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). Nutritiondata.com 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.