Ontario-grown quinoa close to commercialization

Ontario quinoa ready for harvest

Ontario-grown quinoa ready for harvest

Demand for quinoa, a super food sought-after for its many health benefits, far outstrips supply. Most of it currently sold in Canada is imported from South America, primarily Bolivia.

Now, Ontario-grown quinoa – pronounced KEEN-wah – may soon be on the market.

Jamie Draves, President and CEO of Katan Kitchens, along with industry partner collaborators, has been conducting research for the past four years to help establish quinoa as a viable crop in Ontario, and they’re getting close to seeing that dream become a reality.

This year, 15 farmers across the province – from east to west and even far north – are growing the three to four varieties that research has shown have the best potential to do well in Ontario’s soils and climate.

Jamie Draves talking about quinoa

Jamie Draves of Katan Kitchens talking about quinoa

This is part of a 30-month project led by Draves and Oakville-based Value Chain Management International to establish best management and quality monitoring practices for Ontario-grown quinoa.

Quinoa has been a culinary staple in South America for thousands of years. Although not a grain crop, it’s used like a cereal and is considered to be a complete plant protein.

It grows well in cool climates and marginal soils, is chock-full of healthy nutrients and antioxidants, and is ideal for gluten-free diets.

“We don’t usually relate South America to Ontario, but quinoa is grown in the Andes where they have hot days and cool nights similar to here,” says Draves. “It is wet and humid weather that can drive yields down.”

Quinoa plants are cold tolerant to -6C, and have a high tolerance for both frost and drought.

Draves first came across the crop in 2007 when a severe health crisis forced him to completely overhaul his eating habits and change his diet.

Quality problems and unreliable supply, as well as the costs and challenges associated with importing the crop from South America, led him to begin experimenting with whether quinoa could be successfully grown here in Ontario.

Quinoa seeds

Quinoa seeds

After several years of research with partners like the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), and the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA), Draves says the Ontario varieties they’ve developed through natural breeding are higher in protein, iron, magnesium, and copper than the South American ones.

He’s hoping that will lead to a premium Ontario-grown quinoa that will be highly sought-after in the functional food market.

In order for quinoa to be considered food grade, it has to be processed to remove the saponin, which gives it a bitter taste as well as being a mild digestive irritant.

That’s why Draves is in the final stages of raising capital for development of an Ontario-based quinoa processing facility, and although a final location has yet to be determined, he says it will likely be in northern Ontario.

It is expected to be up and running for the 2015 crop.

Demand for quinoa has increased 500 per cent in recent years and although supply has increased 200 per cent, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates it will be another seven years before global quinoa production meets demand.

Draves estimates Ontario’s production to be about two per cent of that – volumes that will not threaten the livelihoods of South American farmers.

“We believe strongly in the value chain for quinoa and letting people in that chain focus on what they do best,” Draves says, adding that he’s interested in establishing long-term relationships with farmers and other stakeholders. “We’ve learned that farmers want to have seed and some growing instructions and then hand it off after harvest.”

Katan Kitchens’ five-year plan estimates about 8,000 acres of quinoa in production in Ontario, and Draves expects to exceed that.

Through research they’ve identified a possible 113,000 acres in the province – class two and class three land not currently used to grow corn – that would be suitable for quinoa production.

“It’s a drop in the bucket for Ontario crops, but the yield is sufficient now that it can replace other crops for growers,” Draves says.

Katan Kitchens’ and Value Chain Management International’s current quinoa project is supported by the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario and through the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ New Directions Research Program.

Draves also credits ongoing support from MaRS Innovation, Innovation Initiatives Ontario North, Innovation Guelph, Agricultural Adaption Council, OSCIA, and Ontario Agri-Food Technologies for helping move the vision of Ontario-grown quinoa forward.