Quinoa trial for Northeast upland farms

Final Report for FNE12-760

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2012: $9,370.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
David McClelland
Maplebank Farm
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Project Information


Our project was designed to study the feasibility of growing quinoa on upland NE United States farms by examining the growth patterns and yields of 4 named varieties planted by broadcast and row seeded methods and raised without irrigation, soil amendments or pesticides. Besides the 4 test plots which had row seeded and broadcast sections side by side we planted 2 one acre fields which were broadcast and 4 additional 100 square foot plots which were broadcast to observe their growth habit. 3 of the 4 varieties in the replicate test plots germinated and grew very well while the 4th (which we had been warned about by the supplier) germinated and grew unevenly. This same variety failed utterly in its one acre field plot while the other field plot struggled against the hot dry conditions this summer. 2 of the 4 observational plots failed to germinate. 1 of the replicate plots was damaged by a natural gas leak from a gas transmission line which runs under the farm. At the end of the summer when the crop matured we found that the seedheads in all the plots were empty. Very few seeds were recovered, certainly not enough to make an economically viable crop. This was the hottest summer in 147 years in our area and the lack of rainfall in June and July made this one of the most challenging growing seasons we have experienced.


What is Quinoa and Why is it Important ?

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is a grain with a fast developing market but its growth as a farm crop in the northeastern United States is hampered by the lack of information on its cultural requirements. Because quinoa is gluten free, has a better protein to carbohydrate ratio than wheat, and has a remarkably balanced range of amino acids, it would make a healthy addition to the American diet. In 1993 NASA investigated quinoa as one of the most valuable foods which could be grown for long duration space travel because of its high protein content and remarkably balanced amino acid ratios (NASA Technical Paper 3422). In the last decade quinoa has gained a reputation as a gluten-free, nutritionally valuable food which is delicious and easy to integrate into the American diet. The resultant growth in demand has increased the retail price to as much as $4 per pound. Almost all quinoa sold in the US is imported from the Andes. Finding an area of the US which could produce an organic local quinoa supply would improve the income of American farmers and increase the amount of quinoa available to the American consumer while at the same time reducing the economic pressure which is driving the price of a dietary staple beyond the means of many in the Andes (as detailed in a March 20, 2011 New York Times story).
Because the important American crops, corn, soybeans, and wheat dominate the best soil regions of the US, quinoa might prove to be an interesting alternative crop for those regions which are not well suited to such large-scale farming. Quinoa, much like buckwheat, requires cool night time temperatures to set viable seed. Since buckwheat is well adapted to many of the higher altitude farms of mountain Pennsylvania, the Southern Tier and Catskill areas of New York, the Berkshire region of Massachusetts, and the entire states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, quinoa may grow in the same areas.

Project Objectives:
What We Attempted to Measure

The project had 4 main questions to be answered:
Will quinoa grow and prosper in our climate?;
What yields will we get from the 4 varieties?;
Does planting method affect yield?;
Will quinoa lend itself to harvest by standard combine?

These questions pertained specifically to the 4 varieties which had replicate side by side plots which compared row seeded and broadcast plant growth. In addition 4 plots were planted to judge whether their varieties might be suitable for further experimentation and 2 one acre fields were planted to assess the use of a combine to harvest quinoa.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Elizabeth Dyck


Materials and methods:
How We Structured and Ran Trial

Replicate plots 7.5 feet by 30 feet were laid out on a level field of Pawling silt loam on our farm at an altitude of 2000 feet in western New York state. 4 named varieties of quinoa were purchased; Oro de Valle, Temuko, Shelley Black, and Faro. Each was planted with a row seeder (an Earthway brand) using the smallest seed disk on one side of the plot and the other side of the plot was broadcast. We attempted to plant 1500 seeds per plot by weighing the seeds and extrapolating from small samples. The seeds are very small and we calculated that 1.25 teaspoons of Temuko contained 1500 seeds. Diluting the seeds with fine sand to run through the row seeder proved too abrasive and we substituted dried coffee grounds to good effect. Each of the plots was then randomly replicated on another part of the field to try and minimize the microlocal effects of moisture and fertility. 4 other plots were broadcast with the varieties Kaslala, Brightest Brilliant Rainbow, Linares, and Bio Bio to see whether they would germinate and grow. 2 one acre plots were broadcast seeded so that we could test the efficacy of combine harvesting. All of the plots were planted on land which had been planted in buckwheat the previous season. All of the plots were plowed in April and then cultivated when the weeds sprouted to leave a stale seedbed at planting time. All of the small plots were hand raked so that our abundant stones would not interfere with the row seeder. No pesticides or amendments were applied. The first set of plots were planted into a fine rain on the 7th of May and they germinated the next day as shown in photo number 1. The replicate plots were planted May 11. Planting dates were based on recommendations from researchers in Colorado and Washington State. A light frost on the night of the 10-11 of May did not seem to discourage the previously planted quinoa.

