Growing quinoa isn't easy, even for experienced farmers
Trials in United States demonstrate difficulty of growing new crop
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Ernie New is a quinoa pioneer.
He planted his first quinoa seed in 1984 at White Mountain Farm in south-central Colorado.
New continues to plant 100 to 130 acres of quinoa each year. He sells out almost every year, he said, although he chuckles that he's not certain whether that means he's got a lot of demand or he's just lucky.
"What we harvest and what we plant is two different things," he said, noting he loses some production in the tough growing climate due to wind, hail, snow or insects. "There's just so many different things that can happen after you plant it. We don't always have a fantastic harvest."
New believes the market for quinoa could be "tremendous," although he says it's a tough crop to grow. Most farmers aren't willing to take on the risk when they could raise wheat, barley, potatoes, corn or soybeans, he said. All are crops on which much more research has already been conducted.
In the harsh climate and 7,554-foot elevation, New's neighbors presumed they could throw quinoa in the ground and "make a killing on it."
"They neglected to take care of it like they would other crops," New said. "You just can't plant it and forget it."
Why has New stuck with quinoa for so long?
"Because I'm way out in left field," he said. "It's one of the things that will work where I grow. I am probably not a typical, conventional farmer."
New advises growers thinking about raising quinoa to plant only what they can afford to lose. It's not likely to work the first time, he warned.
"If you can afford to plant 40 acres and not get any income off it, that's fine," he said. "But if your banker says, 'I have to have income off this 40 acres,' you better not plant it to quinoa."
University of Idaho Extension educator Tony McCammon learned that lesson the hard way, when he first tried growing quinoa in 2011.
"We did everything wrong," said McCammon, who worked with grower Bill Villdress in Washington County, Idaho.
They planted the quinoa in May and without any weed control, so the crop was competing with weeds from the start.
And soil temperatures that early were not high enough for quick quinoa germination.
"We had the perfect storm," he said.
Raising quinoa organically, they had trouble telling the difference between it and the weed lambsquarters, a relative, for most of the season.
"That was probably the second-biggest mistake," McCammon said. "We didn't have anything to combat morning glory and lambsquarters when we had lambsquarters next to quinoa."
The experiment didn't dash McCammon's enthusiasm for quinoa as an alternative cereal crop in rotation with wheat or corn at higher elevations. Some farmers in Idaho's Magic Valley will plant plots for variety trials this summer.
"There's a huge gluten-free market right now," he said. "I think farmers need to be on top of that curve. I don't think that's going away anytime soon."
McCammon said certified quinoa seed is crucial.
"If you could start producing certified seed, that in itself could be a business," he said. "It's not easy to find."