Feeding the Future with Ancient Grains

Karen Adler's picture

By Karen Adler

You may have noticed grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, and spelt skyrocketing into high demand in recent years in the U.S. You may have even wondered who is meeting that demand. As it turns out, little is known about growing these and other delicious, nutritious, and potentially lucrative crops outside of their native regions, where they have been grown for thousands of years. With funding from OFRF, Kevin Murphy at Washington State University and his team of farmer and university collaborators set out to change that by identifying varieties of quinoa, buckwheat and spelt optimally adapted to organic farming systems in Washington State. From the onset, this project was requested and initiated by organic farmers and continues to rely on farmer participation.

Here are some highlights of the exciting results of the research:


Using regionally-adapted quinoa varieties is critically important to the success of organic quinoa production. Sources for quinoa seed were identified through this project, and are featured in the webinar Organic Quinoa Production, which Kevin Murphy delivered in collaboration with eOrganic. Quinoa production is relatively new to most of the U.S., and there are many important lessons in this valuable resource regarding tools and techniques for production and post-production.


Stemming from the initial buckwheat trials, evolutionary breeding populations were established on two organic farms in Washington State. They have responded to natural selection pressures in each environment, with marked changes in genetic composition, and are currently growing and continuing to adapt. They will provide an excellent source for buckwheat varieties in the future.


Of the 45 lines analyzed, 22 were selected for further evaluation based on several parameters, including high yields and test weights. Elite spelt breeding lines have been identified and are currently in the final stages of selection prior to consideration for variety release.

            OFRF Board Member Klaas Martens operates Lakeview Organic Grain, where he and his wife Mary Howell Martens grow about 1400 acres of organic corn, beans, and small grains, including ancient grains such as spelt, buckwheat, and emmer.

            “The biggest question when trying something new is which cultivars to try,” Mr. Martens says, explaining that answering this question is an extremely expensive, daunting, and time-consuming process. “We grow a lot of spelt. It took us several years to figure out which varieties were adapted. This type of research will reduce the number of failures, and farmers are being saved from having to go through all of the trial and error.”

            And there’s more good news. Dr. Murphy tells us that data generated through the OFRF funding was instrumental in Washington State University getting $1.6 million from USDA Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) quinoa grant, making this project a long-term reality. “Many many thanks for that!” he says. “From one faculty member in 2010 working on quinoa, WSU has grown to 8 faculty and 10+ graduate students all working on quinoa. And this past summer we hosted the International Quinoa Research Symposium here at WSU.”

That’s what we call some bang for the research buck!

Read about the project and access the full report here.

More about quinoa:

Good Food World: Quinoa: The Passion and the Politics

To learn more about OFRF’s research grants program, visit our research page.


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