The Quinoa Question

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Helen Margaret Griffiths New York Correspondent

Can Mother Grain’ Grow Successfully in Central NY?



BAINBRIDGE N.Y. — Quinoa, also known as Quinua, is native to the Andes of Chile, Bolivia and Peru.

Quinua, which means “mother grain,” was a staple food of the Inca people and others for 5,000 years and is now an important food crop for their descendants, the Quechua and Aymara people.

There are more than 1,800 different varieties of quinoa, categorized by their preferred climate. Distinct types of quinoa grow between 6,500 and 12,000 feet above sea level in the inter-Andean valleys, 12,500 feet above sea level around Lake Titicaca, in the Bolivian salt flats, at sea level in southern Chile and in the subtropical regions of Bolivia.

Now, some upstate New York farmers are hoping quinoa can be a successful crop in the Northeast, and held a field day recently to share their efforts.

Quinoa has become increasing popular among consumers in North America and is particularly valued by those with sensitivity to gluten, as it is gluten-free and is high in protein with a profile similar to milk.

In contrast to cereals and legumes, it provides all eight essential amino acids and is cholesterol free, although it does contain a small quantity of fat since it is a seed.

According to the USDA, 1 cup of cooked quinoa provides 15 percent of the daily recommended iron intake, 21 percent of needed fiber, along with magnesium, calcium and potassium.

Currently, the majority of the quinoa purchased by the North American consumer is imported from South America, where the growing conditions are cool and dry with day length being fairly constant.

There are small amounts produced in the Colorado Rockies, especially in the San Luis Valley, and production was also attempted in California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. Research trials have occurred in Minnesota.

One of the major barriers to North American production is climate, as air temperature above 90 F causes sterility of the pollen.

But with this increase in North American consumer interest, David McClelland and Mei-Ling Hom — who produce organic niche-market crops and vegetables on their Allegany County farm — were curious whether they and other small producers in the Northeast could grow quinoa for seed production and human consumption.

Working with Elizabeth Dyck, director of the Organic Grower’s Research and Information-Sharing Network (OGRIN), they obtained funding from Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) to test their theory.

They have been evaluating plant growth and pest pressure, and will be obtaining yields for four quinoa varieties on their rain-fed farm at 2,000 feet in Andover, N.Y., and at Dyck’s farm, Crimson Clover Farm, in Bainbridge.

During the field day, at Crimson Clover Farm, McClelland and Hom gave an introduction to quinoa production by showing a movie they made on their farm to the group of about 25, ranging from those who had tried growing quinoa to those who knew very little about the production system.

McClelland and Hom seeded the 16 plots (four varieties, row seeded and broadcast all replicated) May 7.

“I couldn’t believe it, but germination happened in one day. I was so glad we had stayed out and planted in the fine rain,” said Hom.

The very dry weather slowed down the plant growth but, by the end of May, there were plantlets that seemed to outcompete weeds, except for the similar-looking lamb’s quarters. By August, all four varieties of quinoa (Oro de Valle, Faro, Shelley Black and Temuko) could be differentiated from the lamb’s quarters by their colorful seed heads.

The movie showed one area of the study with no plants.

“This was where we had our fifth gas leak, and as you can see it killed all the plants,” McClelland said.

Quinoa does best in cool, dry conditions with day length being constant, so it was very unclear how well it would perform in the Finger Lakes region.

“We’re at the beginning stages of knowing the answer,” Dyck said.

Finding seed in any quantity is currently difficult, and fairly expensive, at about $80 per pound. Seed for the Finger Lakes project was obtained from three different sources, Dyck said.

“More work is needed to find the best seeding rate, but one recommendation calls for 0.5 to 0.75 pounds per acre,” Hom said. “We found for small plots, starting with 20 seeds per row foot and thinning to four plants per row foot seemed to be about right.”

Since quinoa is grown on relatively rough land in South America, McClelland and Hom were surprised to find they needed a close-to-perfect seedbed with no rocks for good establishment. They surmised the difference might be related to a seeding rate in South America that is six times higher than what is recommended in North America.

The soil pH was about 6.4, and no water or fertilizer was applied at either location. Seeding in rows appeared to be better than broadcasting, especially since they spent a lot of time weeding. None of the plots had much insect or disease pressure.

“Even though you get good germination, you may not get a good stand, as birds and other small invertebrates may be involved in damaging the small seedlings,” Dyck said.

For this reason, she said, they covered their seed bed.

The next hurdle in quinoa production is seed set, which does not occur above 90 F. Dyck suggested succession planting to try to avoid high temperatures at seed set, which is about 50 days after seeding. Different varieties of quinoa may be seeded close to each other, as it mainly self-pollinates.

Harvesting on the small experimental plots will be performed by hand to allow the different varieties to be evaluated. Seed will be screen cleaned, winnowed and then dried.

From visual examination of the quinoa grown on Crimson Clover Farm, Dyck predicted that Faro would produce seed. It wasn’t clear whether the other varieties would be productive.

Seed of all quinoa varieties are coated with saponins (some varieties have more than others) which need to be removed prior to cooking.

Some packaged quinoa — such as Organic Ancient Harvest Quinoa, Traditional and Inca Red from Quinoa Corp. — have been washed to remove the bitter saponins.

For the small scale producer who grows quinoa for human consumption, selling it unwashed may be the best option, Dyck said. To market it as washed could be difficult since it would require great care to make sure it is sufficiently dry and handled in a way to comply with food safety standards.

For more information on the NE SARE quinoa project, visit

Sources of quinoa seed used in this project were Wild Garden Seeds (, Bountiful Gardens ( and Sustainable Seed Co. (

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