LIVINGSTON, Mont. (AP) — Quinoa — the grain-like food that's become a star in many a lunch offering or potluck dish — is known for being hard to grow in the U.S.
The plant likes to be high and dry, for starters.
Which just might make it right for farming near Wilsall.
"We have high elevation and drought, and it was like, 'Hey, we're the perfect place,'" Shields Valley farmer John Bays said on a recent afternoon as he talked about the quinoa his family farms.
John Bays and his wife, Vanessa, say that to the best of their knowledge, they are one of few farms in the country and likely the only farmers in Montana growing the crop on a commercial scale.
In May, the couple and their daughter Sadie Collins planted 50 acres of quinoa (KEEN'-wah) amid the roughly 4,000 acres of wheat, peas and other crops they farm near Wilsall.
They were familiar with the plant from eating it in salads and dishes at places like Bozeman's Community Food Co-op, Vanessa said. As they learned more about quinoa, they discovered it's typically grown in the Andes, where temperatures in the high, dry areas are cool during the time of year when the plant flowers — another point comparable to that of the land they've farmed for years.
Quinoa is similar to but not technically classified as a grain. It's considered a "pseudocereal," the Bays said, laughing as they acknowledged the label doesn't make things much clearer.
The plant, native to the Andes, is high in protein and is often incorporated in dishes similar to how rice or pasta might be used. It has become popular in America in recent years despite being a crop rarely grown in the U.S.
The couple found just two vendors in the country when they looked online for seed. One of the vendors sold only tiny packets, like the envelopes of vegetable seeds a home gardener might pick up at a nursery.
People interested in farming quinoa in America know it's more challenging than growing it somewhere such as Bolivia or Peru, where it is farmed with all the labor done by hand, Vanessa said. Aside from a few factors such as elevation, relatively little is known about why else quinoa can be so difficult for American farmers to farm commercially.
"There hasn't been enough research here to figure that out," Vanessa said.
But the couple was willing to gamble on the crop. And since the acres they planted otherwise would have been fallow in summer, it wasn't much of a risk beyond what they paid a supplier in Colorado for seed, they said.
When they have questions about other crops they've grown for years, there is a wealth of information about pests, climate and other challenges they can refer to, whether from university research or other sources. Not so for quinoa.
"It makes us feels like pioneers," John smiled.
This summer, the Bays attended an international symposium on quinoa at Washington State University to learn more about the plant. There they met farmers from France to Bolivia to Peru to Pakistan as well as a few people from the United States.
WSU is working on some research on quinoa, but the overall body of knowledge about how to grow it in the U.S. is limited, the couple said.
"It's kind of like our own little (Montana State University) research station," John said of taking back to Montana what they learned in Washington.
Pioneering has made for plenty of guessing, even on matters such as identifying the plant in its early stages.
"When it first came up," Vanessa said, "we were like, 'Is it a weed or is that the quinoa?'"
One thing they've learned is that the color of the plant varies. As the Bays walked through their fields one recent afternoon, plants that were a lush green stood next to violet stalks of quinoa while nearby plants grew in hues of red or pink.
"I don't know if it's different varieties or what," John said of the spectrum.
The Bays are also wondering about challenges such as managing pests and weeds, the latter of which has been difficult. Quinoa grows slowly at first, meaning weeds have plenty of opportunity to sneak in and get established. And then there are some patches of ground where the plant simply didn't take.
"We didn't know if it was bugs, the soil type or chemical residue," John said.
The Bays plan to harvest their crop in October. They'll pursue various venues for what they harvest. Some they'll keep for seed, some might go to farmers markets. And some they might take to a processor near Salt Lake City.
Quinoa seeds require processing to remove a coating on them before they can be used for cooking. The processor they've talked with is interested in buying as much quinoa from them as possible due to the popularity of the pseudocereal, the Bays said. Interest is especially high for quinoa grown in the states rather than imported.
"People think that's neat getting something that's grown here," John said.
Cultures across the world clamor for, and in some cases rely on, quinoa. The United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization has designated 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa. Due to its high levels of protein and micronutrients, quinoa is "'a new ally in the fight against hunger and food insecurity,'" FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva is quoted as saying on the website for the yearlong quinoa program.
Year of Quinoa efforts include increasing access to the nutritious staple, which the U.N. says is cultivated in the Andes as well as places such as Canada and Kenya. The program also aims to promote small farmers who grow the crop and develop the body of research on the plant.
While the Bays don't yet have their own quinoa to cook with, they are making an effort to introduce the plant to the tables and palates of their neighbors.
"Every potluck that we go to, we bring some," Vanessa said of cooking with processed quinoa they purchase.
Some people are familiar with and excited about quinoa. Others are puzzled when they see it amid other potluck fare.
"It's not potato salad," Vanessa laughed.
It's also not a sure thing, even if the Shields Valley seems to provide the right climate and elevation, Vanessa said. But the couple say they're interested in seeing how the crop works out.
"It's not a miracle crop," Vanessa said of quinoa's promise to grow in dry, cool, high areas. "It's a fun-to-experiment-with crop."
Information from: Livingston Enterprise, http://www.livingstonenterprise.com