Irish farms take part in quinoa trials

“Meals were simpler in days past. We didn’t know what ‘quinoa’ was,” wrote well known journalist, Mary Kenny, recently.

However, as the ‘meat and two veg’ approach is disappearing in many kitchens, quinoa – pronounced ‘keen wah’ – is making its way onto consumer shopping lists.

As demand increases for more vegetarian and gluten-free options, quinoa is being grown on a number of Irish farms on a trial basis for Glanbia.

The United Nations declared 2013 the ‘International year of quinoa.’ It’s considered a super food because of its finely balanced amino acid profile.

For David Walsh-Kemmis, in Stradbally, Co Laois, this is the second year of growing the crop.

Quinoa is native to South America, but grows very well here and seems to like the light, sandy fields that we have on our farm.

“We sowed it in mid-April. Once the soils have really dried up after the winter, apart from fertiliser and some micronutrients, there are no further inputs,” he said.

“This is partly because no chemicals are approved for use on it, but also because it doesn’t really need anything. If it establishes well, it out-competes any weeds and doesn’t seem to suffer from any diseases or pests,” Walsh-Kemmis said.

“It is harvested in late August or late September – we have two varieties; an early and a late – with a conventional combine – and it yielded very well last year.”

The Glanbia Connect newsletter describes quinoa as a ‘pseudocereal’ grain crop, grown primarily for its edible seeds.

While quinoa production and consumption had been traditionally limited to South America, its popularity has soared in the western world because of its nutritional value, particularly for those on vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diets, Glanbia said.

Peru and Bolivia have been, Glanbia said, the world’s largest producers and exporters of quinoa. However, concerns have been raised about traceability in their production systems.

Testing potential

After consultation with potential customers, the Glanbia supply chain formed an ancient grains team in 2015. It decided to initiate Ireland’s first field-scale quinoa production trial.

While traditional quinoa varieties are not adapted to the European climate, crop breeding programmes in the Netherlands have developed modern varieties, designed to grow in western Europe, Glanbia said.

Following extensive research and consultation with The British Quinoa Company, seed was sourced and a 6ha field-scale trial planted on the outskirts of Carlow in April 2015.

The trial contained two varieties – a standard European variety ‘Atlas’ and an early maturing European variety ‘Jessie’.

The proliferation of a number of problematic weeds in certain areas of the sandy loam site provided competition for the quinoa plants during early growth stages, slowing crop development.

There were also concerns that growth rates and seed quality might suffer because of Ireland’s higher rainfall levels. However, ‘Jessie’ and ‘Atlas’ were successfully harvested in late August and September, respectively, with satisfactory yields on both sites.

Expanded trials

Encouraged by the positive results in 2015, the ancient grains team agreed that multi-site trials were necessary in 2016 to determine the effects of seasonal and soil variations on crop performance.

An 8ha clay loam site was selected on the Kildare/Carlow border and Walsh-Kemmis’ 7.5ha sandy loam site near Stradbally was also chosen. Both ‘Atlas’ and ‘Jessie’ varieties were planted on the two sites.

Glanbia found that crop establishment was challenging on the clay loam site as a result of reduced soil seed contact, which resulted in sub-optimum plant population in certain areas of the field.

Following the results of the 2016 trials, the inherent soil type and weed pressure at both sites will be assessed in greater detail in future potential sites, Glanbia said.

The ancient grains trail team has embarked on a third phase this year. Glanbia said that the aims of the 2017 trials were to provide further information on the interactions between variety, soil type and weather patterns, and their effects on quinoa performance.

Results from the first two seasons have been encouraging, according to Glanbia. With continued success, commercial quinoa production may eventually start, with the aim of providing the Glanbia oat mill with a new native grain to include in its gluten-free range, the organisation said.