South American health food aimed at Wheatbelt

Kate PollardCountryman

Quinoa, an ancient South American grain, could become 'agricultural gold' for two WA farmers and an agronomist wanting to establish an Australian broadacre industry.

Ashley Wiese, Megan Gooding and agronomist Garren Knell have been trialling the pseudo-cereal for the past three years through their company, Australian Grown Superfoods (AGS).

Dr Gooding said they came across quinoa while they were looking for a high value crop where they could control the supply chain.

Pronounced keen-wah, quinoa is planted on South American mountain tops 3000m above sea level and harvested in summer when the snow is melting.

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Quinoa has more than a dozen health benefits, including being rich in minerals, omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants and gluten-free, it costs about $10/kg on supermarket shelves.

WA bakeries pay about $5200 a tonne for imported quinoa but if those at AGS have their way, it could soon be a more affordable $2500/t.

The group want to grow quinoa in the Wheatbelt, saying it will help farmers adapt to climate change, because the cereal is drought, frost and salt tolerant, and provide a local, bulk supply to meet increasing consumer demand.

After three years of trials, they received $18,960 in funding recently from WA Innovation Development Schemes innovation vouchers program to develop an agronomy package.

With help from a specialist trial co-ordinator, they will determine the optimal time of sowing and weed control so they can take the crop to the next level - commercial reality.

"Agronomically it's not straightforward," Mr Wiese said.

"We've had three years of making mistakes and trying to work out how to grow it. Now we are having to come up with an agronomy package that allows broadacre farming techniques to be adopted."

Out of a choice of 4000 varieties, they have whittled them down to two sourced from the US - Medusa and Phantom - and are aiming for yields on a par with canola.

Getting the seed to germinate can be tricky.

"It's a weak seedling so it needs to be grown very shallow, at 10mm, and it's very vulnerable to false breaks," Mr Knell said.

The agronomy will also look at the optimal application rate which at this stage looks to be around 4kg/ha - half the rate sown in Europe.

This year they will also undertake a desktop study to identify herbicides to control broadleaf weeds in quinoa and spray trials pre, post and during the four-leaf stage of the crop to evaluate herbicide performance.

And because of the weed issue, especially radish, the group believe it will only be a niche crop potentially grown by a few farmers across the southern half of the State.

Time of swathing is also being determined but as a short-season crop sowing can be delayed and having an early harvest means it will fit into programs well. If it works, it could become a break crop between cereals.

By the end of the year, AGS is hoping to have 100t to sell and in the long-term aims to supply bulk quantities to food processors as an ingredient in products like bread and pure quinoa grain in packets.

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