PULLMAN - A crop being test-grown at Washington State University's Organic Farm is skyrocketing in popularity in North America. Even so, less than a year ago, a graduate student growing it at WSU had never seen or tasted it.
Then again, he'd never felt the cold tingle of snowflakes landing on his skin either.
Cedric Habiyaremye came to campus from Rwanda last August. Majoring in crop sciences, he's become so hooked on the flavor and versatility of quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) that he's cultivating it for his graduate research work.
He compares his experiment with quinoa to his watching in wonder one December night as snowfall quilted Pullman and coated the trees outside his campus apartment. Until then, he'd only seen the white stuff in movies.
"I stood outdoors in a tank top and shorts, looking up at the sky with my arms spread wide," recalled Habiyaremye. "I thought, this snow is really amazing."
Amazing, too, is how he describes quinoa seeds produced by the goosefoot plant, now growing in neat lines of green in a field at WSU's organic farm. As the plants mature into stalks covered with knotty blossoms, they'll produce small, flat, circular-shaped seeds that, after being processed and cooked, taste like a mild, earthy brown rice.
"For such a tiny seed, it has such big possibilities," he said, arms outstretched like the first time he saw snow. "I am passionate about quinoa."
That vibrant exclamation from a student for whom English is a fourth language - preceded by French, Swahili and Kinyarwanda - speaks volumes about Habiyaremye's enthusiasm for his research.
And, also, his desire to bring seeds of change to his country.
Testing to meet demand
Indigenous to the Andean highlands, quinoa is eaten like a grain but is actually a protein-packed seed related to spinach and beets. Though Peru and Bolivia are the world's main suppliers, other countries, including the United States and Canada, are producing quinoa in small quantities as farmers try to figure out which varieties grow best and where.
Domestically, small-scale farmers have been growing quinoa in Colorado since the 1980s. But as the crop becomes a bigger part of the American diet, its cultivation is being tested at sites throughout the Pacific Northwest. WSU plant breeder Kevin Murphy oversees those sites; Habiyaremye's carefully tended plot at the organic farm is among them.
"Which quinoa varieties to plant, what to intercrop them with, what kinds of soils work best - these are questions we're trying to answer before farmers start trying to grow it in the U.S.," said Murphy.
Heart full of quinoa
Standing alongside a swath of quinoa plants that he intercropped with potatoes, Habiyaremye talked about the foodstuff he tasted for the first time at the WSU-hosted International Quinoa Research Symposium. He remembers wondering how such a humble seed could provide such a nutritional and flavorful base for salads, soups, porridge and cereals.
"Cooked like grain, quinoa reminded me of cooked sorghum (an ancient staple grain in Africa and India) from my home country, only better. And knowing how nutritious it is, I became determined to learn everything I can about growing it," he said. "I haven't known quinoa for long, but I do know that it's very special."
Fueled by the past
Twenty years ago in Rwanda, when Habiyaremye was 7, ethnic genocide left close to 1 million people brutally slaughtered in 100 days. Since then, tourists have returned to the small east African country and the economy continues to rebound. Even so, 30 percent of the population remains malnourished, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
"Recalling how hunger was traumatic in my childhood, I decided that as a personal mission, I would try to find a solution so that children and families in Rwanda will not be held down by lack of nutritious food," said Habiyaremye.
The solution, he believes, lies in quinoa, the oddly pronounced name of which he heard for the first time from WSU crop sciences professor Kim Kidwell, whom he met in Rwanda when she led a two-week student practicum in 2012.
" 'KEEN-what?' I asked her," recalled Habiyaremye. " 'KEEN-what?' "
After the trip, Kidwell recruited him to WSU to study this promising agricultural novelty. Once armed with a master's degree in 2016, he plans to return to Rwanda, grow the crop and introduce it to others.
In a country where more than half the people are subsistence farmers, he envisions a new shade of green amid the small family plots of sweet potatoes, cassava and maize. Quinoa's seeds, leaves and flowers are all edible, he explained, offering high doses of essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
"Because it is so nutritious and well suited for small-scale and subsistence farming, I think it has great potential to contribute to my country's food security," he said.
Suited for other lands
How will a crop from the cloud-shrouded ridges of the Andes fare in a land of eucalyptus trees two degrees south of the equator?
That's another remarkable thing about quinoa: it takes root in a variety of environments, said Murphy, Habiyaremye's adviser.
"It's a diverse crop that appears to thrive in a variety of climates and altitudes," Murphy said. "With Cedric's determination, if anyone can get it to grow there, it's him."
Meanwhile, as Habiyaremye's quinoa plants reach toward a hot July sun, "my hope is that one day it becomes widely grown in Rwanda," he said.