Way back in the spring, I shared with you some great (and ancient) grains that should have a place in your garden and at your table. I extolled the virtues of quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat, all of which are gaining, or regaining, popularity among gourmet chefs and home cooks alike. I think that it is high time that we explore incorporating these crops into our local food production, both in the home garden and larger farm production.
This year, I chose to take a look at quinoa (Chenopodia quinoa), which is fast becoming a popular “grain” on grocery shelves in the US and in Europe. To meet demand in these rich countries, the supply in the Andes Mountain region, where it is an important native staple crop, is waning and therefore the prices are skyrocketing for the indigenous population. To bring attention to the crop and its international importance, the Food and Agriculture of the United Nations named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa (visit the page for lots of Quinoa info.
To better meet the US demand for the crop and restore balance to the international demand, as well as introduce a new profitable crop to local farmers and meet the demand for local foods, I think we should explore growing it where conditions are favorable in the US. Because it is native to the rugged terrain of the Andes Mountains, it is a pretty forgiving plant and can grow in a multitude of conditions.
“Researching” Quinoa in West Virginia
This spring, I procured a supply of seeds for five different varieties of quinoa – each with different flower head shapes and colors. The plan was to share the seeds with community gardens and Master Gardeners, to test out the crop with people of all levels of ability and attentiveness. Unfortunately, the best laid plans don’t always work out. The first hiccup came at a garden festival where I was distributing seeds to Master Gardeners. Someone mistook the seed packets for part of a seed giveaway, and made off with two (very large) packets of seeds. They either had enough seeds to have a delicious dinner, or grow about 40,000 plants of their very own.
But there has been success! Two community gardens that planted the seeds have had success and are nearing harvest time for their quinoa. Luckily, one community garden had two beds, because a well- meaning volunteer pulled up an entire bed, mistaking them for their doppelganger weedy cousin lambs quarter. Another bed did survive to maturity.
Personally, I have opted for a late planting, testing out the viability of the crop for fall production. Quinoa prefers cooler temperatures, and I’m wondering if quinoa will prefer our cooler fall temperatures to our 80 and 90 degree summer temperatures.
Looking to the Future of Quinoa Research
Given the fact that we have been able to raise quinoa to maturity, the plan for next year is to do a more formal research project testing out quinoa here in West Virginia and perhaps even recruiting volunteer citizen scientists in other areas to grow the tasty plant. Who knows, perhaps you will have this crop in your garden next year, too!
-John Porter, @wvgardenguru
Follow-Up: Harvesting and Using Quinoa
Connie asked in the comments about harvesting an storing the seeds for use, so I thought I’d provide a quick follow-up.
Quinoa seeds are ready to harvest when all of the leaves begin to wilt and dry. To harvest, the seeds can be stripped off of the stalks by running a gloved hand up over the dried seed head. Winnowing is necessary to remove debris, and can be achieved by putting on large window screens and blowing with a fan. Allowing the seeds to dry is also important to keep them from molding in storage.
Now, quinoa has a saponin coating on the seeds, which is a natural soap. The seeds need to be washed to remove the saponin, which would taste bitter like soap. Commercial growers remove the saponin prior to packaging for sale, but washing prior to storage might prove difficult for home gardeners and small-scale farmers since there is not access to drying equipment. I would suggest storing with the saponin and wash before use. It can take up to 5 washes in clean water to remove all of the saponin, and you will know it is removed when the water doesn’t “suds up” like soapy water. Larger harvests might be able to be washed in muslin bags or pillowcases on a cold water cycle in a clean clothes washer.