Top crop fills field of dreams

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

The world is queuing up for quinoa from WA's Wheatbelt as three friends try to perfect the art of growing an ancient food with a big future.

Highbury farmer Ashley Wiese and business partners Megan Gooding and Garren Knell are set to open the State's first quinoa processing plant early next year.

The pilot plant will give some of the world's biggest food manufacturing companies a taste of what they want - a bulk and reliable supply of quinoa to develop healthy products.

The trio are growing in confidence five years after they began experimenting with the broadacre cropping of quinoa, which some scientists regard as the perfect food because of its amino acid balance, gluten-free status, low GI and high fibre component.

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A 14-tonne harvest from 20ha last year showed they were on the right track.

They are about to begin this year's harvest of 300ha scattered from Morawa in the north to Salmon Gums in the south-east and hope to produce up to 100 tonnes.

It might seem insignificant compared with the expected 13 million tonne-plus grain harvest expected in WA but it is a big achievement for their company, Australian Grown Superfoods.

Most of this year's crop is on Mr Wiese's Highbury property (180ha) and Mrs Gooding's Lake Grace farm (50ha) and they admit to being slightly disappointed with the yields compared with last year. Mr Wiese suspects there may have been too much rain for the tough but temperamental crop in what has been a bumper season for wheat, barley and canola.

They are learning as they go - developing strains suited to the Wheatbelt, effective weed and pest control, cropping regimes and harvest methods.

"Every year brings us closer to where we want to go but it is still risky. You can't tell it what to do - it tells us what to do," Mr Wiese said.

The business partners have just returned from an international symposium on quinoa at Washington State University in what the United Nations has declared the International Year of Quinoa. The US Government has tipped $19 million into research and the symposium was the first of its kind held in English and not Spanish in a sign of the changing market for quinoa.

Almost all the world's yearly supply of about 78,000 tonnes comes from small farms in South America.

It is grown at altitude as snow begins to melt, is extremely salt-tolerant and for centuries has fed the poor. Demand from wealthy economies has rapidly outstripped supply and the world has effectively run out of quinoa, which sells for about $5000 a tonne or up to $10/kg in packets.

The Wheatbelt growers have formed a bond with a big Bolivian farmer who is building a high-tech processing plant.

They are in talks about importing equipment and visiting the Bolivian operations. PepsiCo and Nestle are among the world's biggest companies which see the potential in quinoa.

The Wheatbelt venture is attracting much interest from farmers who want to grow the crop and from investors. The partners believe it will remain a niche crop for some time but will encourage growers if they convince themselves it is a viable industry for the Wheatbelt.

"Our plan is to make it more available to everyday people in an everyday food," Mr Wiese said.

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