France is Europe’s largest producer of quinoa, an ancient seed originally from South America. The bulk is grown in the Maine-et-Loire region thanks to one man, from Tennessee, who is on a quest to find the perfect variety to grow in northern Europe.
When Jason Abbott left the United States for France in 2004, he could not have guessed that within 10 years he would have sparked Europe’s largest production of an ancient Incan seed.
Abbott moved to western France with his French wife, and when their daughter was diagnosed with Celiac disease - an autoimmune disorder which makes you intolerant to gluten - they looked for alternatives to wheat. A nutritionist encouraged them to introduce quinoa into the family’s diet.
“The nutritionist suggested that we eat alternative grains like buckwheat and millet and quinoa, and the one that kept coming back much more often than the others was quinoa,” says Abbott, sitting at the table in his home on his farm in Longué-Jumelles, in the heart of the western Maine-et-Loire region.
“Quinoa was just so easy to prepare. It had a really interesting texture. It has a mild flavor so that it goes with all types of sauces.”
Listen to Jason Abbott’s story in the Spotlight on France podcast:
In 2006 the Abbotts could only find quinoa in small organic stores, and Jason wondered why it was not more widely available.
“The answer was that the production at the time in South America was very unstable, and prices were unstable, so the availability here in France was also unstable,” he explains.
Quinoa, a seed eaten as a grain, has been grown in the Andes for centuries. Global interest in the seed exploded in the early 2000s, driven by the trend for eating gluten-free. But it also put pressure on small producers in South America.
Abbott was working for a seed company in the area and had started an experimental seed farm to test products. He and his wife wondered if they could experiment with quinoa.
“We thought we could create a reliable supply,” he says. “Or at least, creating a reliable supply would be an interesting challenge.”
The challenge would take years, and lead him to launch France’s quinoa industry, now the largest in Europe.
It starts with a seed
The climate and soil in the Andes is different from northern Europe.
Abbott secured the licence of a quinoa cross developed at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Researchers had crossed seeds from Ecuador and Chile, and had bred plants that would ripen in Europe’s long summer days.
Quinoa starts producing seeds – the plant's edible part – when days get shorter. In South America, closer to the equator, days get shorter earlier in the summer when the weather is still warm.
“When the days start to get short here, we get a lot of rain so we can't harvest,” explains Abbott.
The plant remained sensitive to cold and other weather conditions in France, with its humid winters and occasional drought conditions in the spring.
So Abbott got to work planting quinoa plants on his farm. Each season he sows 500 parcels, each with a different quinoa type, or line. Among the thousands of individual plants, he has to select 500 of the hardiest to replant the following year.
“I'm super happy when there are problems,” he says. Unlike a regular farmer, who is looking to get the highest yield, Abbott is looking for weak plants so he can eliminate them.
He stands in the parcels; the plants reach his armpits. Many have holes in their leaves, some are crawling with insects, others have dried-out stems.
“We had a really hot and dry period for about eight days, and that was very useful because we could really see the differences between these plots. Some of them were all wilted and others didn't seem to care. Those are the perfect opportunities that we're looking for.”
Abbott and his assistant are out every day, taking take notes on each parcel, to find the best seeds for the next year. It’s slow work with long-term goals.
Farmers looking for diversity
Over the years Abbott has developed a handful of varieties and a partnership with the Coopérative des Pays de la Loire, which has been encouraging its farmers to plant quinoa since 2009. It is sold as ‘Quinoa d’Anjou’, the name of the Maine-et-Loire region.
Paul Terrien is one of the cooperative’s 300 farmers. In 2013, when he took over his father’s farm in Cizay-la-Madeleine, some 35 kilometres south of Abbott’s seed farm, he was looking for variety.
"We need diversity on our farms, to have several different kinds of crops,” he explains. Planting the same thing in each field each year depletes soil resources, encouraging insect populations and resistant diseases.
Terrien has 130 hectares, on which he grows 10 different kinds of grains and seeds such as wheat, sunflower and corn. But also more unusual crops like alfalfa, millet, sorghum, and quinoa which now accounts for 10 percent of his crops.
He began growing quinoa in 2015, even though he knew nothing about it. But Abbott had worked on finding buyers, and the cooperative offered the farmers technical support.
"I know wheat: you sow it in the autumn, harvest in July. It’s straightforward,” he says. “Quinoa is sown right after the winter, so you need soil that dries quickly," Terrien says. "And because we don't use herbicides on quinoa, it needs to grow quickly, faster than the weeds.”
Terrien has had reasonable success with the crop, but it is still experimental, and not as forgiving as wheat. Quinoa needs dry conditions when it is planted, enough water to grow, but not too much humidity at harvest time.
"It flourishes better some years than others,” he says. "This year we had two months without rain between March and April, so the quinoa plants suffered. There are plots where it did fine, and others where it was more complicated.”
Quinoa can sell for ten times the price as wheat, but harvests are not consistent.
"Three years ago I had to tear out all my quinoa plants; they were not growing because it was too dry and cold,” he says. “There are years where it works, and others where it works less, so you need to average over five years.”
French demand is slow
A quarter of quinoa eaten today in France is grown in France, most in the Anjou region. But the seed remains a niche product.
In 2018, France consumed some 500,000 tonnes of pasta and 300,000 tonnes of rice, compared to just 6,000 tonnes of quinoa.
Maud Abbott works with her husband on the commercial side of the operation, trying to find potential customers. When she started presenting quinoa at local markets, she got puzzled looks.
“People thought I was showing them bird food,” she laughs. “People just didn't know what quinoa was and they didn't know what to do with it, so it was tough to get into the market.”
She highlighted the seed’s high protein content and the fact that it is gluten-free.
Today the bulk of Quinoa d’Anjou is sold to large food companies that package and sell it in supermarkets, alongside rice and couscous.
Maud Abbott works with small stores and restaurants, encouraging them to use quinoa, or to stock products using it as an ingredient. In Paris quinoa appears on menus as a healthy, or vegetarian option, but outside of cities, it is still a hard sell.
“Around here it's the countryside, and it’s been difficult to get restaurants to take quinoa, because there are a lot of farmers and truck drivers who want a big meal with potatoes and meat,” says Maud.
The Abbotts are convinced it can be just as widespread as rice, which also took time to get accepted in France.
“Why couldn't it be as big as rice one day?” asks Jason. “It's just as good, and maybe even a little bit better.”
No perfect seed
In the meantime, there is still work to be done to refine the seed.
“I have not yet come to the ideal product because a variety may solve one problem, but have weaknesses elsewhere,” he says. “I don't think we'll ever find one perfect variety. I think there'll always be some improvement to be done.”
And that will not happen overnight.
“This is a process that’s been done around the world, for thousands of years. It does take some time.”