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Quinoa and amaranth may hold great promise but the lack of processors remains a challenge

As amaranth varieties tested at AAFC-Harrow matured, their bright colouring differentiated them from nearby weeds.

Mention a new practice, a new piece of farm equipment, or a precision ag system and the first question from a grower is likely to be, “What’s my profitability margin?”

It’s the same for alternative crops — although the questions vary. Whether it’s fababeans or camelina, growers want to know what volume they’ll need to produce to maximize revenues while managing costs. And that’s just for starters. They also want information on herbicide programs, pest and disease threats, availability of processors and market potential.

Quinoa and amaranth raise many of those same questions, even if their names aren’t as familiar as flax or black beans. Their origins date back thousands of years to regions of South America but they’ve been grown in parts of Canada since the late 1980s. In the past few years, quinoa has gained prominence in Western Canada in research and development and as a rotational crop. In Eastern Canada, there have been efforts to raise quinoa’s profile in the private sector in the hope it can be transformed from a health food specialty to more of a mainstream food item.

Already its use in breakfast cereals as a substitute for rice or in salads has increased in the past five or six years.

Now the two ancient grains are the focus of research at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s research station near Harrow, Ont. Dr. Rob Nurse, Dr. Eric Page and Kerry Bosveld studied the plants’ traits and characteristics over two years, trying to determine optimum row widths, weed management challenges and planting methods. Their goal was to find “the best ways to grow quinoa and amaranth in a typical crop rotation using organic production principles.”

The organic management is necessary simply because there are no herbicides registered for quinoa — or amaranth — at the present time. Nurse says they did test a number of different herbicide groups and that Group 15 chemistries offered the best crop safety in the trial. For now, though, organic management is the only option for either crop.

More is known about quinoa production — and demand — than grain amaranth. photo: Courtesy Dr. Rob Nurse, AAFC-Harrow.

Weedy cousins

Although Nurse and Bosveld started working on row width and seeding date, weed management — and the critical weed-free period in both crops — became the more daunting challenge. Since their introduction to Canadian agriculture, weed management has been a key concern in the eastern half of the country: quinoa is very similar in appearance to lamb’s-quarters and amaranth is almost identical to redroot pigweed. While the critical weed-free period for both is relatively short —16 days in quinoa and 24 days in amaranth — it requires a very keen eye to see the difference between grain and weed species.

That’s where row width becomes valuable to the weed management process. Nurse and Bosveld worked with 15-inch (37.5-centimetre) and 30-inch (75-centimetre) rows using a vacuum planter and found the latter plots were easier for hand weeding or for using smaller-scale machinery typical of organic systems between the rows.

Rob Nurse. photo: Supplied

“When they’re seedlings, they look identical and unless you have a very well-trained eye, you can’t tell them apart,” says Nurse, referring to quinoa and lamb’s-quarters. “That’s one of the reasons why we went with a row planter instead of direct seeding — we could see the quinoa that we’d planted in the rows and anything outside of the row was more likely to be common lamb’s-quarters. If it’s direct-seeded, you have no idea.”

Bosveld states that quinoa has much larger cotyledons compared to lamb’s-quarters. As they grow, it also becomes easier to differentiate the crop from the weeds by the looking at the stem. In amaranth, the variety used in the study turned a burgundy colour as it matured.

If there is a disadvantage to wider rows, it’s that there’s a greater tendency for the plants to lodge, particularly with quinoa. Yet row width had no impact on yields, which were comparable to other regions of the province, averaging about one tonne per hectare (roughly 890 pounds per acre).

“Giving them more room allowed them to grow better, but I found that quinoa was too weak to stand on its own in the wider widths,” says Bosveld. “When we had strong winds, they were the first thing to go over. As for yield, they would have produced more, especially per plant.”

Bosveld also states that amaranth’s roots become much larger and in spite of any lodging, tend to keep growing. Nurse adds that as the plants mature, quinoa doesn’t branch out the same way that a lamb’s-quarter plant would. Its flowering is denser and not as dispersed as lamb’s-quarters. Interestingly, quinoa seeds from the grain varieties they tested at Harrow turn bright red at maturity.

There’s also the issue of mid-summer heat, which Nurse says is of particular concern in southwestern Ontario. Quinoa and amaranth would fit into current rotation schedules, with planting in May or June and harvesting between August and October. “But it all depends on the growing season and the weather,” Nurse says. “We did find that day-length and temperature had big effects on the success, especially when it’s flowering and it tends to get hot. In central Ontario, that’s much less of an issue.”

Although quinoa is being grown in Canada, amaranth is indicated to be a hardier plant that is less susceptible to lodging. photo: Courtesy Dr. Rob Nurse, AAFC-Harrow.

At temperatures higher than 30 C, they saw more flowers in quinoa aborting and there were other trials in the herbicide portion that didn’t yield well because of the impacts of hotter temperatures at flowering. In that way, quinoa shows similar sensitivities to extreme heat as spring canola.

Still a lot of questions

The drive to make quinoa or amaranth more than just niche or specialty crops still has a long road ahead. In Western Canada, however, a few growers have already added quinoa to their rotations, some simply for the added diversity in their cropping plans, others because it provides a break in the blackleg and sclerotinia disease cycles in canola.

An advantage in Western Canada — aside from lower temperatures — is that there are ongoing efforts to develop quinoa varieties for the Prairies. Northern Quinoa Production Corporation (NorQuin) and Prairie Quinoa are just two companies involved in varietal research (including shorter maturities).

But for Ontario, the pressing issue is the lack of a processing facility. Quinoa in particular must be processed to remove saponins, a chemical compound found in most plant species, including legumes. In quinoa, saponins can impart a bitter taste to the grain; hence the need to have it washed before packaging. Amaranth contains little in the way of saponin.

Given the lack of registered herbicide programs, the demand for organic quinoa (and amaranth) is another factor in a grower’s decision-making process. As Bosveld notes, demand for these products in grocery stores seems higher among organic shoppers.

Kerry Bosveld. photo: Supplied

“I don’t know how we would grow it non-organically if we don’t have anything for weed management,” she says. “With lamb’s-quarters being so close to quinoa and pigweed being so similar to amaranth, I’m not sure how you’d apply a herbicide that might control those pests. Plus it seems to me that those who seek quinoa — and who might be interested in amaranth — are often into non-GMO, gluten-free foods, and organic seems to go with that trend.”

As for seed availability and size, the good news is there are distributors who can find quinoa seed in different varieties. But it is expensive, which makes planting using a vacuum planter a wiser choice than a drill. Bosveld says they were surprised to find a seed plate that could accommodate both quinoa — which is very small-seeded — and amaranth, which is smaller. But growers in Western Canada have stated that quinoa seed is comparable to that of canola.

For harvesting, Nurse says they had success with a grain head to harvest their trials. South American quinoa producers tend to favour windrowing the crop while one report from Western Canada cites using a combine set for wheat in front and canola for discharging out the back. As for where it might fit in rotation, Nurse states that it’s a broad-leafed crop so after a cereal would be a better fit, just from a pest perspective.

“From the results that we had, it’s something that could work,” says Nurse. “But we need the processing.”

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