Buckwheat, Quinoa May Be New Options for Organic Grain Growers

PULLMAN, Wash. – Organic grain growers in Washington looking for new crops with new markets could be producing buckwheat and quinoa, if Washington State University scientists can confirm their viability and develop varieties specifically for the Pacific Northwest.

Quinoa, front, and buckwheat could be new crops for organic grain growers.

Researcher Kevin Murphy currently has trial plots of 44 varieties of quinoa and 30 varieties of buckwheat in five different locations around the state, including at the WSU Organic Farm outside Pullman.  His long-term goal is to breed varieties growers can count on regardless of where they live in Washington.

“We are trying to find a variety for each major ecosystem in the state,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s research, funded by WSU’s BioAg project, got its start in western Washington where he was working with organic grain growers. “They are using small-scale equipment and want to keep using it, diversify a little and sell a new product to the local stores,” he said. “Both PCC and Whole Foods Market would buy locally if they could.

“Some organic growers raise grain, but they want to diversify their grain rotation,” Murphy added. “Over the past couple of years, organic growers in western Washington have started to grow wheat for local consumption; bakeries that used to get their wheat from Canada, Utah, or the Great Plains states, prefer to source their grain from essentially next door. Based on that success, a lot of farmers want to keep going.”

Making the new grains work in the Pacific Northwest is not without challenges, though.

“Quinoa usually is not grown above the 42nd parallel, and we’re at the 46th,” Murphy said, “so, we’re going to have to develop varieties adapted to long days and a short growing season. The biggest issue is finding a variety that will mature on time.”

There are advantages to growing quinoa, though. “Quinoa is a dual purpose crop–both greens and grain,” Murphy said. “The leaves are very nutritious, have a taste similar to spinach, a relatively long storage life and would be very marketable.”

Another advantage of the rice-like grain, which is grown primarily in the Andes region of South America, is its ability to pull salt from the soil. Saline soils are an unfortunate byproduct of irrigation. Murphy hopes to begin conducting research within the next year or two on using quinoa to remediate highly saline soils across the state.

So far, buckwheat seems much easier to grow in different climates. Having originated in Asia, it currently is grown in western Europe as well as other locations in the United States, including New York and North Dakota. “We are hoping that some of the varieties we’ve planted will be immediately well adapted to this area,” Murphy said.

In addition to the grain it produces, buckwheat also is an excellent cover crop and provides great honeybee habitat, he added.

Buckwheat also provides great honeybee habitat.

Buckwheat and quinoa (pronounced “keen wah”) also have the advantage of being gluten-free, which opens yet another market for their use. And, Murphy said, neither one has to be irrigated to succeed.

The variety trials will continue for one more year. Murphy and his team will start making crosses in the greenhouse, grow them in the field and then develop another cross.

“We’ll be identifying existing varieties that can be grown right away and make that information public, probably within the next two years,” he explained. “Then we’ll start breeding varieties adapted to different areas. There is a good chance that we can make some significant initial steps for the improvement of desirable traits that can make an immediate impact in the successful growing of quinoa and buckwheat in Washington State.”