Jacqui, an Australian native who studied agricultural science at Melbourne University, was excited about quinoa.
“As my background is in agronomy, I have a love of soil and plant science, and the link to human nutrition and health,” she says. “I thought it was a cool idea.”
Becoming pioneers - farming a South American grain in New Zealand - needed an incubation period and the couple went off to explore the ancient wonder of Machu Picchu.
After travelling they worked in rural New South Wales in Australia. While Dan was sowing wheat and canola crops he tossed around possibilities inside his John Deer tractor.
They also spent a lot of time online connecting with quinoa growers around the world and eventually found a good breeder in France.
“We asked if we could trial some and he sent little packets over so we could test four different varieties,” Dan says.
As the couple was in Australia it was Dan’s father who initially sowed quinoa seed on the family soil in Taihape.
“He did a lot of work for us, so did Mum, and slowly got on board with the idea,” Dan says.
When Dan and Jacqui returned to New Zealand they had a result from the trials: two varieties worked and two tanked.
“We knew we were onto a good thing once we saw it could grow on the farm soil,” Jacqui says.
The farmers initially planted three hectares of the most successful variety. Once they harvested the first year it was enough to sow 20 hectares. They hope to double their harvest next year.
Breaking new ground always comes with problems to solve. Quinoa is harvested in the same way a crop of wheat or barley is, using machinery to gather the heads, which means everything else gets harvested including weeds.
Dan and Jacqui wanted to grow their quinoa naturally, without sprays, herbicides or chemicals, which meant weeds were rife.
“Nobody wants a weed head in their quinoa, you have to get the cleaning nailed 99.99 percent,” says Dan. “The first year we harvested it by hand which was a nightmarish job, so we knew we had to find somebody to clean it for us.”
They approached seed cleaning company Valhallar Seeds, based in Palmerston North, who has worked previously with imported quinoa.
Jacqui was adamant they did not want to resort to using chemicals. “We’re quite proud of what we do. We’re farming it pretty organically,” she says.
Now Valhallar does all the cleaning, drying, certifying and packaging for Kiwi Quinoa, and is a huge stakeholder in the business.
As for the neighbours, the farming community has been curious about the young couple.
It’s all sheep and cattle around here,” says Dan. “We often hear, ‘my wife loves it and I didn’t know what it was, it’s not that bad!’”
They have had farmers ringing up wanting to grow the grain for them. It is early days but Dan thinks the tonnage they can achieve “will make it a viable crop for New Zealand. All farmers want to look at diversifying, and new ideas.”
Exporting to Asia and Australia is in the long-term plan, after they “get their teeth into the domestic space, dealing with restaurant trade, food service and supermarkets.”
Dan believes there is a huge opportunity with quinoa as grain is relatively straightforward to export.
Recently, banks in Australasia have been looking into quinoa as an emerging commodity, scoping it on a large scale. Dan has already had calls from China and Singapore. “It’s not a fly by nighter,” he says.
Quinoa has certainly gone past its fad stage and is becoming a staple as the demand for gluten-free grains and good vegan options increase globally.
“As quinoa’s got all of the essential amino acids, it’s a complete protein,” says Jacqui. “There’s not many of those around: chia seeds and buckwheat are the only others.” You can’t argue with quinoa’s nutritional profile. Plus the grain is easy to cook.
Jacqui originally introduced Dan to the slightly nutty taste of the ancient grain in a creamy chicken and mushroom stir-fry.
“She’s into her health food and I’d never even heard of it,” says Dan. “I was a meat and potato guy so this was all pretty exciting.”
Now they cook with quinoa all the time and have recipes on their site including Jacqui’s Chilli Con Quinoa and Dan’s Fried Chicken: quinoa coated chicken tenderloin lightly fried and served with salsa.
Chefs around the country are also taking to it. “They’re doing interesting things like sprouting it and treating it like a risotto,” says Jacqui. “People are so pumped that it’s local.”
Their quinoa has been adopted far faster than they expected. “We thought the marketing would be the most challenging but it’s been a really good head start getting in with Sabato,” Jacqui says.
Kiwis may be taking to quinoa everywhere but can they say it properly? Dan and Jacqui are sticking with the South American pronunciation of “Keenwar” instead of the more European “KwiNoah” but just like taking over the family farm, apparently there are no rules.
Angela Barnett is a contributing editor at BlueNotes