2016, Research Matters Blog
Ancient Incas considered quinoa their most sacred food. Packed with protein, vitamins and amino acids, it gave them stamina, strength and energy needed for survival. No wonder NASA has researched growing quinoa on long journeys to outer space.
Despite the seed’s explosion in world popularity over the past few years, including a massive increase in demand throughout North America, almost no farmers outside the Andes Mountains in South America grow it.
Issues related to quality, supply, cost and importation have encouraged scientists to experiment with cultivating the crop in Ontario. At the Trent University Sustainable Agriculture Experimental Farm, Mehdi Sharifi is working with his students to make organic quinoa production viable for Ontario farmers.
“There is a huge market for quinoa in Ontario, but currently demand is higher than supply,” says Sharifi, an expert in sustainable agriculture.
This translates into a potentially lucrative revenue stream for farmers, especially considering that nearly the entire plant has health benefits, says Sharifi. The seeds build muscle, promote weight loss and stabilize blood sugar. Meanwhile, leaves and stems — high in fiber and protein — are used for animal feed.
“In Ontario, there were about 20 farms last year that grew quinoa on different acreages, from big to small,” he says. “Everyone is still testing different management practices to figure out the optimum for producing quinoa in the type of environment we have, including which varieties work better than others.”
With an Engage Grant from NSERC, Sharifi and Trent alumnus, Jamie Draves of Katan Kitchens, are working with two cultivars considered suitable for Ontario’s climate. They are studying how compost, nitrogen fertilizer rates and weed management strategies might increase quinoa’s yield.
“The good thing about quinoa is that it has a relatively low nutrients demand, which makes it more suitable to low input and organic farming systems,” says Sharifi.
Practice Makes Perfect
While Sharifi and his team are in the early stages of research, they have discovered planting quinoa requires at least some specialized equipment. For example, it needs a seeder adapted to direct the small, lightweight seeds toward the ground to stop the wind from blowing them away.
Meanwhile, Sharifi hopes that learning how to best grow quinoa in Ontario will also help local farmers better cultivate other non-native crops.
“Before farmers spend a lot of money on establishing large acreages of new crops, we need to test crops under local climate and soil conditions,” says Sharifi, pointing to the province’s various microclimates and soils. “The east is very different from the center, which is different from the west part of the province. We need to undertake multiple projects over multiple years before recommending a course of action to growers.”