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Project Report Eighteen: August, 2013

By Dan Armstrong

A central premise of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project is the exploration of bean, grain, and edible seed varieties that can be added to those that are already grown in the Willamette Valley. The goal is to increase the diversity of staple crops as a way to add resilience to the regional food system. The edible seed of Chenopodium quinoa is a close fit. Successful garden plots of quinoa have been grown in the valley since the early 1980s, but there have been very few efforts to grow quinoa on more than an eighth-acre. Further research and experimentation with multiple-acre plots is advised before advocating commercial production and processing.

The International Year of Quinoa: As part of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization's Year of Quinoa, Kevin Murphy and Washington State University hosted the 2013 International Quinoa Research Symposium, August 12 through 14 in Pullman, Washington. The event brought together some two hundred researchers and growers from all over the world, including France, Egypt, Australia, Denmark, Argentina, Bolivia, Pakistan, Malawi, Chile, Canada, England, Nepal, Rwanda, Morocco, Ethiopia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Senegal, Peru, Italy, Cameroon, Germany, China, and fifteen states from all corners of the United States.

Other partners in the symposium were Brigham Young University, Oregon State University, Utah State University, Seed Matters, the USDA/National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, and Earthbound Farm.

See webinar broadcast of symposium.

Quinoa in Pullman

Why Quinoa?: Tania Santivañez, Technical Coordinator of the FAO's International Year of Quinoa, was the first of sixteen speakers at the three-day symposium. In her opening address, she stated that the purpose of the Year of Quinoa is "to focus world attention on the potential role of quinoa biodiversity in food security, nutrition, and poverty eradication." Calling quinoa a "climate-proof cropping system," Santivañez accented quinoa's high nutritional value and its remarkable ability to adapt to a wide range of growing conditions. In the simplest terms, the FAO has dedicated 2013 to the promotion of quinoa as an important addition to the global community's effort to combat hunger. In a world with nearly one billion people suffering from malnutrition, the words of Hassan Munir, a symposium speaker from the University of Faisalabad in Pakistan, ring true during these fragile times: "Food insecurity anywhere threatens peace everywhere."

Adaptability: Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is a self-pollinating annual allotetraploid, native to the Andean region of South America. It produces an ancient and sacred grain (edible seed), now increasingly eaten in the United States and Europe. Quinoa can be grown in marginal soils, including soils with high saline content, and has only modest water needs. It can be grown in arid regions and wet regions, at altitudes over 12,000 feet and at sea level, and in hot climates and cold climates. Quinoa is a hearty and resilience plant that when grown out of the Andean region has shown an incredible capacity to acclimate to new conditions.

Quinoa at Mud City Press Quinoa

Nutrition: Quinoa has a high protein content (14-22% with as much as 10% soluble proteins) and includes all nine essential amino acids–isoleucine, leucine, lysine, phenylalanine, tyrosine, cysteine, methionine, threonine, histidine, tryptophan and valine–plus nonessentials tyrosine and cysteine. It also contains several important minerals–zinc, iron, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese–and is rich in chlorophyll and anti-oxidant flavonoids.

Economic Value: The quinoa seed can be cooked as a whole grain, milled into flour, flaked for a cereal or soup additive, and can even be fermented to make a traditional Andean beer called chicha. The quinoa leaves can be used as greens for salads or as forage for llama, goats, cattle, and rabbits. It has economic value as a source for organic red dye and for saponin, a strong alkaline that can be used in soaps. Chenopodium quinoa is also very colorful and distinctive and makes a lovely decorative plant.

Quinoa Seeds Quinoa

Quinoa has been referred to as a super-food. This is surely an overstatement, however, it is a valuable plant and could answer many of the developing and developed world's needs.

Climate Change: As stated by nearly every speaker at the symposium, the most obvious reason for introducing quinoa to the world is food security. Concern for growing populations in developing countries has increased the need to provide these nations with hearty, nutrient dense crops that can be cultivated in varied climes. Many of these nations suffer from lack of rainfall and/or poor soils–often highly salinated soils. While it is the hope of researchers and the United Nations that quinoa can help combat hunger, the topic of climate change is related to these concerns and provided a strong undercurrent to the symposium conversation.

