Organic Quinoa Thriving in Cool Coastal Climates

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Prized for its versatility and nutritional value, quinoa is growing in popularity with home cooks and professional chefs alike. Closely related to beets and spinach, quinoa is prized for being an excellent source of protein with high levels of amino acids, vitamins, and fatty acids. Although quinoa is relatively new in North America, the crop has been grown in South America for centuries.

In 2010, a grant from OFRF proved instrumental in getting the quinoa research program at Washington State University off the ground. The project, led by Kevin Murphy, Plant Breeder and Assistant Professor at WSU, was prompted by organic farmers looking to diversify their cropping systems with underrepresented grains such as buckwheat, quinoa and spelt. Very little, if any, research had been done at the time.

Grown for its seed, quinoa is not a true grain. The crop is drought tolerant, grows well in saline soils, and thrives in cool climates. Temperatures above 95 degrees produce sterile quinoa that won’t get any seeds; too much moisture causes pre-harvest sprouting.

The ongoing research is focused on developing heat tolerant strains that mature early so the quinoa can be harvested before it rains, and also genetic resistance to pre-harvest sprouting. Early trials took place across Washington and North Dakota. Today, the team is conducting large-scale variety and breeding line trials on five organic farms across Washington, Oregon and Utah.

“Quinoa is interesting because it is such a unique plant,” says Adam Peterson, who managed one of the initial quinoa trials at WSU as a graduate student in 2011. Today, he works as a Quinoa Consultant with Lundberg Family Farms. Peterson says the difference in climate, even within just a few square feet, is a key factor in quinoa growth. Although there haven’t been many cycles of breeding in North America, Peterson says the plants that have grown well from seed are from areas with a similar latitude, such as southern and central Chile.

Lundberg Family Farms, an early leader in organic farming and long-time supporter of OFRF, is currently working with its fourth generation of students at WSU. They are experimenting with growing quinoa on farms in the Imperial Valley, Mendocino, Humboldt, and the Olympic Peninsula to determine the optimal strains and growing conditions. The yield from quinoa fields planted last spring at the Mushroom Farm in Pescadero (where the climate is very similar to that of south-central Chile) surpassed expectations.

View Kevin Murphy’s webinar, Organic Quinoa Production

Read more about the OFRF Funded project: Farmer based evolutionary participatory plant breeding for organic quinoa, buckwheat, and spelt

Read more about the OFRF Funded project: Organic Food Barley: Developing Nutritious and Delicious Varieties for the Pacific Northwest

Photo supplied by the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture