Innovation Saskatchewan is responsible for implementing the province’s innovation priorities and helping grow Saskatchewan’s tech sector. Effective April 2022, this includes operation of the Innovation Place technology parks in Saskatoon and Regina.

Interview with NorQuin Farm Service Agronomist Liam O'Halloran

NorQuin Fuels Agricultural Innovation for Researchers and Consumers

In early February, the Northern Quinoa Production Corporation (NorQuin) began experimenting with interbreeding new varieties of quinoa at the greenhouses at Innovation Place in Saskatoon. NorQuin, a tenant at Innovation Place in Saskatoon, was the first to begin growing quinoa on the Prairies back in 1992 and has since expanded to the largest vertically integrated producer of quinoa.

We spoke with Liam O’Halloran, a Farm Service Agronomist at NorQuin, about the work they are doing breeding quinoa, why this research is important and future projects at NorQuin.

Let’s start off with a bit about NorQuin. Tell us about the company and its mission.

NorQuin is headquartered in Saskatoon and for the last 26 years has been growing and processing quinoa across the Prairie provinces. We are a fully vertically integrated company, with breeding and research operations in Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba, agronomy and support services across our entire growing region, with processing, quality control, food science and supply chain management from our Saskatoon location.

We’re at the core of product innovation and fuel the next generation of consumer staples. We proudly replace gluten and modified starches in frozen foods, add crunch to cereals and yogurt toppings, and provide the foundation for tasty health bars and snack clusters.

In early February, NorQuin tweeted that its Farm Service Reps (FSR) team was crossing quinoa. What is the FSR team and what do they do?

The FSR team’s main role is to contract growers for quinoa production acres, scout the fields and provide agronomic advice to the farmers and coordinate the movement of quinoa grain to the processing plant.

As you can see from the tweet we are also involved with many other teams with NorQuin. On this occasion we were working with our greenhouse team, the real stars of crossing, based at the greenhouses at Innovation Place.

For those who may not know, what does crossing quinoa mean and what does the process look like?

Crossing quinoa is the deliberate interbreeding (crossing) of closely related individuals to produce new crop varieties or lines with desirable properties. Plants are crossbred to introduce traits/genes from one variety or line into a new genetic background.

Our breeder determines what varieties he would like crossed and the greenhouse manager plants the desired plants and crosses the females with the selected male when the time is right.

It can be a bit of a dance getting everything to be ready at the same time. Quinoa is one of the most difficult plants to cross, and patience and experience is very important.

Why is this type of research important? What are some potential advantages of crossing quinoa?

The crossing of plants is important for many reasons. Quinoa is a tiny seed that packs a punch nutrition wise. We cross it to improve the already impressive nutritional value and to come up with varieties that will do well in our climate, and that our farmers will have success growing. Crossing also allows us to take out the less desirable traits of a variety and build upon the desirable ones.

The result of the crossing should be seen in a few weeks. What would a successful crossing look like? What happens if it’s not successful?

A successful cross simply means that you were successful transferring the pollen of the male onto the stigma of the female. In the crossing process you will have marked the bud that you crossed with red ink. We usually go back and check the plants about three weeks after crossing. At this time, all the buds that you did not use for crossing are trimmed away, only buds touched with red are allowed to remain. If the marked buds are withered looking or appear to be growing abnormally you know the cross did not take. If the bud appears to be swelling and increasing in size you know you have a successful cross!

The ones that aren’t successful will usually dry up and fall away or continue to grow but not produce a seed. When none of the attempts are successful, the plant is tossed, and it is back to the drawing board to try again.

Are there any future projects NorQuin is working on?

NorQuin is constantly working on new projects in breeding, agronomy and food science. Quinoa is still a relatively new crop to the Prairies so we have many projects based in the greenhouse and out in the field, developing new varieties, assessing varietal performance and furthering our agronomic understanding of quinoa.

What else should we know before you go?!

NorQuin quinoa is grown processed and sold right here in Western Canada, it can be found in stores, such as Costco and Walmart. We also market the grain internationally and our quinoa can be found for sale right across North America, Europe and Asia.

For consumers wishing to know more about quinoa and recipes you can find information on our website at We are always looking for new farmers to work with across the Prairies, anyone curious about growing can also check out our website and register their interest.

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- March 5, 2021