Research results and discussion:
How the Quinoa Grew in the Hot Summer of 2012

Although rain was very light through the later part of May, soil moisture from April rain and snow stimulated the quinoa to grow at a rate of roughly 1 inch per week which gave us the healthy stand depicted in photo 2. After a nice wet first week of June we didn’t see but 2 days of rain the rest of the month. Still the quinoa grew and we thinned the row seeded plants to 4 per foot and left the broadcast seeds to grow in profusion (photo 3 ). The Faro, Temuko, and Oro de Valle germinated and grew very evenly (photos 5,6, and 7) while the Shelley Black germinated unevenly and produced plants of variable size and shape (photo 8). We had been warned by the supplier that the Shelley Black seed had not passed their germination tests but we bought it to test in our own climate. The 1 acre field of Shelley Black was a complete failure and we plowed it up July 1 to plant buckwheat. Of the observational plots Bio Bio and Kaslala failed to germinate and grow while Brightest Brilliant Rainbow and Linares both produced abundant growth. July and August brought dry weather with temperatures which pushed our part of western New York to its hottest summer in 147 years. The quinoa grew well throughout this period outcompeting all of the other weeds except for its near relative lambsquarter (Chenopodium album). Seedheads had started to form in the first week of July and they continued to swell and to deepen in color throughout the summer. The plants in the row seeded side of the plots developed more side branches than the broadcast plants but the heights were similar. Some Japanese beetles and a small unknown bug possibly lygus bugs were observed but they caused almost no visible damage although it is possible that the lygus bugs, if that is what they were, damaged the embryonic seeds as they were developing (photo 4). By planting corn nearby we managed to divert all the deer. Hurricane Isaac finally delivered rain in the first week of September and we began to contemplate harvest. Unfortunately we couldn’t detect any seed in the large numerous seedheads. Our advisor, Dr. Elizabeth Dyck, came on September 20 and we spent the entire day dissecting seedheads and prowling the various plots looking for some evidence that there was something there to harvest. We didn’t find anything. During the month of October we continued to comb our plots and ran the combine through the remaining acre field of quinoa without finding more than a dozen seeds. Dr Dyck was able to harvest a small amount of seed from her trial in central New York and we have appended her results in Document 1.

Research conclusions:
What We Learned by Planting Quinoa

With any crop there are two halves to complete success; the first half being sowing and raising healthy plants, and the second half reaping an economically valuable harvest. We identified 5 varieties of quinoa; Faro, Oro de Valle, Temuko, Linares, and Brightest Brilliant Rainbow which germinated well in our soil and grew readily in our climate. We found that a finely prepared seedbed and freedom from weed competition in the early weeks of growth benefit the quinoa. We established that both row seeding and broadcasting are viable options for growing quinoa with row seeding being much much easier to cultivate and broadcasting much easier to sow (see photo 9). We were encouraged by the strong growth of the varieties which germinated and passed through record setting heat and long dry stretches without being irrigated or having soil amendments applied. What we failed to accomplish was to harvest a crop of seeds. We did eat a small amount of the quinoa as greens and it was excellent, tasting exactly like lambsquarter, but that wasn’t the point of this trial. We believe that the quinoa failed to set seed because the summer temperatures may have damaged the pollen and interfered with process of fertilization.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:
How We Are Spreading the Word

We are disseminating information about our trial by using three main avenues. The field day that we held on the farm of our advisor, Dr Elizabeth Dyck, featured a walk through of her plots and an illustrated lecture showing our results up to that date, September 9. After the harvest failed to find significant amounts of seed we wrote up our results with full color illustrations and produced a brochure which we distributed at the New Jersey Winter Organic Conference and which we have given to all who have asked for hard copy information about quinoa farming (Document 2, 3). The final report will also be posted on the website of OGRIN, www.ogrin.org, the Organic Growers Research and Information sharing Network, which serves as an information hub for many organic farmers who are investigating non-traditional crops for NorthEastern farms.

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

How Quinoa Can Benefit Farmers in the Northeast ?

If we can establish a successful method of planting and raising quinoa in our climate the primary benefit to farmers will be by providing a high value grain with an increasing consumer demand. At present all the quinoa grown on a commercial basis in the United States comes from Colorado. If farmers in the North East had another crop to add diversity to their product mix they would reduce dependency on crops which are grown in the Midwest and Great Plains states. A second strong benefit would come from having a break crop to insert into their crop rotation since quinoa does not share pests with the more common crops such as corn, wheat, or soybeans.

Future Recommendations

Looking Forward to Growing Quinoa Successfully in the North East

We are optimistic about the future of quinoa in our climate. The vegetative growth of the 5 varieties which germinated was very encouraging. The resistance of the plant to light frost, dry weeks, and the strong winds and drenching rain of the tail of Hurricane Isaac was impressive. The possible damage to the pollen caused by the high temperature during the period of blooming is a cause for concern. It may be possible to move the planting date to avoid having the quinoa blooming in the hottest portion of the summer. Planting earlier seems risky because April in our area often brings snow and hard freezes but it may prove practical to move the planting date later into the summer. We traditionally plant buckwheat on the 4th of July. Perhaps by running a series of succession plantings from May through until July 4th we can establish an optimum date for maturing in cooler temperatures while still allowing sufficient time for the plants to fully mature. Our buckwheat crop set seed even though buckwheat pollen is also sensitive to high temperature.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.