A few years ago we didn’t even know how to say it, now we are growing our own. We meet Kate Dunlop, co-founder and owner of the Hawera-based New Zealand Quinoa Company, to find out how she and partner Hamish decided to go with the grain.
How did you start growing quinoa?
Our quinoa journey started three years ago over a morning bowl of quinoa porridge and a discussion about our desire to farm for the future. As farmers, and parents of young children, we care greatly about sustainability as well as providing nutritious, natural food. Quinoa seemed a perfect fit for us thanks to its impressive nutritional profile and its light footstep on the land. Currently around 90 per cent of the world’s quinoa is grown in South America, but we wanted to provide New Zealanders with a locally grown option. And after lots of research and trialling we succeeded. Our quinoa is spray-free and grown without the use of irrigation.
Were you already producing other cereals/grains?
No we weren’t; we live on a sheep and beef farm and the only cropping experience we had was a few crops for our animals, so it has been quite a journey. However, the quinoa fits in nicely as part of our long term re-grassing programme. We are looking after the long-term health of the soil, rather than growing quinoa intensively on the same piece of land for years on end.
Are the conditions in NZ good for growing quinoa? We’re just wondering why it hasn’t been done before now!
We had no idea if it would grow here when we first started investigating. We discovered that there are so many seed varieties, over one hundred, and that they can be quite climate specific. So, we had to find the right seed to flourish in our conditions. There are many other challenges too: controlling the weeds naturally as we do not spray our crop, finding the right harvesting machinery and investing in expensive machinery to sort it. It has definitely been a rollercoaster ride! Also, trying to do this while running the farm and looking after our young family has been an extra challenge for us.
Where do you get your seeds from?
We got the seeds from South America originally, but as part of our sustainability mission we save seeds each year and replant them the next.
Is it easy to grow?
Once you have found the right seed it grows easily, but so do the weeds! Our variety loves the rich volcanic soils that we have here near Mt Taranaki. It blossoms into beautiful yellow flowers which look very dramatic on the landscape.
How did you find out about cultivating it? Was it just trial and error or did you reach out to established producers?
We did a huge amount of research initially, connecting with quinoa growers all over the world. Once we had done all the research we could, we took the plunge and started trialling it.
What are the advantages of growing quinoa as opposed to other grain/cereal crops?
There are considerable nutritional benefits to adding quinoa to your diet. It’s high in protein, with roughly double the amount of protein that is found in rice. It’s gluten free, GMO free, has a low GI and is a great source of dietary fibre. It also contains lots of minerals including calcium and magnesium, as well as antioxidants, vitamins and anti-inflammatory ‘phytonitrients’. Also, it is one of only six plants in the world that are considered a ‘complete protein’, that contain the right proportion of all nine essential amino acids that the body can’t produce on its own. From a growing point of view, there are no advantages.
There are something like 120 varieties of quinoa… do you just produce one, and what determined that choice?
Yes we just produce natural (white) quinoa. There are even more challenges to overcome in trying to grow red and black quinoa. Perhaps in the future we may look at growing other varieties, but for now we have our hands full mastering just the one type.
Can you share a favourite quinoa recipe/way of preparing it?
There is so much you can do with it! Porridge is definitely a favourite and if you feel like jazzing it up you can add a mashed banana and some cinnamon and top with yoghurt and berries. Quinoa is a great base for any salad, so we use it a lot with fresh veggies and a yummy dressing. We always add some to soups and stews in the winter. Quinoa sushi is also delicious and a favourite with the kids.
Is there a big market for quinoa in New Zealand?
The market isn’t huge but health and wellness is a growing category. Consumers care more and more about what they are putting on their plate – how nutritious it is, where it has come from and how it has been produced.
We love your focus on paying it forward, of donating to charities… was this always an important part of your business model?
Yes definitely, there are so many incredible charities out there doing amazing work. We have been involved with some over the years and it is humbling to see the generosity of spirit of so many selfless people. Paying it forward was always part of our mission.
You have three, very cute, children… do they eat quinoa?! Is there a child-friendly way of preparing it?
The kids love eating it! They eat it just plain, which is fantastic, so much better than plain rice or pasta. But you can hide it in almost any dish; it’s a great way to bump up the nutritional quality of their meal. Try it instead of rice in sushi or add it to home baking.
What, apart from supporting the local industry of course, is the advantage of buying your quinoa over the imported South American product?
Low food miles and a small carbon foot print are significant points of difference that our quinoa has over imported South American products. We have a fully integrated supply chain – we control the entire process from the seed going in the ground to the food on your plate. All the businesses we work with, from the local contractor who sows it, to the packing company, are New Zealand businesses. We farm it sustainably with minimal intervention, using no spray or irrigation. We are just your average Kiwi family who love healthy, natural food, trying to be a positive part of the future of food. And we are excited that other Kiwi families will now be able to buy locally-made, healthy quinoa to add to their dinner table!
The New Zealand Quinoa Company Natural Quinoa (400g) is on sale at Countdown, RRP $7.95