Although many people have probably never heard of it, much less know how to pronounce it, quinoa could become a staple crop in eastern Idaho, some growers believe.
Quinoa, pronounced KEEN-WAH, is a pseudocereal seed that is high in protein and often used similarly to grains. Because of its purported health benefits, and the fact that it’s gluten-free, quinoa’s popularity has skyrocketed in the United States. The grain substitute also is low in calories.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. imported 45 percent of the world’s quinoa in 2013 — about 70 million pounds. The bulk of that was produced in Bolivia and Peru. The worldwide interest in quinoa prompted the United Nations to designate 2013 as the “International Year of Quinoa.”
Jeremiah Clark, owner of Idaho Falls-based Clark Seed LLC, said demand for quinoa is higher than the supply coming out of South America, resulting in high seed prices. In addition, eastern Idaho’s high-desert climate is well suited to grow quinoa. That led Clark to plant 20 acres of quinoa on his farm near Grace. Should Clark hit his anticipated yield — 1,000 pounds per acre — he will try to plant 6,000 acres of quinoa under contract next spring and start building a quinoa processing plant in Idaho Falls this winter.
But from Clark’s point of view, that’s only the beginning for quinoa in the U.S.
“If we (U.S. farmers) really wanted to, it would be easy to produce 100 million pounds, which is more than we import right now, but the demand keeps going up,” he said.
Today, quinoa is not very popular among eastern Idaho farmers.
Lance Ellis, a University of Idaho extension educator, estimated a maximum of 10 farmers in the Teton Valley are growing quinoa, all popping up within the past four years. Quinoa doesn’t appeal to a broad market, he said.
“The quinoa market is kind of the health food (market),” Ellis said. “They are getting into baby foods, they are getting into snack foods…. It has good protein content and health-wise, it’s a healthy food.”
But according to Clark, it’s worth raising.
If he hits his 1,000-pounds-per-acre benchmark, he said the crop would be more profitable than wheat and barley.
Depending on yield, Clark said wheat and barley can sell for anywhere between $600 and $1,200 per acre. Clark said he would expect farmers to make $1 per pound on quinoa, so depending on the yield, they could make between $1,000 and $3,000 per acre.
“That’s what I want farmers to know,” Clark said. “It’s a little more risky, but the payoff is a lot better than wheat or barley.”
In South America, it is mostly grown without irrigation. With the irrigation, fertilizer and more-experienced farmers, Clark said the crop has the potential to yield 3,000 pounds per acre.
“It would be more profitable than potatoes,” Clark said.
Clark said the yield on an acre of potatoes could sell for $2,400 to $3,600. However, he said the input costs on farming potatoes are much more than farming quinoa, resulting in higher profit margins for farming quinoa. The Idaho Farm Bureau Federation said the average Idaho farmer spends $1,650 to produce an acre of potatoes. Clark said it costs him about $500 to produce an acre of quinoa.
While Clark is a quinoa pioneer in the region, other growers have considered it.
Jason Howell, 33, of Ashton, likes to get in on the ground floor with new crops — 140 of his 2,500 acres are growing flax, which he said has done very well.
“All these people get allergic to gluten and you keep thinking about the next money-making project,” Howell said.
But Howell hasn’t thought too seriously about quinoa because he can’t find seed on a commercial level.
Because of the lack of seed, Clark said he could get more from his 20-acre yield selling it for seed rather than food. After harvest, he plans to sell seed to farmers under the agreement that he will purchase the quinoa they grow with it at $1 per pound.
Greg Blaser, an agriculture professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho, grows quinoa for classroom purposes. He said a lack of seed is a deterrent for farmers to branch out to the crop, but doesn’t expect it to stay that way for long.
“It will become more and more available once there is more interest,” Blaser said. “The more popular it becomes, the more growers will want to grow it.”
Kevin Murphy, an assistant professor in the Barley and Alternative Crop Breeding department at Washington State University, is working to end the seed shortage.
“I’ve been doing quinoa research here, this is our fifth year,” Murphy said. “We do breeding. We haven’t released new varieties yet, but we have a very active breeding program.”
Murphy is working on creating commercial seed varieties that will thrive in the U.S. He said the seed likely will not be available before 2017, and perhaps longer.
However, once it is available, Murphy is confident farmers such as Clark will see yields of 3,000 pounds per acre.
“We regularly see 1,000 (pounds) per acre, we have seen over 2,000,” he said. “But none of that is from our breeds, so we figure it would get better.”
Once seed is available, Murphy said quinoa will become a cash crop. The demand already is there, it’s the supply that has to catch up.
“The folks buying quinoa really want domestic quinoa, and we can’t get enough from Peru and Bolivia,” he said. “We are pretty optimistic about the future of quinoa.”
Reporter Aubrey Wieber can be reached at 542-6755.