tiny seeds of su­per­food suc­cess

Meet NZ’S first quinoa crop­pers

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS & IM­AGES JO BATES

Dan Cot­trell is get­ting a kick out of grow­ing an Andean su­per­food in Tai­hape. He and wife Jac­qui are the pi­o­neers of grow­ing the an­cient seed quinoa favoured for its pro­tein-packed power punch in the heart of ru­ral New Zealand.

“It’s pretty ex­cit­ing do­ing some­thing new, I’m re­ally get­ting a kick out of what started as an ex­per­i­ment. And it’s just great to see that ev­ery­one around us has been so en­thu­si­as­tic – the re­sponse in the mar­ket has been fan­tas­tic,” says Dan. “When sup­pli­ers learn that they can get quinoa grown here by a New Zealand farmer, they think it’s great. We get a lot of sat­is­fac­tion from that as well.”

Dan and Jac­qui har­vested their first com­mer­cial crop of quinoa (pro­nounced keen-wah) last year from a 3ha site planted on Dan’s fam­ily’s sheep and beef farm north-west of Tai­hape.

“We sowed our first crop in spring and by the time it was har­vested we pretty much had a home for it,” says Dan. The seed was snapped up by Sa­bato, an Auck­land pur­veyor of fine foods.

“They took it all and it’s sup­plied to the restau­rant trade through them.”

The seed for their new-found busi­ness was planted while Dan and Jac­qui were on their ‘big OE’, which in­cluded trav­el­ling through South Amer­ica where the seed has been a food sta­ple for thou­sands of years. The idea slowly ger­mi­nated un­til tak­ing root in test tri­als at the farm in 2014.

Af­ter years of hard work, Dan says it has been re­ward­ing to see their quinoa find its way into some of New Zealand’s lead­ing lodges, in­clud­ing Huka Lodge, The Farm at Cape Kid­nap­pers and Blan­ket Bay.

Their sec­ond crop cov­ered 10ha and was har­vested a few weeks ago.

“This next year we are go­ing to do our own re­tail packs,” says Dan, who has had a num­ber of enquiries from other bou­tique re­tail­ers. “We’ve also just fielded a call from an­other farmer who said they’re go­ing to trial quinoa, so we could have some com­pe­ti­tion soon.”

Ground work

Tai­hape-raised Dan stud­ied agri­cul­ture, then went into ru­ral finance as a grad­u­ate. Jac­qui, who hails from Al­bury in New South Wales, Aus­tralia, also stud­ied agri­cul­ture, then moved into agron­omy.

“It helps that Jac­qui is an agron­o­mist, she’s a bit of a guru on plants, health and soil nu­tri­tion so we are a re­ally good com­bi­na­tion.”

Af­ter their OE, Dan and Jac­qui moved to Aus­tralia where they kept the quinoa­grow­ing idea in their back pock­ets.

“I was sow­ing broad-acre crops of wheat and canola in New South Wales and I spent

a lot of time on a trac­tor,” says Dan. “That’s when I re­ally started pick­ing over the idea.”

He de­cided to get quinoa seeds sent from France to the fam­ily farm for his dad – who was “pretty keen to get in­volved” – to plant.

The cou­ple moved to the farm in the spring of 2015 and man­aged the trial-an­der­ror phase around daily life on the farm and rais­ing their son Char­lie (2).

“It was all lessons along the way,” says Dan. “At first we didn’t even know if quinoa would grow here. We slowly did our home­work, lots of Googling and re­search. I ended up trav­el­ing to Europe to meet with a plant breeder and things re­ally took off from there. He orig­i­nally sent over sam­ples of a few dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties, some worked and some re­ally didn’t. We also tried plant­ing stuff from the health food store and that re­ally tanked. The first tri­als were com­pletely taken over by weeds and we ended up aban­don­ing them. We came to the va­ri­ety that we are now us­ing and it clicked, it seems to thrive in this cli­mate.”

Meet the su­per seed

Quinoa is tra­di­tion­ally grown at high al­ti­tudes in South Amer­ica. But since its rapid rise in pop­u­lar­ity and recog­ni­tion as a su­per food, it’s now grown com­mer­cially in about 70 coun­tries, in­clud­ing the USA, Africa, Ire­land, Ger­many, France, Belgium, the Nether­lands and Spain. It’s also grown in Aus­tralia, although it can strug­gle in the coun­try’s hot­ter re­gions, says Dan.

