Keen-what? Quinoa: Things to consider for quinoa production

2013 has been named the International Year of Quinoa (IYQ) by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) is a specialty small grain (pseudo-grain) of Andean origin and is of increasing interest to organic producers across Ontario. The grain first appeared in health food stores a number of years ago thanks to its gluten free reputation and high protein content. It is now found in the main grocery chains across Canada and is also featured as a main ingredient for recipes by celebrity chefs and in various restaurants. During the IYQ, a number of programs and resources have been developed to celebrate the importance of the crop including the International Quinoa Research Symposium which took place in August, 2013. Various presentations from the symposium are now available on the eOrganic website.

With increasing popularity of the crop, a few research projects have taken place in Ontario over the last four years to better understand the regional requirements for quinoa production in the province. Organisations such as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ministry of Rural Affairs, Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association and others have begun to develop quinoa information for Ontario growers. Although many Ontario farmers have tried growing quinoa on a small scale, there are some issues that one should be aware of when thinking about commercial production of the crop.

  1. Access to bulk seed - quinoa seed is not currently available in bulk from standard seed providers; however, many seed houses are increasing the availability and number of quinoa varieties in small quantities across Canada and the USA. Since quinoa is self-pollenated, one can bulk up seed for future crops and a larger production acreage. Quinoa has very particular environmental requirements for seed production and may exhibit pollen sterility at temperatures above 28oC. In order to bulk up seed of varieties that are suited to your growing region, it is important to obtain as many varieties as possible and plant them in test plots on your farm. Observe which varieties work in your region and save the seed for future plantings. Varieties that have been successful in Ontario to date include 'Brightest Brilliant' (Figure 1), 'Faro' and 'Temuco'

Figure 1: Quinoa variety 'Brightest Brilliant' growing in Ontario demonstration trials, 2012

Figure 1: Quinoa variety 'Brightest Brilliant' growing in Ontario demonstration trials, 2012.

  1. Weed management - quinoa is closely related to Lamb's-quarters (Chenopodium album L.), a common weed in Ontario. Experiences in provincial field trials have found that Lamb's-quarters appears to be more aggressive than quinoa and weed pressure can severely impact growth of the crop. Early season weed management via inter-row cultivation or other mechanical means is important for proper quinoa growth (Figures 2 and 3). Cultural management options such as modified row spacings may increase competition and reduce weed pressure in the field. To date, row spacings from 50 cm to 75 cm have been used in Ontario field trials and demonstration plots. Research trials in Denmark have also utilised 20 cm row spacings. In the Ontario field trials, 50 cm row spacings appeared to provide more competition against weeds compared to 75 cm but the effects of narrower row spacings on weed pressure and yield were not directly assessed. Note: there are no organic or conventional herbicides (or other pest control products) registered for use on quinoa in Canada.

Figure 2: Ontario field trials, 2011 - early season weeds between rows of quinoa prior to cultivation

Figure 2: Ontario field trials, 2011 - early season weeds between rows of quinoa prior to cultivation.

Figure 3: Ontario field trials, 2011 - mid-season quinoa field plots with minimal weed management

Figure 3: Ontario field trials, 2011 - mid-season quinoa field plots with minimal weed management.

  1. Harvest and Post-harvest processing - quinoa is a small, disk-shaped grain that can be mechanically harvested using a combine (Figure 4). Appropriate size screens and concaves are required to prevent loss or damage of the seed. Following harvest, quinoa must be processed to remove saponin from the seed surface before marketing to consumers. Saponin is a bitter, soapy compound produced by the plant and can be removed by a grain dehuller and washtable. Some quinoa producers also use a rice polisher as a final step to ensure all saponin has been removed from the seed. If saponin remains on the seed, consumers may be put off by the bitter flavour, ultimately affecting future sales. Some quinoa packaging suggests the consumer rinse the product before cooking to ensure all saponin has been removed prior to consumption. Note: if the purpose of growing the crop is to increase bulk seed for future plantings, one should not process the seed in order to preserve germination potential.

Figure 4: Small, disk-like shape of quinoa seed

Figure 4: Small, disk-like shape of quinoa seed.

These are just a few crop specific issues to be aware of when considering quinoa production in Ontario. More detailed agronomic and pest management information for quinoa is available in the OMAF and MRA Specialty Cropportunities website. You can also find more general information on the IYQ website.

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