Revised April 2022
Quinoa (pronounced ‘keen wah’) is a member of the Goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae) which includes crop plants such as sugar beets, Swiss chard, and spinach along with many weed species. Although its food uses are similar to cereals, it is classified as a pseudocereal as it is not from the grass family. Quinoa grain is high in protein, moderate in carbohydrates, and contains no gluten. Quinoa is widely adapted throughout the world and can tolerate water with elevated levels of salt, high winds, frosts, and droughts and can therefore be cultivated in high-risk climate regions. However, it does not tolerate high temperatures during the growing season especially during flowering. At full maturity, quinoa will be 3 to 7 feet high, with small, flat, circular seeds.
Quinoa is considered one of the 'ancient grains'. It is native to the Andean region of South America and served as one of the main foods for the Andean civilizations, likely before 3000 B.C. From there, it spread throughout the temperate regions of South America and was cultivated by the Incas. They considered quinoa to be sacred, as the “mother grain.”
Quinoa is undemanding and altitude hardy, easily cultivated in the Andes up to around 13,000 feet. Currently, most quinoa is grown in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, though small commercial acreages have been grown in more than 50 countries, including France, England, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Italy. Quinoa is also being developed successfully in Kenya, India, and the United States, and it continues to grow in popularity as a health food in North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan.
Due to quinoa’s adaptability to different environments as well as its perceived dietary benefits, it has the potential to lessen dependence on staples such as wheat and rice and bring a new crop into the cropping system.
Since the early 1980s, quinoa has been cultivated and commercially produced in the U.S. in the Colorado Rockies, especially in the San Luis Valley. Production research has been conducted in Washington, New York, Colorado, Utah, Minnesota, North Dakota, Virginia, Maine, and Arizona, while commercial production has been attempted in California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. There are currently commercial networks purchasing locally produced quinoa in Idaho. Barriers to U.S. quinoa production are the lack of high yielding varieties adapted to diverse regions of the U.S. and low market prices when there is good production in South American. Insects and weed control can also be challenges for farmers in the U.S. as there are no registered pesticides for use in quinoa.
Quinoa optimally grows where temperatures fall below 90 degrees Fahrenheit during flowering, since the pollen goes sterile at higher temperatures. Planting date and cultivar choice should be managed to avoid having the crop flower during the hottest parts of the summer. It is a warm season crop that requires full sun and germinates best in soil temperature ranges of 65 to 75 degrees. Because of this, quinoa grown in southern Canada or the northern United States is best planted from late April to early June. Seedlings generally emerge within four days when soil temperatures are around 60 degrees, but may not germinate if night time temperatures rise too far above that. Quinoa is drought tolerant and will do well on 10 inches of water or less. It will also resist light frosts, especially when the soil is dry.
Quinoa prefers a sandy loam soil type that is well drained. It tolerates moderate salinity, and prefers soils with a pH ranging from 6.0 to 8.5. Quinoa seeds should be sown a quarter inch deep, in rows that are 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 feet apart, or enough to allow for in-season cultivation that does not damage the plants. Planting can be done using a small-grain seeder or broadcast and lightly incorporated. When the plant approaches a foot in height, it will grow more rapidly and close in its canopy, allowing it to shade-out weeds and reduce evaporation-based moisture loss. Weeding can likewise be discouraged through cultivation or mulching.
Because quinoa can cross with its wild relatives, in order to maintain genetic purity of a variety it is important to weed out red-rooted pigweed and lamb’s quarters. Amaranth cultivars and different quinoa cultivars will cross pollinate, so each separate cultivar should be adequately isolated to avoid cross fertilization.
Quinoa is ready for harvest when the kernels have reached the hard dough stage and the plants have dried and drop most of their leaves. The crop can be direct combined or swathed and dried in the windrow before using a pick-up header and threshing. The combine’s cylinder speed and the airflow should be reduced significantly over what is used for small grain harvest. Mature quinoa seed are susceptible to pre-harvest sprouting if wetted before harvest, so mature quinoa should be harvested prior to rain events if possible. Grain should be thoroughly dried before storage.
Quinoa grains have a bitter saponin coating that deters birds and insects from eating them and that needs to be removed before consumption. This can either be accomplished by polishing – which removes the saponin coat but also removes part of the seedcoat similar to what happens during the process used to make white rice or pearled barley – or washed in a three-step process that cleans the saponin without removing vital nutrients found in the seed coat. Polished quinoa has half the fiber of washed quinoa, along with lower protein, vitamin, and mineral levels. The saponin that is removed has commercial uses as pharmaceutical steroids, soaps, detergents, shampoos, cosmetics, and synthetic hormones.
There are ongoing breeding programs to develop saponin-free quinoa varieties. Currently, quinoa can be classified as sweet (saponin-free or containing less than 0.11 percent saponin) or bitter (more than 0.11 percent saponin). While the sweet varieties require less processing before market, they may be more susceptible to losses from birds.
Once processed and properly dried, quinoa can last for several years in storage.
Quinoa is considered a super food and there has been a dramatic increase in its demand as a human food outside of South America. Grain quinoa can be used in side dishes similarly to rice, flaked as a breakfast cereal, added to snack foods and pasta, in multigrain infant cereals and in ground flour. Because quinoa is gluten free, it reduces bread volume by more than 10 percent when use in making baking bread.
Starch grains in quinoa are very small, much like those in taro, and it contains less amylose than most commercial starches. It can be used for cream substitutes and dusting in some candy applications. Quinoa has a higher protein content (14 to 18 percent) than other grains, with an excellent amino acid balance. Since it is high in lysine, methionine, and cystine, quinoa complements other grains and legumes, which are deficient in these nutrients. Quinoa also has a higher energy content than barley, oats, rice, corn, and wheat, as well as higher levels of calcium, phosphorus, iron, fiber, and B vitamins. It contains about 5.8 percent oil by weight.
The price of quinoa increased dramatically between 2006 and 2014 due to high demand in the United States and Europe. Prices started to drop in 2015 indicating a better balance of supply and demand, with the 2020 price being less than that offered in 2010. Nevertheless, there is still a relative strong market for U.S. produced quinoa and it can be a profitable crop to produce if there is a nearby market and reasonable yields can be obtained.
Quinoa: An Ancient Crop to Contribute to World Food Security, 2011, FAO, UN.
Quinoa: Sustainable Production, Variety Improvement, and Nutritive Value in Agroecological Systems. 2015, John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Setting the Record Straight on Quinoa. 2005.
Quinoa the Next Cinderella crop for Alberta? 2005, Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Canada.
Northern Quinoa Corporation, Information for buyers and producers of quinoa in Canada.
Teton Mills, Quinoa processor in Idaho.
Ardent Mills Quinoa Hub, Website with information of buyers and producers of quinoa.
Quinoa Production for the Willamette Valley, 2020, Oregon State University Extension Service.
Adopting Quinoa in Southeastern Idaho, 2016. University of Idaho Extension.