Quinoa conundrum

North American production stirs mixed feelings

Quinoa at White Mountain Farm
Photo courtesy of Christopher Algea

From food bars to bulk bins, we see it sprouting up in Boulder left and right: quinoa, “mother grain” to the Incas, a fresh addition to the Western superfood obsession.

It’s not just our tastebuds that are tingling with the Incan delight, our ears are ringing from all the buzz about Western demand causing problems for South Americans. Recent stories featured in The Guardian, the Associated Press and The New York Times have stated that the Western demand for quinoa is driving up costs in Bolivia and Peru, and people there can no longer afford to buy South American quinoa.

But amidst all of the tingling and buzzing, there’s another chapter being added to the quinoa story: Grain breeders are now working with farmers to make quinoa a sustainable crop in North America.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling how many growers are calling and emailing and just trying to learn as much as they can about it,” says Kevin Murphy, a Washington State University barley and alternative crop breeder. “And within the next couple of years, we’ll probably see a significant increase in acreage of growers.”

Colorado’s White Mountain Farm, located in Mosca (near Alamosa), became the first large-scale quinoa operation in North America back in 1987. Since then, a few more farms in Canada and small-scale farmers throughout the Northwest have been experimenting with the super-seed. In 2012, a quinoa trial project for farms in the Northeast was led by Elizabeth Dyck, founder of the Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network (OGRIN). Dyck reported that quinoa grew well at both of the testing sites located in New York.

The push for North American growers to cultivate quinoa has been building for the last decade, according to Murphy.

“It’s just about the huge increase in demand,” Murphy says. “There just hasn’t been a huge push for us to get production up, but I think we’re in the middle of it now. I have no doubt [quinoa] can be grown on a large scale and organically. Starting this year, we are actually working with several growers who would be considered large-scale, who are certified organic.”

Others, however, doubt the ability of North American growers.

“I just don’t think it will ever be as quality,” says Christopher Algea, founder of Keen One Quinoa in Boulder. “Maybe someday it will be on par, but you’ve got to think about it. It’s like anything else. Something grown out of its native land, nine times out of 10, is going to be better than if it’s hybridized to grow in a climate that it’s not native in.”

Murphy contends that it’s all about finding the right variety.

“Yeah, quality is a huge issue,” Murphy says. “A lot of the stuff we’ve grown here is just as good as anything from Bolivia or Peru, and, again, a lot of it’s not. It’s about figuring out what’s good and how it came about.”

Right now, Murphy and other researchers are working to make sure there is enough genetic diversity in North American fields to hinder the spread of major diseases like Downy mildew, which can cause plant tissue to die. They’re also intercropping quinoa with leguminous crops, such as corn and potatoes, to keep weeds down and provide more nitrogen for the plants.

“We might need to be creative for how it’s done, but I think we can do it,” Murphy says.

Even if North American farmers find a way to grow high-quality quinoa, local businesses say they would question whether to buy from them.

Betto Diaz, founder of Quinoa Delight bars, grew up in Peru, where he now buys all of his quinoa and where his family still owns a farm.

“Probably, yeah, I would buy from North America, but I don’t know,” says Diaz. “The main thing is I want to help these people over there. The economy of all these farmers is improving a lot. The government is creating a lot of programs to help poor people — poor people living in the mountains — teaching them to grow better harvests to support and sell in local markets.”

Asked if he would buy for Keen One from North American farmers, Algea responds, “It’s hard to talk about that stuff. I mean, I like supporting poor countries or people that don’t have as much opportunity as we’ve been given. That’s always felt good.”

For Diaz, Algea and other vendors, there’s yet another layer to the quinoa conundrum. Algea worries that with North American production comes mass production. With mass production comes the destruction of intricate Incan farming practices, which date back thousands of years.

“I believe that as the demand grows, and it does start to yield more in the U.S., they’re gonna start mass farming, mass producing it so much in the U.S. that it’s going to take away kind of the love about quinoa,” Algea says.

While Murphy and other breeders remain confident in the future of North American quinoa, doubts still linger for Boulder buyers.

“You’ve just got to keep your values pretty high,” Algea says. “We did. We were able to find an exclusive buyer down there who only buys Royal Yellow. It’s quinoa from farmers who are Bolivian born and bred.”

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