Eating quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) might be good for your health, but Wayne Groot can testify that it’s been great for his pocketbook. The ancient South American grain has become wildly popular with health-conscious consumers because it contains high levels of protein and fiber, and is gluten-free. It potentially offers spring wheat producers a profitable new crop option.

Groot, a seed potato, grains, and oilseed grower in Sturgeon County, Alberta, first grew 50 acres of the crop under contract with Northern Quinoa Production Corporation (NorQuin) as an experiment in 2016. He had been told to expect yields between 800 and 1,500 pounds per acre, so he was thrilled when he grew a 2,000-pound crop. The return outpaced all his crops but the seed potatoes.

Despite all its publicity, quinoa is still a small market crop. Global production was still under 200,000 tonnes in 2014. The vast majority is grown in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

“There is a lot of potential to make money by growing this crop, but there’s a lot of risk too,” says Derek Flad, NorQuin’s breeding research manager. “When larger growers tell us they want to grow 500 acres or none, we caution them to start with just 50 acres until they get a handle on it. The last thing we want to happen is for a grower to lose his shirt on it.”

“We jumped up to 75 acres in 2017,” Groot says. “We hoped to grow a whole quarter in 2018, but were only able to get a contract for 75 acres again.”

That turned out to be a good thing, Groot says. His 2018 yields were disappointing due to a drought.

Sensitive crop. “Others have had zero yields due to insect pressure, too,” Flad cautions. “It’s a very environmentally sensitive crop. We tell producers to pencil in a 1,000-pound crop for their first year, and hopefully they will do better in subsequent years.”

Wayne Groot has done very well with quinoa most years.

NorQuin, which contracted 35,000 acres in 2017, is by far the largest quinoa production company in Canada. Flad says almost all Canadian production is currently grown on the Prairies. The company has contracted production stretching from the Red River Valley in Manitoba to Northern Alberta. Other companies have a small acreage in central Canada too.

NorQuin only offers total production quinoa contracts. Based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, NorQuin supplies every seed and buys back the entire production in the months following harvest.

Groot planted a golden quinoa variety from NorQuin in 2016 and 2017 but switched to their new composite rainbow blend in 2018. It doesn’t take any special equipment to grow. The seed is similar in size to canola so he plants it with his air-drill.

While the crop can be grown just about anywhere spring wheat and barley can, it’s considerably riskier than these stalwarts, Flad says. The biggest problem is there are no registered herbicide, fungicide, or insecticide options for quinoa production. So, it can only be grown on the cleanest of fields possible.

“We have fairly clean fields thanks to our potato production,” Groot says. “Our biggest weed problems are volunteer crops. We are finding we have to be more aware of insects though.”

It is a very tall crop and has similar fertilizer requirements to canola. The crop typically requires between 110 and 120 days to mature so growers should expect it to be among the last to be harvested.

“It’s fairly easy to harvest,” Groot says. “We set the front end of the combine the way we would for wheat and the back end for canola and fine-tune from there. It’s a fairly high-priced commodity (65 cents a pound in 2018) so we find it beneficial to leave a bit more chaff in than risk throwing any out the back end.”

There are no herbicides, fungicides, or insecticides registered for quinoa. It’s very popular thanks to its high protein and fiber levels.

Insect pests. Quinoa is susceptible to common insect pests like cutworms, wireworms, and bertha army worms, Flad says. But it can be devastated by the quinoa stem borer and the goosefoot groundling moth, species that dine on lambsquarters.

“Quinoa is first cousin to the common weed lambsquarters and is affected by the same insects,” Flad says. “You can pull a lambsquarters anywhere on the Prairies and find evidence of stem borer damage. We’re currently trying to get minor use registration for products to control them and working with Agriculture Canada entomologists to develop Integrated Pest Management protocols to manage them.”

The crop is also so new that it isn’t covered by crop insurance programs yet. So, if you want to grow the crop you have to be willing to self-insure.

“It’s not as easy to grow as wheat or canola,” Groot says. “But I like the challenge; it keeps things fun.”

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