If the first level of food security is the immediate need of feeding the hungry, the second level of food security addresses anticipating the effects of climate change on world food production. Water shortages and climate variability, issues associated with a warming planet, have already become problematic in many parts of the world, including Australia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malawi, Chile, and Argentina–all countries that had representatives at the symposium. But there is also reason for concern in parts of the world that have not yet felt the full impact of catastrophic weather events, extended drought, or long term soil moisture decreases. Quinoa offers the kind of adaptability and resiliency necessary in an era of uncertain biosphere changes. This was surely no less than a solid second reason for the FAO's Year of Quinoa.

Ownership of the Seed: While the atmosphere of the symposium and nature of the discussion verged on the celebratory, the issue of seed ownership and the transfer and collection of germplasm for research was a topic of contention. The discussion focused on the guidelines for germplasm exchange and the need to create open, global germplasm accessibility. Several researchers voiced frustration regarding their own efforts to get germplasm for their labs and research projects.

This touches on a very fundamental question for these times: Who owns the seed? In the United States, the issue centers around the genetic modification of seed and the patenting of genetically modified organisms. Buyers of genetically modified seed, like Roundup Ready soybeans or Bt corn, are restricted from replanting from its harvest. They must buy a new supply of seed for each planting. Seed produced in university research labs can also come with royalty fees for replanting in the following seasons. In both case, the buyer and user of the seed does not have full ownership of the seed. After twenty-five thousand years of farmers planting and saving their seed, suddenly we have the patenting of life forms and royalty payments on something that has always belonged to the sower.

A related concern arose in the symposium regarding the return on seed research and breeding. Five native Bolivian farmers (photo below left) attended the symposium. They were selected from several hundred Bolivian farmers to represent native Bolivian quinoa producers at the conference. During the discussion of the guidelines for the transfer of germplasm between seed banks and research facilities, one of the Bolivian farmers, Willie Choque, spoke out addressing a variation on the problem.

Bolivian Farmers Bolivian Farmers

The quinoa farmers of the Andean region have been breeding and adapting quinoa for millenniums, beginning in the area around Lake Titicaca on the border between Bolivia and Peru. The question posed by the Bolivian farmer was–if the world is now ready to adopt quinoa as a commercial crop, how will the original breeders and their families be reimbursed for their generations of work?

As it stands now, there is no reimbursement for the Andean quinoa farmer. Many would say that it is naive for these farmers to even consider this possibility. However, the parallel to the current research labs is impossible to deny. If a modern lab can produce a seed–through genetic engineering or mutagensis selection or any other breeding technique–and then ask for royalties or a patent on that seed, how is that different than the Bolivian farmers' or really any seed breeder's situation? It may be that the lab or individual researcher did his or her work in five years or maybe ten years, and was supported by large sums of research dollars, a huge, vastly sophisticated technological infrastructure, and strong teams of well-paid lawyers, but who can honestly say that the time and cost of the millennial tradition is not of an equal or even greater value? It is breeding. It is hands-on research and selection. It is essentially the same–if not better because of it's close and generational connection to the environment. If modern researchers get ownership of or royalties from their seed, then clearly so should the Bolivian farmer. However the deeper question argues against both: Who owns the seed? Is it the traditional breeder? The organic breeder? The research lab? Agri-business? Or is it simply that the seed belongs to the grower–to sell, eat, give away, or replant. In a world fighting food insecurity, in a world adapting to a changing climate, restricting ownership of the seed from the sower is simply capitalizing on what has always been a gift from the planet to all peoples of all times.

See article at GoodFood World "Quinoa: The Passion and the Politics" for more on this issue.

Kevin Murphy: Kevin Murphy was the man behind the symposium. He is an assistant research professor in WSU's Crop and Soil Science Department. He has led the quinoa program at WSU since 2010 when he received a grant form the USDA's Organic Research and Extension Initiative. During its four years of existence, the program has looked at more than 800 breeding lines and 25 known varieties, and now engages the work of eight faculty members and twelve graduates students to explore quinoa as a commerical crop for Northwest farmers.

