'Everything we do is done with farmer input,' Murphy says
By MATTHEW WEAVER
PULLMAN, Wash. -- Every week, Kevin Murphy gets e-mails from farmers interested in growing quinoa.
There isn't enough seed available, so Murphy intends to grow more of the popular specialty crop next spring on a half-dozen farms in Washington and Oregon.
Quinoa will never rival wheat's overall popularity, Murphy said, but it has the potential to become an important specialty crop for the Northwest.
"The demand is there, there's plenty of growers who want to grow it and a lot of wholesalers who want to wholesale it," he said.
The emerging crop has another quality going for it.
"It tastes great," Murphy said. "There's a lot of alternative grains that work well in systems, but they don't taste very good. Nobody's going to eat them. Quinoa tastes great, it's quick to cook, it's not grown here at all."
But, he said, "There's some problems we have to figure out, which kind of keeps it exciting."
For starters, little is known about growing quinoa in the region, including basics like seeding rates, planting dates and fertilization rates, he said.
It can be combined like any grain and grown on any scale, Murphy said, but is covered with a soap-like material. Murphy and his researchers are working with farmers to find a process to remove the material.
Murphy has been eating quinoa 20 years, but while attending a conference in Santa Fe, N.M., he heard a presentation on the effects of high U.S. demand on quinoa producers Bolivia, where it has long been grown. He saw the growing demand as an opportunity for Northwest farmers.
Getting quinoa to grow so far north of the equator presents a challenge, but Murphy is testing varieties from Europe and elsewhere to see what is suited for the region and developing hybrids from them.
Murphy likes to work with other crops that don't get much research attention. He is also working with organic hops and buckwheat.
"I think some of those other crops really deserve some attention, and farmers have asked for them, too," he said. "Everything we do is done with farmer input."
He is also Washington State University's interim barley breeder, being mentored by retired breeder Steve Ullrich. Murphy hopes to see the position become permanent. He points to increased barley acreage, and hopes to see the crop re-enter crop rotations with new herbicide tolerance.
"I think barley growers deserve a full-time barley breeder," he said.
The program currently breeds 90 percent feed barley and 10 percent malting barleys, but Murphy expects to shift the focus toward malting varieties, with renewed support from the American Malting Barley Association. He's working with researchers at Oregon State University and WSU to develop new food barleys as well.
Murphy obtained his master's degree and Ph.D. under former WSU winter wheat breeder Stephen Jones, now director of the WSU Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, Wash.
Jones was struck by Murphy's energy.
"He has a curiosity, which is so important," Jones said. "His work ethic is incredible and when you combine it with that curiosity and the true love of science, and the application of that science, I think he is quite unique."
John Navazio, WSU Extension specialist in organic seed in Port Townsend, Wash., first met Murphy while teaching workshops for farmers growing seed crops.
"He is very good at relating to farmers, speaking their language. That's the hallmark of a great plant breeder," Navazio said.
Birthplace: Los BaÃ±os, the Philippines; moved to Arkansas during high school
Current location: Moscow, Idaho
Family: Three children, ages 13, 11 and 9
Education: Bachelor's degree in biology, Colorado College; master's degree and Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics, Washington State University