SEATTLE, Wash. – Kevin Murphy spoke with passion and humor about his obsession with the tiny seeds that are causing a big stir in the Pacific Northwest. Murphy, who leads the organic plant variety breeding program at Washington State University, captivated the WSU Innovators luncheon audience in Seattle with the story of quinoa and his farm-to-fork research program.
Quinoa is a versatile crop that packs a nutritious punch. The plant, which is related to spinach and beets, produces seeds that offer a complete protein with essential amino and fatty acids, minerals and
vitamins. But it’s also a delicious, gluten-free grain alternative that can be made into everything from noodles, bread, and chocolate cake to vodka. The leafy greens can be eaten like Swiss chard and, according to Murphy, stay fresh in the fridge for up to eight weeks.
The Pacific Northwest offers a variety of growing conditions that mimic those of quinoa’s native South American countries of Peru, Bolivia and Chile. This coupled with growing demand in the U.S. drive Murphy’s international renowned research program.
Imports of quinoa grew from 4 million pounds in 2007 to 73 million pounds in 2013. Murphy’s quinoa research program has paralleled this trend. In 2009, Murphy was the lone quinoa resource at WSU. Five short years later, he leads a research program that boasts 20 researchers with trials set up across the state.
With farmers in mind
Murphy’s vision is to research and develop varieties and farming practices to the wide range of environments and farming systems in the Pacific Northwest. “Everything we do is for, by, and with farmers,” he said.
Karl Kupers, co-founder of Shepherd’s Grain, attended the lecture because he is interested in growing quinoa and grains like millet, amaranth, and spelt.
“Quinoa is driving the picture now but other crops are just as available and just as marketable,” he said.
Kupers was impressed to learn how far research with quinoa has come in the past several years.
“WSU is much further along than anyone really knows,” he said.
Farmers work alongside Murphy and his graduate students to test varieties in a variety of conditions and locations. They’re looking at drought tolerance in eastern, Washington and heat tolerance in the irrigated Central Columbia Basin, and west of the Cascades Mountains where moisture prevails, varieties are evaluated for resistance to pre-harvest sprouting.
Housing seed research
Murphy’s farm-to-fork vision means graduate students, the backbone of his program, have their hands in all aspects of the crop from breeding and cultivating the crop to processing and marketing the end
products. Research projects include intercropping quinoa with clover and grass, assessing how quinoa could be integrated into existing crop rotations, what role saponins (a bitter, soapy coating on the seeds) could play in controlling wireworms. In addition, food science students are studying quinoa’s nutritional qualities, taste and texture, and what types of food products can be made.
Missing from Murphy’s vision of a thriving alternative grain economy is a dedicated research facility for quinoa as well as other seed crops like millet and amaranth. WSU is launching a capital campaign to build a state of the art sustainable seed systems facility that will include a green house, seed processing and storage capabilities, as well as a food lab. The new sustainable seed systems facility, to be located on the WSU Eggert Family Organic Farm, will provide relevant teaching, research and extension opportunities farm to fork.
Learn more about quinoa at the WSU Discovery blog: