Taihape farmers supplying locally grown quinoa to New Zealand
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoais) is a flowering annual plant grown as a crop for its edible seeds. Although it is not a grain, it is prepared and eaten similarly to a grain and is richer in important nutrients than many grains. A native of South America, it was a staple food of the Incas. In recent times it has become a popular health food in the West because it is gluten-free, high in protein and one of the few plant foods that contain all nine essential amino acids. It also provides fibre, magnesium, B vitamins, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E and various antioxidants. Until now it hasn’t been considered as a crop that could be grown successfully in New Zealand.
In 2013 Taihape farmers Dan and Jacqui Cottrell were on holiday in Peru when they first encountered quinoa in food they were offered daily. They saw it being grown in a landscape and climate that reminded them of home – well above sea level, cool nights, reasonably hot days, and fairly dry summers. The question was could they grow it successfully near Taihape?
A 550ha hill country farm 750m above sea level is not a likely location for arable cropping. It typically has cold winters with some late snow, and rainfall of about 700mm with a dry summer. However, with Jacqui an agronomist and Dan an experienced farmer keen to try something new, they decided to give it a go. Little information was available, so they had to learn mainly by doing.
They chose a reasonably flat area for their first crop in 2014. The harvest was small but encouraging. Dan went to Europe for a week to research growing and agronomy. They imported 45kg of seed from a plant breeder who introduced them to his network for information sharing. In 2016 they harvested 3ha, kept enough seed for the following year and sold the rest. By then they had tried four varieties and picked one that had a short growing season and produced saponin-free seeds (saponins on quinoa are mildly toxic compounds that need to be washed off prior to consumption).
For the 2016/17 season they sowed 10ha and despite blustery conditions at harvest produced enough finished quinoa to be able to supply retailers around the country. This season they sowed 30ha and despite very dry conditions the crop is looking ok.
The area to be sown is sprayed out of pasture in early September, left fallow for 4 weeks and then sprayed again to control emerging weeds. Apart from that no other sprays of any sort are used on the crop. Sowing is carried out in mid-October, and Dan is unsure whether direct drilling or cultivation first gives a better result. “Initially we believed we needed to cultivate to get a fine seed bed because previous direct drilling hasn't worked well. Early this season the cultivated quinoa looked brilliant and the direct drilled looked terrible but once it got dry the situation flipped and the direct drilled crop was much better than the cultivated and now looks like it will have twice the yield,” he says. “The sequence is now spray, cultivate, four weeks fallow, spray again, then sow; or spray, fallow, spray and direct drill. Then we essentially leave the crop alone.”
In previous seasons Dan used comparatively large amounts of fertiliser based on recommendations from Europe, but eventually realised he was putting on too much. “European soils are perennially cropped and so don't have the organic matter and microbes that we do under a pasture system,” he says. “We have been tweaking the amounts back and now use a basic starter fertiliser such as 150kg/ha DAP plus a side dressing just prior to flowering in early December. We started out doing two side dressings but now we use one, basically nitrogen and a few other nutrients targeted to flowering and reproduction. Olsen P levels don’t seem to be limiting but N levels are – it is a high N seed. A pH of 6 is fine.”
Pre-sowing sprays plus sowing a dense crop mean that weeds are not a concern. So far, pests and diseases have not been a problem either, apart from birds just before harvest. After 100 days the crop is ready, usually around the first week in February. Quinoa seeds do not mature evenly so the crop is generally windrowed (cut and left for about five days to hasten ripening of any immature seeds). Then it is harvested with a large combine harvester that can be adjusted electronically to suit the crop, changing heights, screen sizes etc. Seed goes straight into a truck and then to Valhalla Seed Ltd in Palmerston Nth for dressing and drying to 11% moisture. From there it goes to Auckland for retail packaging and distribution under the Kiwi Quinoa brand. Typically, one hectare will yield over 1 tonne of dried, finished product.
Kiwi Quinoa won the 2019 (NZ Food Safety sponsored) Primary Sector Products Award in the New Zealand Food Awards. It is in demand from restaurants and sold in retail outlets and available online.
Dan believes there is plenty of room for growth in the domestic market and is confident that an export market can be developed. He is keen for more arable farmers to try what he believes is a relatively easy crop to grow and that fits in well with common crop rotations. "Arable farmers are constantly looking for new profitable crops that will suit their rotation, and quinoa will compete with peas as a break crop for cereals. With a growing time of 100 days it has the potential to be more profitable than mainstay cereals or seeds even for a contract grower,” says Dan. “Quinoa has low nutrient and water requirements. The young plants are frost tolerant and the older plants cope with dry conditions. It likes cool nights and warm days with rain at first and then it can get dry, and that’s ideal. I believe it could be grown in many places in the lower North Island and in Canterbury.”
“Good management of the crop environment will be necessary on multi-crop arable farms because of the ‘no spray’ requirement. Also, because it is a gluten-free seed it is important to avoid contamination from residues of cereal crops. However, the benefits should make any extra efforts well worthwhile.”
Trial crops are being grown in Canterbury, the Wairarapa and elsewhere, and Dan is looking forward to the results. “I believe quinoa will ultimately be grown on many arable farms throughout the country. This is just the start, the infant stages of what is going to be a growth industry,” he says. “We are looking at the possibility of going from 30 ha to about 200 ha in the space of a couple of years and the start of an enterprise with multiple growers and Kiwi Quinoa being shipped offshore, so it is pretty exciting.”
MPI - Ministry for Primary Industries
Showdown Productions Ltd - Rural Delivery Series 15 2020