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Growth in Agriculture: Quinoa in Alberta

Posted on August 17, 2022 by Sunny South News

By Cal Braid
Sunny South News

Quinoa is a superfood; a term generally used these days for foods with a high nutrient density and clear health benefits. It’s not yet a staple of the North American diet, but it does pack a nutritional punch. It’s high in protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and is naturally gluten free, too.

Farming Smarter (FS) is a non-profit research organization specializing in agronomy, the science of soil management and crop production. Based out of Lethbridge, Farming Smarter creates and then manages research plots using a variety of techniques and controls. They experiment and study the reactions and differences in the health and growth response of the crop in each plot that they create.

As research coordinator at Farming Smarter, Mike Gretzinger talked about the work with quinoa they’ve been doing over the last five or six years, saying, “It’s been an interesting crop to study.”

The first year that they experimented with quinoa, it was done for a private company that wanted to do some trials. He said, “Truthfully, it’s a difficult crop to grow if you’re not great with your agronomy. You can’t just pop it in the ground and spray out the weeds, you really have to be on top of it.”

Initially, they didn’t have much luck with it. Gretzinger said, “It came up in rows and then everything kind of died off and we didn’t know why,” referring to it as an “undisclosed crop failure.”

Farming Smarter consulted with Dr. Jan Slaski from InnoTech Alberta, and kept at it in the following years, discovering more about its growth response as they progressed.

“It was really about how you integrate quinoa into crop rotation,” said Gretzinger. “With any new crop there’s going to be a lot of new challenges, in terms of basic agronomy.”

In their work, Gretzinger explained that “the first factor is seeding density, then seed bed preparations, and what kind of residue you can plant into. Cereals are the easiest crop to follow, just simply because you don’t have as many broadleaf weeds if you go with cereals for three or four years and spray those weeds and take care of them.”

Along the way, they discovered an insect pest called a stem borer. It’s a common pest that went largely unnoticed because it typically only infests weeds like lamb’s quarters. “It eats out the tissue in the stem and sucks out the juice,” and with lamb’s quarters, “we don’t care, we’re trying to spray it and get rid of it anyways.” However, it turned out that lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) was of the same genus as quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), and the stem borer began to feed on the quinoa plants too.

He also emphasized how important the timing of seeding and the timing of rain is. They found that it’s best to seed before “a nice, good rain that gets a flush of weeds up on warm soil, and then plant the quinoa. It will pop up within a couple of days and then it’s off to a good start.” He also said it’s advantageous to plant in a ‘clean’ field, meaning one with a low weed seed bank. A field with a high seed bank is problematic for quinoa, and that it would thrive better in field that had been in a cereal-canola-cereal type of rotation.

“The plant itself comes up out of the ground pretty decent, and then that first couple of weeks is pretty critical.”

Asked if FS had grown confident over time in their ability to grow quinoa in Alberta, he replied, “Absolutely. I would say that we’re seasoned quinoa growers now.”

He said that newer varieties have been bred with a better yield potential and resistance to disease and insects. Now, agricultural scientists are breeding for flavour.

The question of marketability is a legitimate one though. Is it worth the investment to grow it? Gretzinger said that quinoa works a lot like the hemp industry. Typically, one large company has the bulk of the market share with a few smaller companies in play. “It’s basically the companies who are contracting acres. They’re fairly cautious, growing slowly at a market pace. It’s not something that every farmer can say ‘Let’s just go plant it and drop it in the elevator.’ Like hemp, you need a contract, you need somebody who’s going to process it.”

“When companies are looking for growers, they need to make sure that they’ve got two years of crop rotation, and that they haven’t used any products that have residual effects, where there’s a lot of carryover effects from herbicides. Quinoa is really sensitive to those things. It’ll outcompete the weeds relatively well, but it needs that good start.”

At this point, quinoa’s status an alternative super grain probably precludes it from being a crop that farmers are keen on experimenting with. “When producers have a sure win with some of their staple crops, they’re not inclined to take a risk on something else.”

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