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Quinoa | New World Seeds & Tubers

Kanskje vi kan hjelpe deg med å identifisere varianter som vil gi bedre resultater for klimaet enn de fleste av de tropiske varianter. Vi prøver tidlig varianter, hvorav noen er mer tolerant for regn enn de fleste quinoas.

Vi er for tiden høsting. Så langt, så bra.

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Peut-être nous pouvons vous aider à identifier les variétés qui seront plus performants pour vos climats que la plupart des variétés tropicales. Nous venons d’essayer variétés précoces, dont certains sont plus tolérants de la pluie que la plupart des quinoas.

Nous récoltons nos récoltes dès maintenant. Jusqu’ici, tout va bien.

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Wicked bad critters

Tom and I went down to the farm on Sunday to get a few odds and ends taken care of.

The bad news is that every last red tomato that was ripe has been eaten by the deer. We didn’t notice any deer predation last year so we didn’t think about it. Some people claim that non-primate mammals can’t see colors, but I know they do have cones in their retinas, just not as many as we have. I would guess they have some vague awareness of colors.

Luckily a weirdly high fraction of Tom’s tomatoes ripen in colors other than tomato-red. They didn’t touch the “blue” (there we go again) tomatoes–some of which are just about Nightshade black! In fact Tom wondered if the black-berried Nightshades growing very nearby spooked the deer away from the matching tomatoes.

Speaking of which, one of the “blues” looks almost sinister with red hues visible through the almost black skin for a Halloween horror effect, while several others are approaching inky black–well beyond the more typical eggplant purple. Tom has been trying to get them more and more and more saturated. I assume it’s still only skin deep but one of these days someone’s going to figure out how to make the color bleed into the flesh. Some tomatoes–the so-called “blacks”–already have sooty hues in the flesh.

Green-when-ripes did not attract as much attention as the reds but we are worried as the deer are clearly watching the fruit carefully.

Thankfully the deer have not touched most of the perennial grain. We had a fairly good harvest of perennial wheat, a few perennial xTriticale, and a few perennial rye.

Speaking of which, I’ll be announcing a sale of perennial cereals shortly for folks who, like us, plant hardy cereals in the autumn. Sorry, no pre-announcement sales; it would be impossible for me to reply to the flood of emails, and it might result in some hurt feelings from folks who try to order and it’s already sold out. The only way to buy will be through an automated system that I will set up once the seed is ready.

This will be the only sales of perennial cereals until next Autumn; it was a serendipitous harvest of some varieties that have been very well-selected during a multi-year program for longevity and performance. Everything else is getting replanted to build up our supplies so that we can get it to our customers in useful quantities as fast as possible. Perennial grains were never common and we had to start from the equivalent of thimble-fulls of seed.

If you want to hear about the sale as quickly as possible, sign up for our email list on the form on the rightmost sidebar if you haven’t already. I will also announce via a post on this blog, which is eventually forwarded to our Facebook fanpage, which hopefully you’re subscribed to if you use Facebook. I expect this grain to sell out quickly as it has been mostly off-the-market for several years now since Peters Seed and Research went out of business.

All proceeds benefit Tim Peters. For that reason, and because it’s going to sell out anyway, I might ask a higher price than normally we would. We think it’s worth it to have something that is rare and getting more so all the time; the projects that developed perennial grains tend to have funding for a limited time and then they run out. When a few more projects run out of funding, that’s probably it for the foreseeable future, as projects like these have low priority during sovereign debt crises.

In general there has been a problem funding open-source crop development projects, which unfortunately has adversely impacted all the independent breeders we are aware of. It’s a problem a solution to which we’ve been brainstorming for a while now. We think part of the solution is critical mass and efficiency of scale, so if you’re an independent plant breeder who wants to join us, contact us.

I’m threshing the wheat right now. Tom has the rye.

Speaking of perennial cereals, Tom’s got another idea regarding what some people might do with them: he suggests experimenting to see if animals could graze on them late in the year, then let it be to grow out early in the year to bear a crop.

That would probably only work in some climates, which brings up an issue we don’t have an answer for: we don’t know just how coldhardy these perennials are. We think one possible vulnerability is that of seedlings dying from late freezes after warm late winter or early spring weather.

I suppose it’s worth a quick report on some other grains:

The early white Sorghum is doing OK and the bird-resistant Sorghum is just about to bloom except for one oddly precocious plant–meaning the latter will be nip and tuck to get much to ripen. If we get any we’re doing OK; it was a year of unfavorable weather for us. The corn is having a hard time of it too.

