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WSU’s Green Times- Tilth Producers, Quinoa Harvest

Posted by l.meyer | April 28, 2014

Growing quinoa in the Pacific Northwest

Quinoa's reddish coat under the microscope: The red outer layer of the seed flakes off when rubbed. Photo by Adam Peterson.
Quinoa’s reddish coat under the microscope: The red outer layer of the seed flakes off when rubbed. Photo by Adam Peterson.

Growing quinoa where few have grown before, Hannah Walters and Adam Peterson are learning important lessons about what the protein-packed seed crop requires to fare in the Pacific Northwest: starting small in unfamiliar territory, choosing the right varieties, irrigation based on microclimate, and heat tolerance. At a test plot in northern Idaho, they even discovered how much deer like to eat the purple kind. “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 International Year of Quinoa came to an end in December 2013, the two reflected on quinoa harvests at trial plots in eastern 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 in crop and soil sciences, observed that under the right conditions, increasing water can also lead to more colorful 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 the time they are ready for harvest.

Walters hand-harvested five successful quinoa variety lines (breeding material that is being improved by breeders before release to growers) at the WSU Organic Farm in Pullman that were developed by researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU). Her graduate research involves phenotyping the varieties; that is, documenting the physical traits exhibited by the plants. She explained that genetically similar plants 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.

In addition to the penotyping project, Walters has also established irrigation trials at the WSU Organic Farm to see if different methods of irrigation influence the dryland crop’s yield potential. She found that irrigated plants had a better yield than those in 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

Part of Peterson’s research includes making crosses of different quinoa varieties to arrive at a clean, sweet, or saponin-free, seed. This would eliminate the need to wash or rinse the seeds before preparing, a step that ensures the soapy, bitter outer layer. Some quinoa growers are experimenting with different methods to find the best way to clean the seeds, including using a household washing machine.

A matching game

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

Peterson was a field trial manager at Evergreen State College in Olympia when he first worked with Kevin Murphy. In 2010, they obtained 44 quinoa varieties from the local USDA seed bank and grew them in both eastern and western Washington. Of the total, the WSU Organic Farm hosted 11 varieties that produced seeds.

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

“When Kevin took me on as a grad student in 2011, I started working with these 11 fertile varieties. 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. Our original 44 varieties 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.”

Peterson 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 WSU’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. Temperature and the local growing environment appear to be crucial factors that affect 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

Peterson hopes to pinpoint the crucial moment at which heat begins affecting quinoa, as well as characterize the effects of drought on seed set and 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

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 the 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.”

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 food 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. About a year ago, she got a letter asking her to serve in developing programs with the WSU organic farms, she told attendees.

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.’”

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, 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 toolkit for 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 encourage future and established farmers. Learn more about the 10 tools the Masumoto’s shared to encourage future and established farmers, including: The Shovel, Old Farm Tools, The Plate, Art, Finances, Social Media, and more at the Tilth Producers of Washington web site, here.