So many Americans have come to like the ancient grain, which is as nutritious as dried whole milk (a comparison contrived by policy makers, not marketers), that South American growers can't keep up with U.S. demand. Increased interest in the conveniently gluten-free crop has caused quinoa's price to double over the past decade, creating an potential opportunity for Pacific Northwest farmers, Petrie says.
"We're trying to find out if we can grow it as a commercial crop," Petrie says of the trials planned for Oregon and Washington, including a test field in the Skagit Valley. Researchers will determine which soils, rainfall levels and weather conditions are most conducive for quinoa cultivation. The first crops will be planted this spring, although researchers will complete two growing seasons before issuing any recommendations.
"They're betting their livelihoods," Petrie says of the farmers who could potentially invest in a crop thus far confined almost exclusively to the Andes Mountains, where it originated five millennia ago. "We don't want to be wrong."
The grant monies will also support marketing research, since many eaters still don't understand quinoa. "It's not a wheat replacement," Petrie stresses, likening the grain to bulgur wheat or wheat barley. But, based on its warm reception in certain circles, he's confident of quinoa's chances.
"When you can find it at Costco, you know there's a demand," he says.