Hmm, one nice thing about Sorghum is it is fairly deer-resistant. When stressed, the plants produce Prussic Acid (read that: cyanide). If they nip at it enough they’ll wish they hadn’t.

Quinoa ‘Faro’ is drying down. We harvested a few plants and threshed out a small amount of grain to see how they were doing. It should be fully dry in a week, and other quinoas should be following along shortly thereafter.

Productivity per plant is quite modest…but…most of them are growing in a field with very thin soil and NO irrigation. A few plants growing on richer, moister bottom-ground have much heavier heads (maybe even a little too heavy! Hope they don’t lodge).

We’ll have enough for some modest spring sales; the rest will go to expanding our production as it looks like at least some varieties of quinoa are well-adapted here. What we’ll probably do is plant some on the bottom-ground, and some up on the higher ground with thin soil too just to make use of what would otherwise be wasted ground aside from quinoa and autumn-sown grains. The soil on the upper ground is too thin and too dry for anything else.

Which goes to show you that there’s hope for ground that’s unsuitable for most crops but might be suitable for some. Ironically, some of the most fundamental staple crops can grow were a lot of more insubstantial crops can’t.

PS: Ha ha, the Adsense ad that came up when I reviewed this post was an ad for a Ford pickup to take deer hunting!


Back from the farm, and in the week since the last time I had been there, the heads of one of the varieties of quinoa colored up.

I didn’t check the tag; but I think it’s a variety called “Cherry Vanilla”.

Some of the others might color up too. There is one mixture we’re not growing this year called “Brightest Brilliant Rainbow” selected for especially vivid head colors. I’ve grown it before, but the year I grew it for some reason the heads didn’t color particularly well.

We’ll keep our eyes open for interesting head colors, on the theory that crops that are beautiful as well as edible are all the more valuable.

Some quinoas have colored leaves. So far about half our quinoas have magenta leaves. This could turn into one of those “riot of colors” issues. Especially if the heads clash with the leaves.

Adam Peterson, our friend the graduate student doing research on quinoa, read my last article mentioning seed color, and he passed this back to me:

I just got an article the other day (in Spanish) about seed color genes in quinoa. They’re controlled by two genes with a couple alleles each. All in all, they characterized the genotypes of white, yellow, light brown, brown, and black seeds.

I suspect “white” is tan, which is the most common color. The brown is probably the reddish brown sold as “red”.

Most of ours is tan, but we think we have at least one “black”. Finding other colors is a problem because our highest priority has to be to find varieties compatible with our latitude and climate. The darker-colored grains are beautiful to cook with but probably not as widely-useful as the more common tan.


Quinoa is yet another crop that is more likely to be grown on a small scale than on big commercial farms.

There are some unusual rules governing where it is possible to grow and bring in a crop:

  • It can’t pollinate during sustained temperatures over 90F/32C.
  • The seed germinates within 24 hours of getting wet. Rain while it is ripening can wipe out a crop as the seeds swell up and cause the heads to topple over.
  • The tropical varieties tend to be sensitive to day-length. They may refuse to bloom on a timely basis in northern latitude.

There’s another issue involved with quinoa: the grain is naturally coated with bitter saponins. These reduce bird predation, so it’s not entirely a problem so much as a fact that needs to be dealt with.

There is some work being done on exceptions to these rules. Saponin-free quinoa was developed years ago, actually, but it flopped; birds ravaged it.

Quinoa seems to have been developed in the highland tropics, but it spread along trade-routes south of the tropics. It got as far south as Chiloë island off the cost of south-central Chile, well outside of the tropics. Interestingly and probably not coincidentally, that’s the same route and the same destination that potatoes took.

As they were cultivated further and further south, they became increasingly tolerant of higher latitudes and the possibility of some rain during the ripening season. Chile is mostly dry in summer but at the very southern end of quinoa’s range there, summer rain is infrequent but possible. The Chilean quinoas tolerate longer days and more rain than their tropical highland counterparts.

We’re growing quinoa further north than it occurs south. So far, no showstopping problems.

