SODA SPRINGS, Idaho — A seed company owner has partnered with a Caribou County farmer to raise 20 acres of irrigated quinoa and intends to open the nation’s first quinoa processing facility in Idaho Falls if the crop yields better than 1,000 pounds per acre.
Jeremiah Clark, owner of Idaho Falls-based Clark Seed, hopes the field will produce enough seed to raise 4,000-6,000 acres of quinoa next season in high-elevation areas of Eastern Idaho, where farmers have limited rotation options and dry conditions would prevent sprout damage.
Joe Olsen, who owns the 20-acre field, is encouraged by the crop’s progress.
“If it does as well as it looks like it’s going to, I see no reason not to continue,” Olsen said.
Montana farmers near Boseman and Livingston have also planted quinoa for Clark.
Quinoa — a gluten-free seed high in protein and fiber that contains all of the amino acids — has rapidly gained popularity due to the health food movement and concerns about gluten intolerance. Clark discovered the commodity about two years ago while seeking gluten-free options for his son. Growers have been intrigued by high quinoa prices. Clark plans to pay $1 per pound next season.
“We’re importing 70 million pounds of quinoa every year from Peru and Bolivia,” Clark said. “I think we could be self-sustained as far as quinoa production. We could be raising that pretty easily within two to three years.”
His planned American Mills would have a capacity to process up to 5 million pounds of seed per year, supplying flour mills and packaged quinoa to stores. Washington State University is also pursuing a quinoa processing facility and has been conducting variety trials to find good regional options.
Clark acknowledges raising quinoa is risky. There’s no insurance or labeled chemicals for the crop. Agronomic practices aren’t well understood — Clark fertilizes quinoa as he does wheat. He said it requires 110-120 days of irrigation, a bit longer than wheat and barley. Many of the most common varieties aren’t suited to the warmer temperatures in the Pacific Northwest, relative to fields at 10,000-20,000 feet in Peru and Bolivia.
In his first trial with quinoa last season, Clark had a single acre planted in Soda Springs. Quinoa grew 4 feet tall and flowered but never produced seed. An acre of quinoa in Boseman also failed.
In the Livingston area, grower John Bays, had no luck with 25 acres planted in Clark’s Bolivian seed, but he yielded close to 500 pounds per acre on another 25 acres he planted on dryland in a Colorado quinoa variety. Bay planted another 50 acres under irrigation this season with that Colorado seed, which Clark is also using this season.
“We’re finding it’s a very tender, delicate crop when it’s an inch tall,” said Bays, who planted his quinoa in rows this season, enabling him to cultivate the middle for weed control.
Jeff Godfrey, president of Caribou County Grain Growers, planted a test strip of quinoa for Clark last season that yielded no seed. Nonetheless, he’s willing to continue testing new varieties and sees potential for the crop in his growing area.
“There are a lot of people who I think would try it,” Godfrey said.