Five years after planting his first quinoa crop, Ryan Pengelly of Tamarack Farms near Erickson has tasted success and failure.
He’s placed his direct-marketed product on retail shelves and in farmers’ market stalls. He’s also experienced total crop failures other years.
Pengelly, like other producers pioneering quinoa in Manitoba, is looking for agronomic answers in a crop only recently come to the province, and to which there is a much shallower body of knowledge compared to other annual grains.
“Our grains are grown organically, so I’m looking for more information on how we are building a crop rotation around quinoa,” he said. “What are we adding to that rotation? What will be helping us grow quinoa better? Because with organics, your challenges are fertility and weed competition.”
Those are just a few of the unknowns when it comes to quinoa, a list that ranges from rotations to pest management to seeding dates, but is balanced by the temptation of substantial profit if the crop is good.
Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture set quinoa returns just under $348 an acre, assuming that the producer could pull off 1,000 pounds per acre, a target that is well within the crop’s yield potential, according to growers such as Joe Dutcheshen. Dutcheshen, who helped found NorQuin, now a major quinoa processor in Saskatchewan, ranged quinoa’s yields anywhere from 300 pounds to 2,000 pounds an acre in 2014 interviews with media.
Rotationally, researchers say quinoa might add another profitable option to tight crop rotations, thereby stemming disease or resistance issues waiting in the wings.
All of this, of course, is assuming that the crop can produce consistent yields and quality.
NorQuin has seen those dense harvests, according to Derek Flad, breeding research manager with the company, although he admits that those attractive yields have not been the norm, and those farmers who have seen more consistent success are those willing to take on intensive monitoring and management.
“You have to check as many boxes as you can when it comes to growing this crop — when it comes to land preparation, scouting, fertility, seeding timing, seeding date, conditions,” he said. “You have to give this crop the best opportunity to grow and if you’re not prepared to do that, the expectations have to be changed accordingly. If you’re going to take a chance on any specialty crop, a lot of times people will put it in a quarter just to see what happens, and that’s all fine, well and good, but if you’re looking at expanding and diversifying your rotation, you have to give it the honest effort.”
Heat has been a much-cited bane of the crop, and one of the reasons for the so-called Hwy. 16 rule, a guideline that puts the best quinoa-growing land in cooler regions north of Hwy. 16. Much like canola, flowers are known to abort in heat, and an ill-timed heat wave can cut significantly into yield.
That guideline, however, has come under fire from growers such as Percy Phillips of Portage la Prairie, who says he has seen promising results through south-central Manitoba.
In fact, test plots in Melita and southern Manitoba promised far better results this year by mid-season than those planted near Roblin, despite a streak of hot weather.
James Frey, diversification specialist with the Parkland Crop Diversification Foundation (PCDF), said he does not expect to get any yield from the test plots near Roblin this year.
The Westman Agricultural Diversification Organization (WADO) near Melita and the PCDF both hosted NorQuin variety trials this year. It is the third year that quinoa has been planted at PCDF.
“We have seen great yield in one year, middling yields in another — and in that case, I think a lot of the challenges were to do with excess heat at flowering, specifically — and then this year, it seems to be really driven by insects and moisture,” Frey said.
Roblin and the northwest saw substantial rains from May 24 to July 8, a period where the rest of the province was starved for moisture. That rain may have been a boon to forage producers in the area, but it was also likely a bane to quinoa plots.
As of the end of July, some plants were no more than a foot off the ground compared to the much taller plots heading out in Melita.
Heat blast is still on WADO’s radar. The diversification centre launched seeding date trials to get a better grip on crop staging through Manitoba’s summer. Planting dates were staggered weekly from May 2 to June 22.
“Being early always means beating the heat and being late always means establishing and performing after the heat has come and gone,” Scott Chalmers, diversification specialist at WADO, said.
Where to plant?
One open question is just where the crop will do best.
Phillips says the crop does well on his marginal land, pointing to the rocky ground it has adapted from in the Andes of South America.
Flad, meanwhile, insists that a sandy loam is the best bet for the crop and advised producers to try quinoa on their best ground in order to give it the best chance for success.
Frey, for his part, has seen the crop thrive on what he would describe as “not so great land,” a qualification that he saves for sandier soil that might also serve for quinoa given the crop’s aversion to excess moisture and the soil’s better drainage. The nutrients however, must be there, he said.
“Clearly, there’s a couple of indicators that, if you can remove some of those pressures — for example, the disease and insect pressures, and if we’re growing it in a situation where the root zone, particularly, is not going to be too wet — then it responds very well to higher rates of nitrogen,” Frey said.
It’s a high-input crop, Flad acknowledged, and Chalmers says that his own fertility plan echoed what he would normally put on spring wheat.
According to Saskatchewan’s 2018 crop production guide, quinoa takes 42 pounds an acre of nitrogen, 18 pounds per acre of phosphorus and 11 pounds per acre of potassium.
Quinoa’s pest issues are one thing that is not in question.
Both WADO and PCDF noted serious issues with stem borer, while growers have also noted issues with lygus bugs, goosefoot moth and mildew, among insect and disease concerns.
“In terms of a total loss, we’re seeing more issues with insects than we are with heat,” Flad said.
There are currently no products registered for use in quinoa, a potentially massive hurdle in a crop noted for its pests.
In a similar vein, the crop is uncompetitive with many of Manitoba’s weeds.
The lack of registered herbicide and potential weed impact has made a pre-emergent burn-off critical, according to Chalmers.
“When the seedling comes up, it’s this very fine, spindly little seedling and I think any weed pressure whatsoever would be quite a catastrophe at that time,” Chalmers said, although he cautioned that pre-emergence window might be short.
The crop emerges quickly in cool soils, Chalmers said, and farmers can expect seedlings to emerge within five days of planting.
Growers may soon have those chemical controls, at least if NorQuin has anything to say about it. It’s been working to have the crop added to the labels of existing products.
“We are pushing as many insecticides and fungicides as we can,” Flad said.
The company hopes to see Group 1 herbicides approved for quinoa in the near future.
That may be good news for commercial growers, although many existing quinoa growers, including Pengelly, have already turned to the organic market in the hopes of making the best out of their non-existent chemical options.
“It’s more risky and technically challenging agronomically speaking,” Pengelly said. “But, in my view, growing organically, we don’t have a choice.”
NorQuin also hopes to add some new genetics to the mix.
Although the company’s breeding program is in its early days, Flad says they have selected some promising lines.
As for Pengelly, he is looking at other options to lower his risk.
Intercrops may hold the key to nitrogen fixation, he hopes, or at the very least, risk mitigation since adding a second crop would increase the chances of taking something off the field.
Alternately, different rotations may help him break the “Russian roulette,” of pest problems, he said.
“Really, now I see a need for universities, corporations, the crop diversification centre here, to do research to hopefully give us some answers,” he said.