Now for the good news: quinoa offers some amazing benefits:

  • It has a net protein utilization score somewhere between 68-76% (depends on who was testing it). rates it 106 for protein quality where 100 is considered more-or-less “complete”. You don’t need to complement it with other protein sources. The limiting amino acid is lysine but it is fairly rich in lysine as plant foods go.
  • Even though it is around 71% carbohydrate it scores a modest 18 on the glycemic load index. That’s probably because being a small seed it has a high ratio of fiber, which will slow down your digestion. Quinoa is the “slow carb” grain.
  • It’s not particularly rich in oils (14%) but what it does have are an excellent source of essential fatty acids.
  • It scores well for B vitamins and minerals.
  • It scores a little higher than whole-grain wheat–45 versus 42–for overall nutrient balance.
  • It provides all this nutrition without requiring a lot of inputs. It tolerates poor soil and doesn’t need irrigation in most climates
  • It is potentially high-yielding, especially when you consider that it can produce where other crops can’t.
  • It is extremely fast to grow out, unlike wheat. 4 healthy plants will replant an acre. In one or two generations you have enough plants to feed a small army.
  • It’s fairly attractive. Hard to tell in the photo but maybe half the plants have purple heads and some purple on the leaves. Other colors exist too but all ours are green or purple

Notice in the photo above that it’s greener than its neighbors. That’s not from being irrigated–because in fact it isn’t irrigated, despite the fact that the soil is roughly 8 inches deep and summers are dry here. It’s just naturally drought-tolerant. Probably has something to do with C4 carbon fixation; quinoa is one of those relatively few dicotyledonous plants that can do that trick. It requires less water than more common carbon fixation pathways, and in warm temperatures allows rapid growth.

That said, it’s not a cactus, and it’s starting to drop some leaves. I’ll give it a little water tomorrow when I’m down there. Another stand on deeper soil are doing fine without any watering at all, aside from what they got when I transplanted the seedlings, which is very typical of quinoa. It seems to need a little just to get established, then it’s usually good to go.

We’ve got about half a dozen or so varieties, most of them Chilean types, and we’ll add at least one more next year based on some recommendations by our friend Adam Peterson, who is doing research on quinoa production in both eastern and western Washington.

I suspect that subject to finding suitable varieties, it’s a good prospect for the Pacific coast to at least southern California (immediate coastal area only since it can’t take heat), north to southern British Columbia, a huge area of western Europe where it is already grown on a tiny but widespread basis, and some parts of inland mountain areas where nights are cool enough but not too frosty, and the growing season is long enough. Adam suspects that the day-length sensitivities are somewhat tied to temperature, so that along the cool Pacific coast it might be possible to grow even equatorial versions.

Not sure that is much improvement though, because the Chilean varieties are reputedly tastier. This is hearsay as I’ve not had enough spare to sample up to now. I probably could eat some this year, but I’d rather save it until I have plenty to spare.

What about the saponins? In case you’re wondering, quinoa sold in US and European grocery stores has had the saponins removed by abrasion using specialized equipment. Lacking that, you just do what the Amerindians for whom it is a traditional crop still do: you soak it and rinse it until it stops foaming (“saponins” = soapy chemicals). A little more work but probably worth it to discourage predation by pests.

For those who haven’t tried it, it’s a non-cereal grain you cook and eat like rice, but it cooks faster than rice and has a finer texture, being smaller-grained. The texture and mouth-feel remind some people of cous-cous. The flavor is rather mild, bordering on bland; in any case it’s easy for most people to accept. I like to add some cumin seed and broth to it.

It comes in 3 grades of color: tan, “red”, and “black”. The “black” isn’t uniformly black, but typically has quite a bit of variation in hue, giving it a peppery look. All 3 taste similar, but the red and the black have a slightly chewier texture and are probably most useful as an addition to salads.

It is sometimes available rolled like an oat, in which case it cooks in about 90 seconds–just add hot water. Aside from the anti-nutrient phytates (which bind up its mineral content), you could eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I think it’s sufficiently valuable as a grain as to provide a counter-incentive for doing so, but if you had plenty to spare you can sacrifice the grain and eat the leaves of young quinoa as a leafy green. Like many other greens they turn bitter as they age.

Personally, I think quinoa and potatoes are a huge win for small private growers in western Washington and Oregon. The reason is that they produce relatively a lot of food value for the amount of land they require, which is important on our high-priced real estate, and they don’t too much mind the soils and the climate. They might be valuable in parts of Europe for the same considerations and even more so.

Try them on an experimental basis first, and get to know their quirks, before committing to them on a larger scale. I suggest NOT trying to grow imported commercial quinoa bought in a store as food; it’s highland tropical in origin and is likely to have problems growing in temperate latitudes. Wait until seed from varieties known to thrive in higher latitudes become available. We’ll probably have small trial packets available next year and quite a lot the year after that.

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