U.S. farm­ers make foray into quinoa as de­mand for grain grows

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Manuel Valdes

To the south of Nash Hu­ber’s farm fields are the Olympic Moun­tains, peak­ing at nearly 8,000 feet. Due north is the end of a chan­nel of Pa­cific Ocean wa­ters that sep­a­rate the United States from Canada.

Yet in this cor­ner of the coun­try is where the 75-year-old Hu­ber hopes the South Amer­i­can grain quinoa takes root.

Last month, Hu­ber har­vested quinoa com­mer­cially for the first time on about 30 acres, mak­ing him the lat­est ad­di­tion to a small num­ber of U.S. farm­ers try­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on Amer­i­can eaters’ grow­ing de­mand for the An­dean grain.

“It’s a beau­ti­ful crop,” Hu­ber said as he sur­veyed his com­bine grind­ing the plants and spit­ting out the seeds. He chose a va­ri­ety called Red­head, which turned his field lip­stick red for a cou­ple of weeks be­fore har­vest. “We’re still learn­ing. I kind of stepped off the end of the dock here with a bit of a bite this year.”

Amer­i­cans con­sume more than half the global pro­duc­tion of quinoa, which to­taled 37,000 tons in 2012. Twenty years ear­lier, pro­duc­tion was merely 600 tons, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tion’s Food and Agri­cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Yet quinoa fields are so rare in Amer­i­can farm­ing that the to­tal acreage doesn’t show on an agri­cul­tural cen­sus, said Ju-

lianne Kel­logg, a Wash­ing­ton State Uni­ver­sity grad­u­ate stu­dent mon­i­tor­ing quinoa test plots around the Olympic Moun­tains, in­clud­ing one next to Hu­ber’s field. A rough es­ti­mate puts the coun­try’s quinoa fields at 3,000 to 5,000 acres.

Quinoa’s nu­tri­tional punch has pushed the grain be­yond health food stores and into gen­eral con­sump­tion, propped up by celebri­ties like Oprah Win­frey.

It has all the amino acids hu­mans need, mak­ing it a com­plete pro­tein, Kel­logg said. That’s hard to find in grain crops, she said. It’s also gluten-free.

The grain’s fu­ture is marked with pos­si­bil­i­ties, in­clud­ing milk, beer, ce­re­als, hair prod­ucts, snacks — prod­ucts well be­yond the salad bar.

“I think we’re wit­ness­ing the start of a sta­ple,” said Ser­gio Nuñez de Arco, a Bo­livia na­tive whose com­pany, An­dean Nat­u­rals, has been in­stru­men­tal in bring­ing quinoa north, dis­tribut­ing to Costco, Trader Joe’s and oth­ers.

The spike in de­mand from the U.S. and Europe led big farm op­er­a­tions in Peru to en­ter quinoa farm­ing a few years ago. That re­sulted in an over­sup­ply, and prices have been fall­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to a July re­port from the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s For­eign Agri­cul­tural Ser­vice, quinoa prices plum­meted about 40 per­cent be­tween Septem­ber 2014 and Au­gust 2015.

“Farm­ers are ro­tat­ing out of quinoa,” Nuñez de Arco said. “They went back to the city to look for work. It was good while it lasted, so it’s back to ru­ral mi­gra­tion.”

Nuñez de Arco has opened a Cal­i­for­nia pro­cess­ing plant for the bit­ter coat­ing that cov­ers the quinoa grains. It wasn’t wel­come news for his Bo­li­vian farm­ers.

“There needs to be some im­prove­ment to prac­tices and they’re gonna get that through some healthy com­pe­ti­tion,” said Nuñez de Arco, now based in San Fran­cisco. “My push has been to pro­tect the smaller farmer in a top­shelf niche, where they will have the de­mand.”

In Wash­ing­ton state, Hu­ber’s quinoa will head to Lund­berg Fam­ily Farms, a Cal­i­for­nia-based com­pany that has been a leader in do­mes­tic quinoa pro­duc­tion. This year, Lund­berg and its net­work of con­tracted farm­ers along the West Coast hope to har­vest 2 mil­lion pounds of quinoa.

“It’s great to have prod­uct avail­able where folks are con­sum­ing it,” said Tim Schultz, vice pres­i­dent of re­search and de­vel­op­ment at Lund­berg.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Farmer Sam McCul­lough uses his com­bine to har­vest quinoa Sept. 13 near Se­quim, Wash. Quinoa, a trendy South Amer­i­can grain, barely has a foothold in Amer­i­can agri­cul­ture, but a hand­ful of farm­ers and uni­ver­sity re­searchers are work­ing to­ward chang­ing that.

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