Good question! Well it all started back in 2006, when Stephen read a magazine article about the fantastic nutritional properties of quinoa, leading him to buy a small amount to try the product. Fortunately, he loved it, but it got him thinking.... wouldn’t it be great if we could produce British grown quinoa on the family farm? And so, the experiment began!
Initially, we planted a small trial on our farm to test the difference between several types of quinoa that could easily be purchased from the local supermarket shelf. Luck, however was not on our side as the seeds would either fail to germinate or the plants wouldn’t reach maturity within the cool UK climate. We moved on to testing a vast array of other quinoa varieties, from bird seed to small packets from garden centres, and although the plants appeared to grow well we were again without success as the quality of the harvested seed was poor and not suitable for consumption. Stephen was fortunately able to include much of this initial research within his university dissertation, helping to make sure the trials were well coordinated and the results could be used to develop the project further.
Our breakthrough came when we were fortunate enough to trial some new quinoa varieties that had been bred for our European climate... and they were fantastic! The new varieties produced a high-quality quinoa sample with nice big white grains, and they successfully matured come the Autumn allowing us to mechanically harvest the crop with our combine. We now hold the exclusive UK licence to these new quinoa varieties and have built our business up around them.
Another more personal breakthrough based upon the success of our trials, was that Stephen’s father Edward was now fully onboard with the idea of growing quinoa on the farm, having previously been a little unsure about the idea. Edward could now see from the success of the trials that it was an idea well worth persuing, another breakthrough in itself! Edward had up until now been used to growing more common crops such as wheat, oilseed rape, maize and sugarbeet, but this new crop offered an exciting opportunity to diversify the farm.
After we discovered these new varieties we were still left with the massive practical conundrum of... how do you actually grow quinoa? Well, several years on and we’ve cracked it! It took many field experiments to teach us how to successfully establish a crop, control weeds and harvest a high-quality product but with perseverance we can now certainly call ourselves Britain’s quinoa experts! We've have had many hard lessons along the way to get to where we are now, but with each passing season we’ve certainly learnt how to grow a great crop of quinoa.
Our first fully commercial crop was grown in 2013 in which we harvested around 20 tonnes of quinoa - hurray! As you can imagine very little was straight forward with achieving this, and the next major hurdle was how we process the crop to make it ready for sale as the harvested grain would always contain an element of weed seeds, stems and chaff which needed to be removed prior to consumption. This was overcome by finding new industry partners to help undertake this work, as well as investing in the right equipment to enable us to get our product to the final quality we require.
Our initial intention with this first year’s crop was to package it ourselves for sale within local wholefood stores, but when we were approached by Pret A Manger to supply our British quinoa for their product range, we jumped at the chance! They required so much quinoa that they used all of our first years production, which was an ideal situation for us. Pret have been, and still are until this day, a wonderful company to work with who really do practice what they preach in terms of ethical sourcing and sustainability.
In 2014 we increased our production to around 80 tonnes of quinoa and again the vast majority went into Pret’s stores. We were spurred on by being featured on Countryfile and winning the Arable Innovator of the Year Award at the British Farming Awards. In 2015, with the help of a few other passionate UK farmers we took a big leap forward and grew close to 700 tonnes to help meet our customer’s rapidly growing requirements, and were again spurred on by plenty of media interest including BBC Escape to The Country, Superfoods The Real Story, and BBC regional news. Stephen was a winner of The Grocer Top New Talent 2016 awards which gave industry recognition to work which had been undertaken for the development of quinoa as a new UK crop.
Our customer base expanded rapidly with our quinoa being used in a growing number of consumer products including the prepared salad ranges of Waitrose, M&S, Leon and Co-op to name a few. To keep up with demand our production again expanded during both 2016 and 2017, and we continued working hard to keep improving how we both grew and processed our quinoa, helping to ensure we could produce a world class product.
Over the past 12 months we’ve worked hard to develop our own brand retail packs which are now on sale in Grapetree stores across the country as well as a range of independent wholefood retailers, helping to bring us back around to fulfilling our initial ambition from when we first started our fledgling quinoa business... at long last! You will also now able to find our British quinoa grains on the shelves of several larger retailers including Waitrose (Duchy Organic), Marks and Spencer (own brand) and Booths (own brand).
So, what does the future hold for our business? Well we are working really hard to promote our branded packs of grain as a healthier and more traceable alternative to imported quinoa, as well as spending lots of time in the development kitchen to dream up tasty new products and recipes. We have recently been enthused by our first ever harvest of British red quinoa, as well as the successful trials of multiple other alternative crops which we’re testing to see if they can be grown within the UK climate, so… watch this space!
The British Quinoa Company Ltd