“If the tem­per­a­ture gets too hot, the plant shuts down.”

The small seed is cred­ited with be­ing a com­plete pro­tein – it has dou­ble the amount of pro­tein found in rice and bar­ley – and in­cludes amino acids, an­tiox­i­dants, min­er­als and Omega 3,

among other good­ies. Although it’s of­ten touted as a grain, the broad-leaf non­legume is wheat and gluten-free, and low-gi* (see page 24).

“Nu­tri­tion­ally you can’t ar­gue with its cre­den­tials,” says Dan. Its sta­tus has been recog­nised by the United Na­tions’ Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion, which of­fi­cially de­clared 2013 as ‘The In­ter­na­tional Year of Quinoa’.

If you cook it un­til it’s light and fluffy – which takes a snappy 15 min­utes – this nutty-tast­ing seed can be made into sal­ads and frit­ters, added to soups and stir-fries, eaten as break­fast por­ridge, and used as a base for nu­mer­ous sweet and savoury dishes.

Sus­tain­able grow­ing and crop ro­ta­tion

Quinoa is a fast-grow­ing crop, ready to har­vest ap­prox­i­mately five months af­ter plant­ing, but Dan and Jac­qui’s va­ri­ety is even faster, at about four months.

“We have an early ma­tur­ing va­ri­ety. The va­ri­ety used in Europe in a big way takes longer, about five-and-a-half months. At the altitude we’re at, it was push­ing har­vest out to be too close to au­tumn, which means prob­lems with rain. We sow mid-oc­to­ber and har­vest in mid-fe­bru­ary when it’s re­ally hot and dry here, so it works per­fectly.

“Tech­ni­cally, it’s a broad-leaf weed and the big­gest is­sue is weeds. We are farm­ing it or­gan­i­cally so there are no her­bi­cides. You’ve got to do all your work at the be­gin­ning, be­fore you even sow. In Septem­ber, we work the ground up to the seed bed and do what was done in the old days be­fore her­bi­cides: let a strike of weeds come away, clear them, then sow. It’s quite a hun­gry crop, and with this va­ri­ety you do need to look af­ter it and fer­tilise. In terms of sow­ing, we just change the set­tings on the com­bine har­vester.”

Dan has learnt to be se­lec­tive with crop ro­ta­tion. A bras­sica for­age crop grew an un­man­age­able amount of weeds, and he’s found that grass-quinoa-grass is the win­ner.

“Af­ter har­vest in Fe­bru­ary, we re-sow it

into new grass. We have a pre­dom­i­nantly pas­ture-based sys­tem with sheep and cat­tle, so the spin-off is we get a new grass pad­dock out of it,” he says.

“Once you’ve done the ground work, you then have the lux­ury of watch­ing it grow. It’s a great feeling once it’s in the ground be­cause there are a lot of ma­chine hours get­ting it to that stage.”

The per­fect va­ri­ety of quinoa

Most Andean va­ri­eties of quinoa have nat­u­rally-oc­cur­ring, bit­ter-tast­ing saponins coat­ing the out­side of the seed which are washed and pol­ished from the seed be­fore re­tail. The process in­volves equip­ment and cost, but Dan and Jac­qui have by­passed this is­sue by grow­ing a saponin-free va­ri­ety.

“It has ben­e­fits in terms of cook­ing as it doesn’t go gluggy, com­pared to some va­ri­eties that’ve been pre-washed and pol­ished. It’s a lot bet­ter in my opin­ion and our lab tests show a higher pro­tein con­tent of about two per­cent. Im­ported grains have been heat-treated and this has an ef­fect on the food. Com­pared to some­thing you’ve just sieved off the husk, they’re two dif­fer­ent things. And it can be sprouted, which is what a chef in Pon­sonby is do­ing; you can’t do that with a heat-treated grain,” says Dan.

“We cer­tainly haven’t mas­tered it – we are do­ing a few things dif­fer­ently this year and that will con­tinue as we go along, but in two years we’ve made a lot of progress.”

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