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WSU’s Green Times- Harvest Time, Sustaining Generations

Posted by | December 18, 2013

Growing quinoa in the Pacific Northwest

Growing quinoa where few have grown before, Hannah Walters and Adam Peterson are learning a lot about how the protein-packed seed crop fares in the Pacific Northwest: the importance of starting small in unfamiliar territory, using proper irrigation, understanding how much heat the plant can take. At a test plot in northern Idaho, they even discovered how much deer like to eat the purple kind.

Quinoa's coat under the microscope: The red color present in the pericarp--the outer layer of the seed--flakes off when rubbed. Photo by Adam Peterson.
Quinoa’s coat under the microscope: The red color present in the pericarp–the outer layer of the seed–flakes off when rubbed. Photo by Adam Peterson.

“This year’s harvest was a little stressful,” said Walters, a master’s student in crop and soil sciences working with assistant professor and WSU quinoa research leader Kevin Murphy. “It all ended up pretty perfect, but early rains threw us a curveball.”

As the United Nations’ International Year of the Quinoa comes to an end this month, the two reflected back on quinoa harvests at trial plots in eastern Washington and western Washington. Two of the team’s quinoa plots on the Olympic Peninsula succumbed to early pre-harvest sprouting due to heavy rainfall. Peterson, a doctoral student also in crop and soil sciences, observed that while the rains caused some pre-harvest sprouting, the more water the plant had, the more colorful the flowers.

Hannah Walters, WSU Master's student
Hannah Walters, WSU Master’s student

Quinoa grows in a rainbow of colors other than green, said Walters, from yellow and orange, to pink, red, and even purple. In eastern Washington, however, most of the plants Walter works with are simply green and dry up quickly by time they are ready for harvest.

Walters hand-harvested five successful quinoa variety lines (breeding material that is being improved by breeders before released to growers) at the WSU Organic Farm that were developed by researchers at Brigham Young University. Her graduate research involves phenotyping the varieties, that is, documenting the physical traits exhibited by the plants. She explained that plants that are genetically the same may look very different when grown in different environments. For example, a drought-resistant plant might be short and compact in a low-rainfall area, but in a high-rainfall area, it could be twice as tall.

“It was really different (weather)-wise this summer, compared to last summer,” she said. “The plants produced a lot less seed than last year due to insect pressure and hotter temperatures.”

At the WSU Organic Farm, Walters has also established irrigation trials to see if different methods of irrigation influence the dryland crop’s yield potential. In Pullman, she found that irrigated plants have a better yield than those in the unirrigated plots. While this year’s plants weren’t ideally dry by the time harvest rolled around, between rainy days she was able to use a combine to harvest the two plots and get the seeds ready for cleaning.

Soapy saponins

Adam Peterson, WSU doctoral student
Adam Peterson, WSU doctoral student

When you get a bag of quinoa from the store, it will usually come with instructions to wash or rinse before preparing. This is because quinoa seeds have an outer layer of a soapy substance called saponin. While most of this is removed in processing, washing helps remove any possible remaining saponins. Compared to last year’s yield, this year’s seeds had more chaff and dirt, Walters said. She says it’s still a mystery as to the best way to clean the seed, but some quinoa growers are experimenting with different methods, including using a household washing machine to remove the outer layer.

Quinoa growing at a WSU trial plot. Photo by Adam Peterson.
Quinoa growing at a WSU trial plot. Photo by Adam Peterson.

Part of Peterson’s research includes making crosses of different quinoa varieties. One of the features he is breeding for is a clean, or saponin-free, seed. Saponin-free seed is referred to as ‘sweet’ quinoa, while those with saponins are called ‘bitter’ quinoa.

A matching game

Peterson first worked with Kevin Murphy as a field trial manager at Evergreen State College. In 2010, they grew 44 varieties from the USDA seed bank at Evergreen in Olympia, at the WSU Organic Farm in Pullman, and in Port Townsend.

“When Kevin took me on as a grad student and I came to Pullman in 2011, I started working with the 11 varieties of the 44 that produced seed at the WSU Organic Farm in Pullman. We’ve added many varieties since then, currently working with about 35 or so. In total, we’ve probably grown out 60-70,” he said.

“It’s almost like a game of match your climate. When we got our original 44 varieties, they were from all over South America: Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina. The only ones that really grow here from seed are from southern and central Chile. That area has a similar latitude to ours.”

He talks about microclimate— the difference in climate even within just a few square feet—as factoring into quinoa growth, too. At the Clark Farm near Palouse, Washington, Ian Clark is growing two acres of quinoa as part of the team’s research on quinoa. While he is still working on cleaning the quinoa, he produced about 600 pounds this year.

“It was interesting to see large differences in plants at the Clark Farm due to water and heat stress,” Peterson said. “Plots further up on the hill where soil was deeper had much greater seed set than plots at the bottom of the hill, where soil was shallow. Heat and the local growing environment appear to be crucial factors for quinoa’s success.”

Next year Clark plans to grow quinoa in a lower spot on his farm where subsurface water is more accessible to the plants.

Making a mark

A lady bug perches on the head of the quinoa plant at the 2013 International Quinoa symposium. Photo by Therese Harris, WSU.
A lady bug perches on the head of the quinoa plant at the 2013 International Quinoa symposium. Photo by Therese Harris, WSU.

