This summer has been filled with acrimony about the federal budget, with red versus blue politicians squaring off to hurl criticisms at each other. For a lot of us, turning on the news has felt like an exercise in masochism. Imagine my pleasure, then, at going to a recent meeting where Americans from quite different walks of life were gathered to learn together about something we all need — a nutritious food supply.
On a recent and beautiful summer morn, without even a breath of wind, a diverse group of citizens gathered on land belonging to Washington State University. Those assembled ran the gamut from older farmers in jeans and work boots who came to the event in diesel pickup trucks to younger men and women with long hair who came on bicycles or in hybrid vehicles.
What had brought us together was the chance to tour WSU’s organic fields and orchards. Large public universities across the nation that are termed “land grant” institutions have long promoted agricultural and engineering research, as well as educating citizens about how to apply new research to solve day-to-day problems. The land grant system is something the federal government did right a zillion years ago, an investment in education that has paid out dividends to many generations — including ours.
I confess I felt a bit out of place on the edge of WSU’s large organic garden —simply because my diet is all too often a combination of roast beef and jelly doughnuts. But in the hope that a willingness to learn was the only requirement for attending, I signed up for the tour of rows of pumpkins, raspberries, hops and an interesting plant called quinoa (said aloud like “keen-wa”).
As it happened, I bought a bag of quinoa at a big box store in the spring and have cooked up a couple pots of it. It’s good food, taking the place of rice on a supper plate or of pasta in a cold salad. Quinoa has a mild flavor and what really sets it apart from pasta and rice is that it has a fully balanced set of the core ingredients of protein. To put it another way, a cup of quinoa is a full serving of carbs plus protein that doesn’t have to be “complemented” with either dairy or beans.
We get a lot of our supply of quinoa in this country from South America, where native peoples have grown it since time immemorial. There are many varieties of the plant. Some do well at high elevation, some in warm conditions, and some varieties tolerate drought quite well. Increasingly, some farmers in North America are looking at growing quinoa — their interest in part resting on the fact it sells for around $4 per pound, a price that ain’t nothing to sneeze at.
Quinoa is so easy to cook even I can do it. You boil some water, add the quinoa, and about 15 minutes later you have a plant-based source of protein good for side dishes or as an ingredient in the main part of your repast.
Currently a lot of the quinoa grown on our continent is from Colorado or Saskatchewan. But that looks like it’s only a beachhead for the ancient crop. Quinoa may well become a widespread rotation crop for wheat, especially if researchers and growers find varieties that are well adapted to specific conditions and that have high yields.
Working on testing and enhancing crop varieties is the kind of practical and beneficial work that agricultural universities across the land are always engaged in. Researchers who labor to improve our food supply don’t grab headlines. But because I work among them each day, I can testify they are fiercely productive and benefit us all through their labors.
There’s a lot in this country that has lately made us feel bitterly divided. So it’s good to connect with something that’s clearly positive and may bring us good news — and interesting meals — in the years to come. If we can get complete proteins out of rotational crops that help keep small farmer afloat financially, we’ll be looking at a win-win at all sorts of levels.
Pass the quinoa, please.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.