Interview: On Growing Quinoa in America (and Your Backyard!?) with Ian Dixon-McDonald Hot

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The health food boom in the United States and other countries is already manifesting countless positive effects, but the sudden interest in non-traditional foods has also created a host of new challenges for natives in the areas that produce them.

Take quinoa for example. The popular superfood might be the most complete vegan protein in the world, and it has become a staple for millions after rising from relative obscurity in recent years.

But while the increased popularity of quinoa has made many small-scale farmers a lot of money, it also has caused some trouble in areas where it’s grown, such as Bolivia. Territorial fights over land for growing quinoa, changes to traditional farming methods due to the need for more production, and rising prices of the food itself are among the side effects of heightened demand.

Much of that demand comes from America. The U.S. was expected to import 68 million pounds of quinoa in 2013 and prices tripled between 2006 and 2011.

While America used to produce 37 percent of the world’s quinoa supply according to former Colorado State agronomist Duane Johnson, pressure from advocates of indigenous farmers led to a decision by CSU not to pursue more production programs, as some said it would destroy the Bolivian industry.

Now that demand for quinoa is rising, the American quinoa industry could be set up for a comeback, and new programs are being developed by universities to grow organic quinoa for the next generation.

Growing Quinoa in the US

We recently caught up with Ian Dixon-McDonald, Farm & Garden Director of the Marion-Polk Food Share in Salem, Oregon, about what it takes to grow quinoa and what the future of the American quinoa industry might hold.

AHW: When did the food share start growing quinoa and what spurred the decision? Do they still grow it today?

IDM: We started growing quinoa in 2012, just small experimental plots at community gardens. Then in 2013 we grew a 9 acre plot. Our interest in quinoa stemmed from an interest in protein. Due a shortage of affordable protein-rich options in our emergency food supply, we developed our own source: the Better Burger. The Better Burger is a protein rich garden-burger product that tastes great. Quinoa is one of the primary ingredients, but it’s also very expensive.  So we decided to try growing it ourselves!

 

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Growing quinoa in America (and in your backyard). Is it possible? Here, Jared Hibbard-Swanson from the food share inspects the latest quinoa crop in Oregon.

AHW: How has the crop been doing so far in Oregon? Is it difficult to grow in comparison to other crops?

IDM: It’s hard to say how it’s doing overall as only a few gardeners and even fewer farmers have tried it. But for us it grew quite vigorously. The main challenge was harvesting it during a dry window in the fall. We had some loss (head sprouting) due to some rain in September. It’s relatively simply to grow, similar to grain crops.

AHW: I heard Oregon State University had been researching the potential of growing quinoa in Oregon…have you partnered with them?

IDM: Not directly, but we would like to work more closely with OSU next season. We have been in frequent communication with Washington State University, where they’ve been experimenting with hundreds of quinoa varieties over the past several years.

AHW: If the crop does indeed grow well in Oregon, do the experts say that it could potentially spread to other states? Which climates may be the best and which would it not work in?

IDM: I’m not sure, but I do know that several food distributors in the region are interested in locally sourced quinoa. If it works economically to grow it, I think there is a market waiting to buy it. Quinoa grows in a range of climates and elevations, but it all depends on where your seed is from. I think it could be adapted to much of the western United States.

AHW: How big is the social responsibility aspect of the quinoa farming? Have you read the articles about how natives have struggled to buy it in their own lands since the “quinoa boom?”

IDM: I have read some articles about the effect of the global quinoa market on South American farmers, some that highlight positives and others the negatives. Clearly, we have an incredibly complicated and connected food system. I do think that farming more of our foods locally for local consumers is generally a positive thing, as long as we respect and honor the original stewards of this amazing plant.

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A beautiful field of specialty varieties of quinoa growing in Oregon.
Photos courtesy of Marion-Polk Food Share

AHW: What is the ultimate goal of your quinoa growing project? How big is it now size wise and what scale would you like to see it grow to in the future?

IDM: The main goal is to supply quinoa for the Better Burger for emergency food distribution. We may look at selling quinoa in the future as a means to fund our farming operations. In 2014, we hope to plant 40 acres, depending on seed availability.

AHW: What have people told you about the quinoa so far and what varieties do you have?

IDM: Our varieties were all developed by Frank Morton at Wild Garden Seed. These include Cherry Vanilla, French Vanilla and Brightest Brilliant Rainbow.

AHW: Is quinoa something people could conceivably grow in their backyards?

IDM: Definitely. Our first test plots were backyard-sized plots and they did wonderfully. You won’t get a huge yield from a small plot, but it’s easy to grow.

AHW: How does Oregon compare to its original/most common South American habitat?

IDM: Quinoa grows in a variety of environments in South America. If you plant quinoa you buy at the store, it probably won’t grow because it’s from a very high elevation climate. But our seed source has selected quinoa varieties for tolerance of the Pacific Northwest climate for the past 30 years. Most likely, their seed stock came from low lands of Chile, more similar in climate to Oregon.

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AHW: What seasons does it grow during typically?

IDM: In Oregon, plant mid-April and harvest in August or September, once seed heads are fully formed and leaves dropped, but before it rains!

AHW: Have you seen it grow in crazy conditions?

IDM: We had a huge rain storm in September, but it damaged quite a bit of the crop. Quinoa is not very tolerant of high winds or strong rains.

AHW: Thanks Ian, where can people go to learn more info?

IDM: Washington State University and Wild Garden Seed are both great resources. I am also happy to answer questions and help others in their quest to grow quinoa! They can email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or call 503-581-3855, x329.

AHW: Excellent Ian, thanks. By the way one more question, what type of reaction do you get when you tell people you grow quinoa?

IDM: If they know what it is, they’re surprised that it can grow here. Most people think it can only grow in the very high elevations of the Andes.

 

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