However you say it (correctly pronounced kin-wah FYI), it is indisputable that quinoa has had a meteoric rise in interest and popularity over the past few years. It ticks all the boxes as a healthy, edible grain high in protein, calcium and iron with significant levels of vitamins B and E, serving as a popular alternative to traditional grains.
Quinoa has been grown in South America for many thousands of years, at high altitudes in the Andes. The impact of price volatility was felt in small rural communities whereby a staple food became inaccessible to many and price fluctuations created uncertainty. The increased stability recently, however, has produced a number of opportunities for small farmers to export produce and capitalise on the market! The benefits of global demand will hopefully deliver ongoing benefits.
Fun fact #1: It is closely related to sugar beet and spinach!
Locally, quinoa has kept Australian farmers guessing for many years with the majority of trials delivering mixed or poor results. Until recently. The inaugural production area in Tasmania remains consistent, trials in Kununurra promising and a commercial set up by a group of three Western Australian farmers, very exciting. As an example, the latter have worked hard to develop an entirely Australian sourced and processed product, aptly named 3Farmers Quinoa. The crop is well suited to the loamy (good mix of sand and clay) soil and cooler winter climate in Narrogin and Dumbleyung.
Fun fact #2: White quinoa is reddish/purple when harvested!
Now onto the exciting part. How does the delicious, nutritious and filling seed on your eggs Benedict, in your smoothie or on your yoghurt get there? Well to start, did you know there are actually three varieties – white, dark red and purple/black? Back to the process: It is broken down into five parts: (1) Sowing, (2) growing, (3) harvesting, (4) processing and of course (5) the ladle from the chef’s pot.
Sowing is rather straight forward – but finding the right soil and climate in Australia is the tricky part. The paddocks with the right soil properties (neutral pH, adequate nitrogen and phosphorus levels, loamy soil type) are chosen in a cool and moist climate – imagine the type of climate in the Andes. Quite similar to growing canola (used for canola oil in cooking). Soil is prepared by ploughing the soil, although trials are underway to test the effect of sowing quinoa into non-ploughed or no-till soil. The planting is done with a tyne or knife-point seeder into prepared soil, just like the one below taken from this article!
The front tyne prepares the seedbed and deposits a line of fertiliser while the second tyne drops the seed just above the fertiliser to optimise growth. Pretty neat that this all happens within a second of passing over the soil. There are many other types of seeder that will be covered in future articles!
Fun fact #3: Quinoa leaves can be eaten in a salad!
Growing quinoa requires managing pesky pests (weeds, insects, disease) and nutrient requirements. Quinoa requires much less fertiliser than other crops, applied at sowing and once during the season.
Just like your roses, chives or other garden plants quinoa is susceptible to aphids! During flowering when the plant is most vulnerable aphids chew the leaves and damage the plant, reducing the amount of seed produced. Aphids also don’t taste very good with breakfast or dinner.
Fun fact #4: The growing season lasts between 120-180 days!
Harvesting quinoa is the best part, watching the fruits of your labour pour into the grain bin. Traditionally everything is done by hand; stalks cut with scythes, the seeds beaten out of the head with stones and sticks.
In Australia, commercial production requires the use of large harvesters or headers which cut the stalks off, thresh the seed out then separate it from everything else. Here’s one in action in the UK (slightly different varieties):
The grain is ready to harvest when the plant is mostly dry and seeds hard and white. Discoloured seeds don’t look as appealing as white ones!
One of the inconveniences of growing quinoa is that it requires processing before becoming edible. The outer layer of the seed is covered in a natural chemical called saponin, a bitter-tasting glycoside. This needs to be removed prior to sale and packaging otherwise it tastes terrible.
Before any saponin is removed, the larger sticks, stalks and contaminants are removed using sieves and vacuums. No one wants to eat a hard stalk or small seed…
Fun fact #5: Even though most harvesters have grain sorting/cleaning lots of insects, bugs, sticks get through!
The process is based around tumbling and washing the seed to firstly break down the coating before washing it off. Just prior to the rinsing the seeds are sent through a tumble dryer-esque machine to break down the physical husk. Then the washer is involved to remove the saponin and make the quinoa deliciously edible.
A brief description is presented on this site, although it may be a ‘proprietary technique’ in essence it must encompass these principles.
So that is the general process of producing quinoa! Next time you see it on the menu, think about what happens behind the scenes to get that healthy, delicious and filling food onto your plate.