By MATTHEW WEAVER
PULLMAN, Wash. -- Researchers continue to winnow down the many varieties of quinoa as they look for the ones that are most suitable to Pacific Northwest growing conditions, attendees of the International Quinoa Symposium were told Monday.
Last year, Washington State University researchers selected seven out of 300 lines to include in advanced yield trials. Researcher Kevin Murphy hopes for seven to 10 more varieties this year, which would go into trials in larger plots in four states.
The traits he is looking for include disease resistance, maturity, plant height, yield and post-harvest quality.
Murphy eventually hopes to release quinoa varieties that will perform well in the region.
Murphy said his team of researchers is working to develop varieties with varying levels of saponins, the soap-like outer covering of the seed. The saponins serve as a deterrent for birds and insects but are difficult to remove. Murphy has spoken in the past about removing saponins from quinoa, but he wants to be sure all options are available for farmers.
"I think the best option will be dependent on where it's grown," he said.
So far, quinoa has done best in western Washington, where temperatures are low and moisture is high, he said.
Most quinoa varieties won't work in Eastern Washington because they don't mature before fall rains, Murphy said.
Frank Morton, breeder and seed dealer at Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Ore., has been working with quinoa since the early 1980s. He started because he was interested in the crop -- which he had never heard of -- as a possible source of salad greens, and said he's been impressed by how quinoa adapts to different environments.
Murphy's team of researchers frequently cites Wild Garden Seed as the best source of bulk quinoa seed in the region.
Morton began working with three Colorado varieties, and aims to find a quinoa variety best suited for the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
"Basically, all I have done is used my own uninformed needs, tastes and eye to direct my program," Morton said, noting he names the majority of his quinoa varieties after ice cream flavors like Cherry Vanilla or French Vanilla because he thinks most of ice cream cones when he looks at them.
Morton also crosses quinoa with other members of the Chenopodium family, including huauzontle and giant goosefoot, planting lines near other crops to see how they interact.
Morton advises farmers interested in quinoa to keep their plots small.
"You should start with as many varieties as you can find and grow just little test patches of each one, because it's quite possible you will get nothing," he said. "It would be terrible to invest in a five-acre plot to get nothing."