Murphy oversees several quinoa test plots in the Pullman area and many others in the northwest region, including one outside Junction City at the Hunton Family Farm in the south Willamette Valley. Field trips were taken to two of the program's test plots. One was cultivated at a WSU research facility by one of Murphy's graduate students, Hannah Walters. The second was at the privately-owned Clark Farm in Albion, Washington. A third visit was initially planned, but deer crashed the party. This is something to note. Deer will eat the quinoa plant.

Kevin Murphy Hannah talking to group

Walters used several irrigation schedules as part of her test plot study. The photo below left shows the irrigation gradient–foreground less, background more. It was very clear irrigation increases plant size and yield. Irrigation at planting to simulate germination and at flowering to facilitate seed setting is recommended when water resources are dear.

Pullman test plot test plot in Albion

Concerns were advanced about heat pressure on quinoa planted in eastern Washington. Temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit, common in many areas during the Northwest summer, can affect pollen viability. The Clark Farm plots showed decreased seed production likely due to high summer temperatures. Lygus bugs were also a problem at this plot and will be in other parts of the Northwest.

Many thanks to Kevin Murphy for his work with Chenopodium quinoa and for hosting the Year of Quinoa Symposium.

Quinoa Potential in Willamette Valley: Growing quinoa has received a recent surge in interest in the Willamette Valley. One reason for this is the increasing demand in the United States for gluten-free grains. This is especially true in the Northwest where quinoa is a popular side dish. Local organic quinoa could certainly carve out a market niche in western Oregon and western Washington if production and processing could be established.

A second reason for the Northwest's interest in quinoa matches the FAO's–food security through crop diversification. While food security in Oregon is clearly not the issue it is in many of the developing nations, in the wider sense of the relocalization process promoted by the Bean and Grain Project and concerns for food security in the years to come, there is a good argument for exploring quinoa production. Along with its nutritional value and adaptive resilience, quinoa would make an important addition to the diversity of staple crops grown in the Willamette Valley as a premium-priced crop for small growers. It could also provide homestead farmers with an additional protein source with low water demands that can grow in marginal soils and serve as forage.

Quinoa has been grown in small plots and gardens for at least thirty years in the Willamette Valley, though mostly as a curiosity. Frank Morton, the world class seed breeder at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, Oregon, first planted quinoa in 1983 and was arguably the first to experiment seriously with quinoa breeding in the Willamette Valley. Currently he has five quinoa varieties listed in his 2013 Wild Garden Seed Catalogue and will likely have more in the future. Though certain micro-climates, particularly the foothills on the west side of the valley, are better suited for quinoa, Morton, one of the speakers at the symposium ( see video of Morton's talk), told the audience that he has been working on varieties suited for the Willamette Valley floor. (Kevin Murphy's quinoa program has used Morton as a seed source for several of the WSU plots.)

Harry at Sunbow Farm Test Plot Junciton City

Harry MacCormack (pictured above) of Sunbow Farm, in conjunction with his friend Mark Stewart, has been growing quinoa in small plots for at least fifteen years. MacCormack, of course, has included quinoa in the bean and grain conversation from the beginning. He has successfully grown quinoa on the valley floor with fairly consistent results and reasonable yields despite the fact that temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit are common after mid-July in the Willamette Valley. (Photo above right is Murphy's test plot in Junction, City, Oregon.)

It is fair to say that quinoa has been grown long enough in the Willamette Valley to verify that quality quinoa seed can be produced in the valley on small, well-managed plots. Expanding this to larger acreages for commercial production, however, has not been thoroughly explored. (A six-acre plot and a four-acre plot of quinoa were grown in 2013 outside Salem as part of the Marion-Polk Food Share project. The final results of this effort have not yet been evaluated.) The experience of small-plot quinoa growers in the valley does provide some guidelines, concerns, and expectations for larger-scale, local quinoa production.

