Enriching The Kiwi Diet with Plant-based Protein
Sheep and beef farmers Dan and Jacqui Cottrell are diversifying the protein portfolio of their Taihape farm, becoming the first New Zealanders to commercially grow the on-trend plant protein quinoa.
Bolivia and Peru are the main global exporters of quinoa, producing more than 80% of the world’s crop, however growing demand over the last ten years has encouraged a massive expansion in the number of countries testing the grain in their home soils. Just 8 countries were growing quinoa in 1980 but by 2015 this had grown to a whopping 95. Despite this huge growth the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN still considers quinoa to be a massively underutilised food source. It named 2013 the Year of Quinoa to promote the grain. That was also the year that Dan and Jacqui Cottrell started seriously contemplating the idea of growing quinoa on Dan’s father’s sheep and beef block in Taihape.
“The idea or ‘light bulb’ moment occurred while my wife Jacqui and I were on our OE, traveling through South America,” describes Dan. “We noticed that the quinoa-growing regions of Peru bore quite a resemblance to Taihape. In a wider sense, the idea formed through both of our interests and backgrounds – Jacqui’s career as an agronomist for Abron, a biological fertiliser company, coupled with her passion for nutrition, and my background in rural finance and growing up on high altitude farm.”
“We researched the idea at length over the internet, from agronomy through to the technicalities of post-harvest production and the more we looked at it the more we realized it was such a huge opportunity, especially given that no one was really considering it in New Zealand. We trailed a number of varieties in 2013 with varying success and the following year I travelled to Europe to meet with the plant breeders of the most promising varieties and visit other quinoa producers in the UK. From there we imported an initial seed supply of 45kgs which was the first generation of Kiwi Quinoa.”
Kiwi Quinoa was born when they planted their first crop in the spring of 2015. Weed control quickly emerged as a significant hurdle.
“A majority of our initial trials were overrun with weeds and had to be abandoned. Quinoa is technically a broadleaf weed, closely related to fathen (Chenopodium Album), one of the most prolific weeds on New Zealand farms. We are growing the crop without herbicides, basically because almost everything will kill quinoa. As a result of this, we have had to work out how to grow it fairly organically.
Our farm is not a certified organic operation and we do not have any desire to make it so, being predominantly a hill country sheep and beef operation. In order to go down the organic route, our stock numbers would have to be drastically reduced which I know would not be economic given two generations are living here. Decades of weed control, specifically gorse would also suffer and we would lose a significant area of production to thistles in the summer months. In saying this we do take a very measured approach to chemical sprays, namely the two annual sprays for these weeds and I am a firm believer in what decades of science has achieved in the animal health side of things. Again going organic would rule out a lot of these tools. In saying this we take pride in growing the quinoa without herbicide and pesticide sprays, or irrigation”.
The couple’s instinct that the Taihape altitude and climate would suit quinoa have been well founded, and the crop is now flourishing. Dan and Jacqui were careful about which variety of quinoa to grow, sourcing a variety developed in Europe to enable a shorter growth season.
“Our variety which we are growing on license is a relatively short variety at a four month life cycle, shorter than spring sown wheat or barley for example. As we are largely a pastoral based livestock system, we are using the quinoa crop to renovate pastures, meaning we are ploughing up old pasture in spring, growing and harvesting the crop in summer and re-sowing in new grass and clovers. We have tried minimum tillage but the quinoa did not fare well. The main reason for this is that we mechanically bury the weed seed bank in the soil and this helps us from a weed control perspective and as we are cultivating ‘virgin ground’ we are unlocking a lot of the nutrients in the soil profile. This has resulted in relatively high yields compared to the straight cropping systems in Europe and Australia where quinoa is used as a break crop for cereals.”
“Crop inputs are fairly comparable to cereals from a fertiliser perspective. We add a few extra nutrients and trace minerals that are beneficial for seed production and everything is tailored to the soil test results. We measure nutrient levels, pH, trace elements, CEC, base saturation – basically the industry standards set by Hill Labs. Our organic matter levels are high due to the farm being largely pasture and not annually cropped. A major focus of soil testing is the soil pH which holistically is the best example of overall soil health due to its promotion of bacterial activity, worm life and nutrient availability.”
Dan explains that one of the huge advantages of quinoa as a crop is its ability to grow in dry conditions.