From the high Andes to the Canadian Prairies, quinoa could be the next little seed to hit the province
Once a largely obscure Andean seed, quinoa has made in-roads into Canadian pantries, but is having difficulty taking root on Canadian farms.
“Right now we don’t really turn down any interested growers, the challenge is still getting enough interested growers,” said Michael Dutcheshen, general manager of Saskatoon-based Northern Quinoa Corporation, a processor and distributer of organic and non-organic quinoa.
In 2011 the company contracted three Manitoba farms as quinoa suppliers, two organic and one conventional, but hot weather hampered the crop.
Kroeker Farms in Winkler planted 70 acres.
“It was a bust,” said assistant farm manager Marvin Dyck. “We had a really good stand, an excellent stand, but what happened was a record number of days in our area over 30°.”
The result was heat sterilization of the plants and a failure to produce seeds.
“I think that it’s a good opportunity, but I believe for our area it’s too susceptible to heat stress,” Dyck said.
The bulk of Northern Quinoa’s supply comes from operations in Saskatchewan, and while there has been some discussion about expanding into Alberta, that move hasn’t happened yet.
The company supplies its growers with a variety of seed specially suited to the Canadian Prairies, but says most of its growers are north of Highway 16.
Dutcheshen said the crop needs cooler conditions, but it also needs to be given some priority.
“If you treat it as something that you might just try out for a year on a bit of land that’s poor, that isn’t your best… it’s not going to work very well,” he said.
Having been grown in the high plateaus of South America for 3,000 years, where it had little competition, this relative of lamb’s quarters or pigweed, beets and spinach doesn’t handle weeds well, said Dutcheshen.
“It needs to be on clean land and have lots of nitrogen,” he stressed.
Average yield is around 1,000 pounds per acre, although Dutcheshen said some growers have achieved yields as high as 2,000 pounds per acre.
Northern Quinoa pays 60 cents and 90 cents per pound for conventional and organic quinoa respectively.
But with the familiar crops of canola and wheat doing well, selling the idea of quinoa to growers isn’t always easy.
Gary Martens teaches at the University of Manitoba’s department of plant sciences and believes more farmers would dedicate acres to quinoa if the crop had a more established value chain.
“(Farmers) are more interested in production than they are interested in marketing,” he said. “It would be nice if some giant company would put this into their breakfast cereal.”
But the tiny, ancient grain has a lot going for it, so much so that the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. Martens notes it’s also the organization’s go-to food for famine relief.
“Quinoa has every animo acid we need in the right proportions,” he said. “It’s a very nutritious grain… you could pretty much live on just quinoa.”
Some preparation is required to get the grain to market.
“We have a washing procedure for the quinoa,” said Dutcheshen, explaining the seed has a bitter coating to protect it against birds and animals looking for a tasty meal.
While it may be awhile before Manitobans see fields of six- or seven-foot-tall quinoa flowering along provincial highways, Dutcheshen is confident that quinoa’s time is coming.