Quinoa Production Issues

1. Quinoa has a very long life cycle, varying from 120 to 220 days from planting to harvest. The short Willamette Valley growing season is a concern. Even with a shorter life-cycle variety, planting in early April would be optimal. Harvest prior to September 1 is desired. September moisture concerns could bring about seed sprouting in maturing quinoa seed heads.

2. There is data suggesting that quinoa pollination can be affected by heat pressure. Temperatures over 95 degree Fahrenheit can seriously affect yield. (This may be something that years of adaptation can overcome.)

3. Cucumber beetles, which are numerous in the valley, are a problem, particularly in the first month of the Chenopodium quinoa's life. The plant is very small in its first weeks and many young seedlings can be wiped out by one hungry cucumber beetle.

4. Lygus bugs are a major concern. Lygus bugs are plentiful in the valley because of our cultivation of grasses. There have been several instances of lygus bug infestation in plots in the valley–including one of the large plots in Salem and Kevin Murphy's test plot in Junction City. This would be a real problem for organic growers as the lygus bug can cut yield radically if not controlled. (Organic control of lygus bugs could be minimized by smart crop rotations, careful selection of planting locations–not too near areas of large scale grass production–and other standard or invented organic techniques.)

5. Another insect concern are the synphylans common in the Willamette Valley soil. These tiny centipedes are notorious for stunting plant growth by attacking root hairs. Synphylans are a problem for many plants and would need to be considered for quinoa just as they would for several other crops. Crop rotation, particularly one including potatoes, and heavy tilling can help.

6. Aphids are a similar problem, but not as nasty as the lygus bug.

7. Lamb's quarter (Chenopodium album), a very prolific weed in the valley, looks identical to quinoa in the first six weeks of growth. Even a trained eye must look closely to determine the difference. Differentiation becomes easier as the plant developments. Quinoa's red stem, panicle shape, and height vary clearly with the shorter, skinnier lamb's quarter. The similar appearance of these two plants makes weeding incredibly difficult and is a major issue. There is also concern for lamb's quarters and quinoa crossing, as they are both from the Chenopodium genus.

8. Quinoa is susceptible to snowy mildew, something we do see frequently in the Willamette Valley.

9. Yields for quinoa can reach four thousand pounds per acre by experienced growers in South America. Growers in the United States generally do not achieved this level of production. More common are yields in the 600 to 1500 pounds per acre range and would seem a fair expectation for local growers.

10. Harvesting the quinoa is easy enough by hand on a small plot, but there is currently no local equipment that would easily translate to large scale quinoa harvesting.

11. Quinoa needs special processing. The seed is coated with saponin –a strong alkaline that prevents birds from eating it– and must be removed before consumption. There are plenty of ways to remove the saponin, but at a large scale it would involve a significant capital investment. (See more on this below.)

Almost all of these issues are also relevant for the garden plot or homestead producer, but they are more easily managed when the plot is small and detailed care is possible. This said, essential to quinoa production in the valley would be careful variety selection and managed adaptation.

Planting: Quinoa's long life cycle demands planting as early as the weather allows. The beginning of April is suggested and certainly no later than May 15 if the seed head is to be harvested by the first week in September. Seeds are generally planted four to six inches apart or at a rate of four to six pounds per acre. Denser planting can help with weeds and shorten plants, reducing concerns for lodging. The quinoa plant tends, depending on variety, to fill open space with branches. Sulfur (as gypsum) has been found to be a valuable micro-nutrient for quinoa.

Processing: Quinoa processing requires more than simple seed cleaning. The seed has a peel and a saponin covering that must be removed before eating. The process can be done in a variety of ways from traditional to large-scale commerical.

Bioversity International describes the five-step traditional process (see quoted material below) in their publication "Biodiversity of Andean Grains: Balancing Market Potential and Sustainable Livelihoods." Traditionally this work is done by women and involves the following steps:

"1. Toasting the grain on metallic sheets placed over the fire. Depending on how the quinoa will be prepared, this step takes 3–8 minutes.

