countries of the world, he purchased a number of seed samples and, over the next years, tested a list of varieties, eventually narrowing it down to the amber quinoa he currently grows.
He later partnered with Manitoba Agriculture, providing the province with locally grown seed to use in variety trials.
Peru and Bolivia count thousands of quinoa varieties, although a far smaller number is traded globally.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) counts five main quinoa-growing zones in the Andes, each sporting varieties adapted for that climate. It has been grown at altitudes 3,900 metres above sea level, at low temperatures, at sea level, in the higher precipitation of northern Peru and Ecuador, subtropical areas and in the arid regions in southern Bolivia (albeit with long fallow periods between crops).
“Quinoa is recognized not only for its nutritional and dietary properties but also for its genetic diversity, adaptability to different agro-environmental conditions as well as the cultural and socio-economic benefits it has on the local environment,” the FAO has said.
The organization earmarked the crop as a means to reduce global food insecurity, going so far as to name 2013 the International Year of Quinoa.
Despite this supposed versatility, however, efforts to adapt the crop to Manitoba have faced roadblocks.
In what may strike most as ironic given the province’s frigid reputation, several quinoa trials have failed in recent years due to heat. Tested varieties have been vulnerable to high temperatures while pollen tubes are formed during flowering, raising the risk of heat-blasted and sterile plants that do not fill seed.
Such was the problem in 2011, when three Manitoba farms were contracted to grow quinoa for Saskatchewan processor Northern Quinoa Corporation, including 70 acres grown near Winkler, Manitoba. In January 2013, the Manitoba Co-operator reported that a string of days over 30 C stymied yield at the sites.
Several years later, 50 acres of quinoa were introduced to five farms. Laura Telford, Manitoba Agriculture organic specialist, joined with Northern Quinoa Corporation for the project but results were similar to 2011.
“I was always told that maybe we just tried to plant it too far south and it’s just too hot, but now I think that’s not the case. You just have to work around our hot summers,” she said.
Manitobans have historically been told that quinoa can only be grown in the slightly cooler regions north of Highway 16. Telford, however, argues that early seeding would keep plants from flowering in the peak of summer.
“Plant early and also baby the crop,” she said. “It’s very difficult to establish and it doesn’t like wind and it doesn’t like weed competition at the very beginning, so you need a lot of labour at the front end.”
Quinoa requires 100 to 110 days to mature, according to producers, although Telford places the range closer to 90 to 100 days.
Phillips likewise disagrees with the “Highway 16” rule. Since starting his experiment, he has grown quinoa, or contracted other producers to grow it, from Morden to Swan River. Heat vulnerability at flowering is not unique to quinoa, he noted, and similar issues can affect canola, which accounts for the most acres of any crop in the province.
“I kept thinking that location is the biggest deal and that’s not true,” Phillips said. “The biggest deal is soil type… it won’t grow well in Red River clay, that’s just not its element and it needs a lighter type of soil that’s pretty well drained.”
More valid, in Phillips’s view, are concerns over moisture, as his varieties have proven susceptible to water stress.
The crop also hits problems in terms of weed competition. There is no herbicide registered for use in quinoa in Canada, although research is starting to evaluate herbicide use in the field. In 2015, a study by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs showed promising results for both s-metolachlor- and pendimethalin-based herbicides, although the remaining five tested herbicides caused plant injury. At the same time, the crop has proven naturally uncompetitive with Manitoba’s weeds.
“One of the other agronomic challenges will be developing better organic crop rotations that are of benefit to the quinoa and weed management,” Ryan Pengelly of Tamarack Farms said.
The farm has been direct marketing organic quinoa since 2015.
“We have our own set of crops that will grow here, so we can’t look to South America too much for examples of what might work. I think we’ll have to develop our own experience here if we’re growing it organically,” he said.
In 2009, Pengelly and his wife first attempted to grow quinoa for their own use and their experiments gained steam after taking over his family’s farm near Erickson, Man.
The following years were full of trial and error. Their first attempts to grow store-bought quinoa were unsuccessful and it wasn’t until 2014 that the farm produced its first small-scale quinoa crop.
“In terms of resources, they’re extremely limited… There is very little information out there,” Pengelly said. “The only information really available has been developed by other companies, so unless you’re a producer growing on contract for those companies, those resources aren’t available.”
The following year, Tamarack Farms produced enough to market its quinoa, but had difficulty finding a processor able to accommodate the crop or wash off the bitter, naturally occurring saponin which coats quinoa.
By the time it went to market, Tamarack Farms had developed its own Manitoba Agriculture-approved cleaning and processing facility; its own packaging capability, and soon made a name for itself at farmers’ markets from Winnipeg to Clear Lake.
Last year, however, the Pengellys’ crop was big enough for the farm to expand and Tamarack Farms quinoa hit specialty retail outlets and several restaurants six months ago.
Despite the expansion, Pengelly says farmers’ markets still make up the bulk of their sales.
“In general, when we approach a retail outlet, the interest is strong in having a local source for quinoa,” he said. “We certainly see a difference between when we are at a farmers’ market stand and we are able to explain that we are the growers and how we grow it. There’s such a strong interest in knowing your farmer.”
For Phillips, the journey to successful quinoa marketing took until 2015, when Prairie Quinoa produced its first commercial crop. Today, the business ships to a list of retailers, while demand has grown to the point that Phillips has begun contracting other producers to grow for him.
“I no longer am questioning whether or not we can grow it. We can grow it,” he said. “That’s not an issue. The real issue is whether we can grow it commercially and be viable, I mean commercially viable.”
Phillips is currently testing two varieties for large-scale, conventional production, but his ambitions stretch even further. If Phillips gets his way, Portage la Prairie will add a quinoa-processing plant to its agri-food sector, although the timeline for the project is still nebulous
Like Pengelly, Phillips believes that locally grown quinoa could become a market advantage, both through the appeal of a Manitoba brand and lower transport costs.
“Fundamentally, I just still think that we can be competitive,” Phillips said. “We can be competitive both as a niche product and as a commodity.”
The finished plant will handle all varieties of quinoa, he said.
Pengelly says he’ll stick with his own vertically integrated process, and added any future processing plant’s benefit will depend heavily on each farm’s goals. While drawing in more farmers to produce quinoa would be a good thing, he warned against flooding what he says is an already volatile market.
“We wonder what would happen if there was an overproduction,” he said. “We only are marketing here in Manitoba and there’s only 1.3 million people in Manitoba. While most of those people would eat wheat or bread, I still don’t really know how many people out there consume quinoa.”
Despite these reservations, Pengelly says he’s still optimistic based on their experience on the farm and at the markets.
“There’s been really a very strong interest in local quinoa,” he said. The question is whether that strong interest in local quinoa translates into direct economic support and sales for us.”
The meteoric rise of the crop creates its own problems, he added, since the sudden upswing in popularity makes it difficult to gauge what prices and demand might do in the future. The grain has been hailed as a “superfood” due to its high protein and nutritional density, and has been bolstered by the rise in gluten-free diet trends.
“We’re doing this because we want to do it and we love that challenge, but I’m certainly not advocating that everyone start growing quinoa,” Pengelly said. “It looks like it’s a very lucrative crop when you look at how much it costs in the store, but the costs of producing it are much higher than other crops. As a producer, it’s much riskier. The yields that we’ve seen on our farm vary incredibly.”