Four years ago, Courtney Swystun had much to learn about the new crop, including its pronunciation. It’s called “keen-wah,” his wife told him.

Since then, Swystun has learned not only how to say quinoa correctly but also how to combat the bugs and weeds that can reduce yield in the specialty crop. He is part of an effort to increase North American production of quinoa, historically a South American crop, as demand soars for the gluten-free ancient grain in such items as salads, bars and snacks.

The Northern Quinoa Production Corp. (NorQuin), a specialty grain and food processing company based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, works with growers like Swystun. Denver, Colorado, U.S.-based Ardent Mills, which held a farm tour on Aug. 22 that featured Swystun’s property north of Saskatoon, has contracted with more than 100 growers through its Great Plains Quinoa program.

Farmers in the Andes mountains of South America have grown quinoa for thousands of years, dating back to the Incas. Joe Dutchesen was a pioneer in Canadian quinoa as he began evaluating different varieties of South American quinoa seeds on his family farm in Saskatchewan in 1992 and is still involved with NorQuin.

NorQuin, a vertically integrated company from field to fork, was incorporated in 1994. NorQuin now contracts with farmers to grow quinoa on thousands of acres in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The cool and dry climate of northern Saskatchewan in particular has similarities to the climate in South American regions where quinoa is grown, according to NorQuin.

NorQuin has developed a golden variety of quinoa suited for the weather in the Canadian prairies. The golden variety offers 6 grams of protein per 45-gram serving and contains all nine essential amino acids. It has a sweet, nutty flavor.

The typical yield in Canada is 1,200 to 1,400 pounds per acre, or “25-ish” bushels per acre, said Derek Flad, breeding research manager for NorQuin. There are 58 pounds of quinoa per bushel, according to Ardent Mills. Threats to yields include hot winds brought on by temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit and weeds can be another problem. The crop may need fine-tuning on a day-to-day basis. Quinoa generates smaller yields than several other crops, but if growers successfully manage risks, quinoa crops may be more profitable because of higher prices, Flad said.

Quinoa prices have been volatile in recent years. In years past, NorQuin has paid farmers more than C60 cents per pound (C$34.80 per bushel) for quinoa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in July 2016 said quinoa from Peru has traded as high as $6,000 to $7,000 per tonne ($158 to $184 per bushel), although prices have dropped from those highs.

Swystun said he decided to replace wheat with quinoa on his land in Saskatchewan after wheat prices dropped below C$6 per bushel. Quinoa is a high-risk, high-reward crop, he said. It is more sensitive than wheat and sometimes requires more spraying for bugs. Crop conditions may change over a 24-hour period, he said.

Swystun has had success. Last year he achieved yields of about 2,200 pounds per acre. He rotates barley, quinoa and pea crops. Swystun also grows canola, but he does not rotate canola and quinoa in the same fields.

Great plains Quinoa

Ardent Mills provided a boost to Swystun and other Canadian growers this year when it launched Great Plains Quinoa in March. The growers’ network is designed to bring the transparency, scale and quality needed to support mainstream quinoa growth in retail and food service in the United States and Canada. Great Plains Quinoa from Ardent Mills includes seeds, whole grain flour, flakes, crisps, custom multigrain blends and mixes. Ardent Mills said it is committed to paying farmers a premium to help make quinoa a more mainstream crop.

The Great Plains Quinoa program fits into Ardent Mills’ plan of extending its presence into alternative options to wheat flour. White, fluffy flour always will be at the core of what Ardent Mills does, but consumption of that flour is flat, said Shrene White, director — specialty grains/risk for Ardent Mills. Higher growth rates are found in flour from such options as sprouted grains and ancient grains.

While ancient grains yield lower than wheat and are more difficult to keep in identity-preserved (IP) systems, the price of wheat has discouraged farmers lately, White said. Organic spelt can be twice the price of organic wheat, which can be twice the price of regular wheat, she said.

Ardent Mills in December 2015 began an initiative committed to helping U.S. wheat growers double organic wheat acres by 2019.

“We joined every organic trade association we could find,” White said.

Ardent Mills shared insights about how the quinoa market is developing:

  • sales growth is strong
  • the price of retail products is trending toward mainstream prices
  • top sellers include snack bars, ready-to-eat cereal, side dishes and crunchy snacks
  • uncooked quinoa may be used at home in salads and side dishes
  • the curiosity interest in quinoa is still strong although on a downward trend
  • the internet narrative is positive
  • quinoa eventually might be criticized for elitist quinoa eaters or not made in the United States.

U.S. retail sales of products featuring quinoa increased at an average annual growth rate of 72% from 2012-16, going to $552.9 million in 2016 from $69.3 million in 2012, according to Nielsen Scantrack data. The top-selling items in 2016 were snack bars ($113.6 million), bagged/box quinoa ($79.6 million) and ready-to-eat cereal ($69.7 million).

The high-amylopectin starch in quinoa binds well, said Tim Howdeshell, product development scientist for Ardent Mills. The nutty, roasted taste of quinoa crisps would work well in yogurt flippers that feature two compartments. The quinoa crisps in one compartment could flip into the yogurt in the other compartment.

Several restaurants in Saskatoon are using the locally grown quinoa in menu items like salads, side dishes and appetizers. Quinoa could work in individually quick frozen (IQF) food and frozen food in restaurants for prepared meals and side dishes, Howdeshell said. Veggie burgers are another possibility.