2. While the grain is still hot, it is placed in a bowl-like stone called a saruna (quechua) or tiwiraña (aymara), and women tread on the grain, adding whiteclay (pok'era) to improve friction between the grains and enhance flavour.

3. Manual winnowing or removal of saponin dust (el venteado).

4. A second treading of the grain (for some dishes) and a second winnowing.

5. Washing and drying the grain.

The hardest and most time-consuming steps in this process are the treading and winnowing. It takes about 6 hours to process 12 kg of quinoa."

There are large, commercial quinoa processing plants in Bolivia and other quinoa producing countries. The growers bring the quinoa to the plant where it is cleaned, polished, and washed several times to produce a consumer ready product. This scale of processing involves approximately a two million dollar infrastructure investment.

Quinoa is grown and processed at a mid-level scale at the White Mountain Farm in Mosca, Colorado where they have been growing quinoa at production levels since the early 1980s. (White Mountain Farm was represented at the symposium by John McCamant and Paul New. (See video of their talk.) Their processing begins with cleaning the seed with screens and a gravity table. It is then put through a barley dehuller, followed by a run through a rice polisher. Water is not used in this process. White Mountain Farm recommends washing their organic quinoa once before cooking.

Mid to small scale equipment is available out of South America. Quality dehulling (called peeling) and saponin removing machines can be purchased for a cost of $5,000 to $6,000 each. (See flier.)

For the garden or homestead producer, it is possible to clean quinoa with homemade apparatus. The critical piece is a barrel lined with fine sandpaper. The seed is first cleaned with screens and winnowed. (In his seed catalogue Frank Morton suggests 1/8" and 1/16" hardwire screen.) The seed is then placed in the sandpaper-lined barrel (even a Quaker Oats box would work for small quantities) and the barrel is spun, causing the seed to be rubbed against the sandpaper, removing the saponin. The dust is then winnowed from the seed. In one instance, an Australian producer used compressed air, driven into the barrel through a manifold, to spin the quinoa inside a sandpaper-lined barrel. One end of the barrel was sealed, the other end was covered by a very fine (less that 1/16") screen. The same air-flow that moves the seed blows the saponin out through the screen while the seed remains in the barrel. A rinsing and drying would complete the process. It should be noted that this is a very crude process. When done properly, only the saponin is polished off and the seed itself remains intact. This calls for very fine adjustment–something that can be achieved by a rice polisher or a similar device.

Future of Quinoa in Willamette Valley: The future of quinoa or other ancient grains in the Willamette Valley will depend on the consumer. Grains like emmer or amaranth can be grown here, but they are small niche crops and will need farmers with special interest in these grains to produce them. Hummingbird Wholesale in Eugene has shown interest in diverse and ancient grains, but the demand is modest. Growing these grains is a good thing for diversity and for the education of the eating public, but the commercial value has yet to be proven.

Quinoa is a little different. The demand for local organic quinoa already exists in the Northwest. As said above, quinoa production today in the Willamette Valley is very viable on the small scale, on the larger scale it is in the early experimental stages. The concerns for large-scale production are listed above. Most of these issues can be overcome, but growing quinoa consistently as a commercial crop will demand close scrutiny of variety and a dedicated farmer. Trial and error will certainly be part of the process. With yield potentials well over two thousand pounds per acre and the cleaned product selling at around $3.00 a pound (perhaps higher for local organic), there is some impetus to make this work.

Quinoa processing does not exist in the valley right now. Getting that infrastructure in place can be done with minimum capital for small-scale production, but on a larger scale more money is necessary. Before any capital is invested in infrastructure, it will first be necessary to verify that there are growers who can commit to the experiment and a steep learning curve.

In the end, quinoa will test the farmer like any crop new to the valley. We have already seen a niche created for local hard red wheat, lentils, heirloom beans, and garbanzo beans. In all of those instances, it took determined growers to make them work.

Special thanks is extended to The Willamette Farm and Food Coalition and The Ten Rivers Food Web and Hummingbird Wholesale for their continued support of the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project.

Return to Bean and Grain Project Index.

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