Quinoa is no longer just for health nuts. Most Canadian consumers are familiar with the ancient grain, and it’s increasingly used as a value-added ingredient in boxed cereals and baked goods due to its high protein and fibre content.
And though its low acreage still puts it in the “niche” category of production in western Canada, some conventional producers see it as a great rotation option.
“The fact that it’s another crop to add to the rotation is probably the biggest agronomic bonus,” says Andrew Dalgarno, a Newdale, Man., producer who’s been growing quinoa for four years. “Financially, the crop pays well. It comes with a fair bit of risk, but the farmer is paid to take on that risk.”
Dalgarno grows quinoa for Northern Quinoa, Western Canada’s largest quinoa processor.
He says he makes three times the value of canola per bushel of quinoa.
As for the risks? There’s no crop insurance for quinoa in Manitoba, although Saskatchewan producers can get specialty crop insurance. There are no chemistries registered for quinoa to control insects, disease or weeds. And Dalgarno says the crop is slow to establish so beating out competition from weeds can be tricky.
But for Dalgarno — and a growing number of producers — the risks are worth it.
According to Dan Bolton, director of farm services for Northern Quinoa, quinoa carries virtually no diseases in North America. “It’s a nice break from blackleg and sclerotinia, a nice break in chemistry rotations,” he says.
Northern Quinoa contracts
Northern Quinoa helps mitigate some of the risks by offering producers 100 per cent production contracts that contain an Act of God clause, and works very closely with producers to offer agronomic support still lacking in the industry.
The company is vertically integrated “from field to fork” — it’s one of only six companies in the world breeding quinoa, says Bolton — and is involved in contracting producers, cleaning, processing, bagging and selling to end users. Northern Quinoa sells quinoa to Eastern Canadian Costco stores, federated co-ops and independent stores, but its biggest markets are in the U.S.
Last year the company contracted 34,000 acres across the Prairie provinces. This year they’re cutting acres back, says Bolton. According to the company’s website, 2018 contracts are full but producers can apply to grow quinoa in 2019.
Northern Quinoa is the biggest quinoa company in Western Canada, but it isn’t the only one.
Manitoba-based Prairie Quinoa’s mission is to grow quinoa locally and to produce a distinct “Canadian quinoa.” Its founder, Percy Phillips, has been working with Manitoba Agriculture to perform variety trials on seed sourced in quinoa’s native South America since 2014.
Phillips has tested between 23 and 25 varieties of quinoa and has identified three or four varieties as being potentially commercially viable.
“The biggest hurdle here is the growing season with not too many more than 100 days frost free, while in South America quinoa can take from 130 to 170 days from seeding to harvest,” he says.
Quinoa is an indeterminate crop; it can fully mature in as few as 100 days or as late as 128 days, according to Bolton.
Both companies will be involved in further trials this summer, according to Craig Linde, diversification specialist with Manitoba Agriculture. Northern Quinoa’s trials will be focused on variety development and evaluation, agronomy and preliminary pesticide screening. The trials with Phillips’ company will look at agronomic by variety interactions.
While this research represents a promising beginning, locally tailored agronomic resources for producers are still lacking.
Dalgarno says the crop should be given the best possible start. He says it’s crucial to plant quinoa on clean fields. He’s had good results planting after soybean, because weeds can be wiped out with Roundup in soybean years.
Quinoa also likes narrow row spacing and seeding depths very similar to canola. The seed size is similar to that of canola so no special seeding or harvesting equipment is required.
On Dalgarno’s operation he gets yields between 850 and 1,000 clean pounds per acre after dockage has been taken off, which is about average for Northern Quinoa’s producers, he says.