Manitoba farmers cash in as quinoa craze heats up

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Manitoba farmers cash in as quinoa craze heats up

It's a crop typically grown south of the equator, far from Manitoba. But more and more quinoa is being produced in the province as demand for the grain, and its popularity, keep growing.

Ryan Pengelly, whose farm is nestled against a forest near Erickson, Man. — about 75 kilometres north of Brandon — started experimenting with the ancient grain in 2009. He started with just one acre. Now, he has 20 acres dedicated to quinoa.

His first crop was a failure, but after years of trial and error, he believes he's figured it out. This year, he will grow his first organic-certified quinoa crop. 

"The interest is high ... demand is growing," he said. "The interesting thing is most people don't know it can be grown here."

Quinoa, sometimes referred to as a "superfood," is valued as a high-protein, low-fat and gluten-free grain food source used in everything from smoothies to energy bars to salads.

And it's popularity has surged in recent years. In fact, the United Nations even declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa.

Most of it is still grown in the Andes, but quinoa production has expanded further afield — including to Manitoba.

Pengelly has been selling his quinoa, which is not only grown locally but also processed and packaged right on his farm, at farmers markets in the province. This year, he is hoping to expand into retail stores and even chef's kitchens. 

He attributes his successes to not just trial and error, but also to consumers who are hungry for locally grown food. 

"We see an extremely strong interest in consumers knowing their farmer," he said. "They want to know who their farmer is and they want their farmer to tell them how it's been grown.

"They want to know their money is staying close to home." 

He first became intrigued about the crop while living in Peru, where he met his wife. When he moved back to his family's farm in Manitoba, he had initially hoped to just grow quinoa on a garden-size scale.

Interest growing in Western Canada

Pengelly is one of a small number of quinoa growers in Western Canada. But crop experts say interest is growing. 

"I think it's going to become more of a well-known thing," said James Frey, a crop diversification expert with Manitoba Agriculture. "It's [currently] only a tiny percentage of other crops that are being grown."

A 2014 provincial report said there were an estimated 5,000 acres of quinoa grown in Western Canada that year — a fraction of the acreage of canola or wheat. By way of comparison, Statistics Canada said more than 24 million acres of wheat were planted in Canada that year.

But the same provincial report said there was hope the total acres of quinoa in Western Canada would increase to more than 15,000 within a few years.

Frey said Manitoba's growing conditions are similar to those in South America in some ways, given our sometimes extreme weather and soil conditions. Some farmers, he said, are willing to take the risk due to quinoa's popularity. 

"More and more people are becoming aware of what quinoa is," Frey said in a phone interview from Roblin, in southwestern Manitoba. "It's not just this strange thing that starts with 'q'. It's becoming an identifiable and sought-after crop."

Lack of herbicides a challenge 

Frey said one challenge facing producers who want to grow quinoa is a lack of herbicides that can be used with the crop.

Pengelly said knowledge and experience with growing it is also lacking here — he can't phone a provincial agronomist for help because no information is available. 

"Some of them [farmers], frankly, are still leery," Frey said. 

"I think they would very quickly change their stance on it," if questions about things like weed management in the crop could be addressed, he added. 

But while interest and demand for Manitoba quinoa is growing, Pengelly doesn't want to expand his farm too quickly just yet. He's now working on ways to produce more from the acres he already has. 

"We're focused on farming smaller, better," he said. "We're at a starting point and we just want to do better."

Pengelly believes more farmers will look at quinoa as more research into its ability to grow in Manitoba is done. 

"I know there will be more farmers growing it," he said.