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Researchers look to answer quinoa questions


Capital Press

PULLMAN, Wash. -- Scientists from the U.S. and Mexico see promise in quinoa but say that many questions remain about growing it on a large scale.

Eulogio de la Cruz Torres of Mexico is interested in seeing the crop grown more in his country because of its drought-tolerance and ability to thrive in poor soil conditions.

"This will be a crop of the future," he said of the grain-like seed crop that has long been grown in parts of South America. "Quinoa has no need of many inputs -- it doesn't require a lot of fertilization or chemicals, so it can help to develop sustainable agriculture."

He was among the researchers on hand Thursday at Washington State University's organic farm field day in Pullman, Wash.

Brigham Young University professor Jeff Maughan is interested in improving quinoa for Latin American growers, and is working with WSU assistant research professor Kevin Murphy, who hopes to introduce the crop into the U.S. on a larger scale.

"Right now it's the unknown, it's the mysterious box," Maughan said of bringing quinoa to the U.S.

There's a high level of interest in using quinoa in products like cereals and pasta, he said, but no reliable supply large enough to meet that demand.

"The grain is great, but growing it on a large scale is a scary proposition just yet -- I wouldn't want to put all my acreage into quinoa," he said. "Try it, don't bet on it."

Stephen Machado, dryland cropping systems agronomist at Oregon State University, will examine quinoa to determine the best planting date, seed depth, row spacing and fertilizer recommendations.

"Our duty is to generate the information so when (farmers) need it, it's there," he said.

Machado said part of his program is to examine alternative crops.

"I think if you put it in your rotation, it might help with some weeding and disease issues," he said, also noting quinoa is high in protein and gluten-free.

Quinoa seeds are similar in size to canola and camelina, so farmers' equipment could easily be adapted to it, Machado said.

Murphy said WSU will conduct a survey in the fall to determine the number of growers interested, the demand for the product and likely price.

"There's no information, basically," he said.

Murphy recommends quinoa varieties from Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Ore., and lining up a market before planting any substantial amount. Quinoa is still grown in the region on a small scale, but more farmers are trying it, he said, estimating a dozen farmers each have made an attempt in Washington and Oregon.

"(They're) just trying it out, which is really the best way to start, even for the large-scale growers," he said. "There's so many unanswered questions; just proceed cautiously."

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