While the International Year of Quinoa may come to an end this month, Peterson is looking ahead to the next steps in understanding more about quinoa.

He hopes to pinpoint the crucial moment at which heat begins affecting quinoa and to look at the effect of drought on seed set, as well as the issue of sprouting tolerance, to identify the best varieties for the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s all in its infancy, but those are the major challenges,” Peterson said.

Walters will graduate in May, but the lines from BYU will continue to grow on the WSU Organic Farm for another year, providing the research team with further material to select for breeding.

“It’s really a unique opportunity to be on the frontlines of the whole breeding program for a crop,” Walters said. “Some of these lines look really promising for the Pacific Northwest.”

Learn more about crop and soil sciences at

-Rachel Webber

Researchers see added nutritional benefits in organic milk

CowsA team led by a Washington State University researcher has found that organic milk contains significantly higher concentrations of heart-healthy fatty acids compared to milk from cows on conventionally managed dairy farms. While all types of milk fat can help improve an individual’s fatty acid profile, the team concludes that organic whole milk does so even better. The study is the first large-scale, U.S.-wide comparison of organic and conventional milk, testing nearly 400 samples of organic and conventional milk over an 18-month period. Conventional milk had an average omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of 5.8, more than twice that of organic milk’s ratio of 2.3.

The researchers say the far healthier ratio of fatty acids in organic milk is brought about by a greater reliance on pasture and forage-based feeds on organic dairy farms.

A large body of research has shown that grass and legume forages promote cow health and improve the fatty acid profile in organic dairy products. Still,said WSU researcher Charles Benbrook, the study’s lead author, “We were surprised by the magnitude of the nutritional quality differences we documented in this study.” Read more>>

Passing the torch

What does it take to continue the work of changing our food system?

This was the question Anne Schwartz, owner of Blue Heron Farm and Nursery, posed during Washington state’s largest annual gathering of organic growers and sustainable agriculturists at the 2013 Tilth Conference, in Yakima. The “Organic Elders” workshop was part of the three-day conference, “Nourishing the Future: Cultivating our Farming Legacy.”

Anne Schwartz
Anne Schwartz

The conference kicked off with a WSU-sponsored symposium about managing and marketing poultry and small-scale livestock, featured tours of local high tunnels, and a coming together of people to enjoy meals and networking within the organic industry.

“That’s what brings so many of us together,” Schwartz said. “This dream and this goal of making our food system better than we found it.”

Schwartz was one of six “Organic Elders,” pioneers in Washington state’s organic industry, to share her personal story and skillsets–driving forces behind her participation in the effort to redesign the food system– with up-and-coming and established growers in the organic community. While attending Washington State University in the mid-1970s, she became concerned about livestock practices, she said. She has served in several capacities for WSU and has helped establish policies and laws for organic livestock production in Washington state.

David Grantastein
David Grantastein

David Granatstein, WSU sustainable agriculture specialist in Wenatchee, also shared his journey and experience as a pioneer in the organic food industry. He studied environmental science at Cornell University and later moved to Ellensburg. Little did he know that his first week in town he would be attending the Alternative Farming Conference in 1974, which became the foundation for today’s Tilth Producers organization and annual conference.

Granatstein also lived in Okanogan County (Libby Creek) and farmed alongside people and mentors who came out of the Civil Rights movement. It was here and throughout his experience that he learned the importance and the value of bridge building.

“We weren’t just about farming, we were about educating and impacting attitudes and actions,” he recalls. While farming, he became involved with research at WSU and later earned a Masters degree there. He has been serving the university in various capacities for the last 25 years.

Some of the skills he identified that helped him develop relationships and bring about change were managing conflict, being open to new ideas and perspectives, and identifying proven consequences of actions.

“One of the key events for me was attending a field day at the Dick Thompson Farm in Iowa,” he said. “He was [organic pioneer J.I.] Rodale’s poster child and he would host field days with over 1000 people. People flocked from around the world to find out what he was doing. He would stand on some hay bales on a trailer to welcome people, and say, ‘The best way to farm has not been invented. What I tell you today is based on what I know today, but I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow.’”

David Mas Masumoto and his daughter Nikiko use spoken word and other art forms to share experiences of their farm and family. Photo courtesy Tilth Producers of Washington.
David Mas Masumoto and his daughter Nikiko use spoken word and other art forms to share experiences of their farm and family. Photo courtesy Tilth Producers of Washington.


The workshop culminated in an inter-generational conversation among attendees that included discussion of personal skillsets, values, and the future of sustainable farming. Third-generation organic farmer, Bill Razey, one of the six “organic elders” who shared during the workshop, also read his poem, “Ode to the Living Market.”

Conference keynote speakers and organic farmers, David Mas Masumoto and his daughter Nikiko Masumoto, addressed participants and equipped them with a toolkit for the transfer of knowledge and the transformation of experience from one generation to the next.

“A lot of the lessons of farming are unspoken,” Nikiko said. “Things you have to learn by experience…by mistakes. So remember the next time you pick up a shovel…you are picking up a whole new kind of pedagogy.”

The Shovel was just one tool and metaphor she used to equip future and established farmers. Learn more about the 10 tools the Masumoto’s shared, including: The Shovel, Old Farm Tools, The Plate, Art, Finances, Social Media, and more at the Tilth Producers of Washington web site, here.

-Rachel Webber

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