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Building a Supply Chain - Amaranth | Part 1

This past winter (are we even able to say that when there was just a whisper of snow??) I heard more about amaranth than basically all of last year. This ancient, or heirloom, grain is another one of those tiny gluten free grains that bring lots of nutrition and flavor. You might be most familiar with it for your garden though because some varieties have gorgeous purple/magenta leaves with clusters of white or black seeds. An opportunity came up to help develop a supply chain for a brand who wanted to source domestically grown amaranth to help keep their costs consistent. Sounds great right?

Well if you’re in the agriculture world, you might recognize amaranth as the close relative of pigweed. Which is a notoriously prolific weed that’s difficult to get rid of in your fields. The first time I pitched this amaranth idea to a farmer, he laughed at me for about a minute! Then we got down to business discussing details. 

First Hurdle: Seed Source

The very first hurdle I faced was the fact that the variety that the buyer gave me doesn’t grow in the States. In fact, as it stands in 2024, you can’t find US farmers growing amaranth for commercial use. We’ll get into why later. So any amaranth that is used in food production is imported. And the vast majority (we’re talking north of 95%) of amaranth that’s imported is from India. Which has a very different climate explaining why the variety was different. 

After talking to some amaranth farmers from the 90’s and amaranth experts in USDA, I found the amaranth variety for food use that could grow here. I found a production guide from 1998 that outlined best practices and called the author. He told me there was a boom of amaranth growers in the 80’s and 90’s because National Foods (eventually acquired by H.J. Heinz Company) had been a major purchaser. But then their strategy changed and they began importing to cut costs. Ironic that three decades later, we'd be looking to bring production back to the states for the very same reason! 

Talking to this author led to another recommendation. And another. Until finally, I got on the phone with Drew Erikson from the Midwest Rodale Institute in Iowa. Not only was he growing a patch of the amaranth variety that I was looking for, but another farmer was helping him by testing yet another variety. And it just so happens that that farmer is great friends with my dad! The food grade grain world is incredibly small which is a beautiful thing. 

Drew and Eric, the other Iowan farmer, were working on scaling this variety of amaranth. Each of them were testing a sub-variety with the teeniest of differences. They were also testing planting methods to answer some questions like how far apart do the seeds need to be planted? What’s the depth that’s best? When should it be harvested? Luckily for us, they planted about 1-2 acres of amaranth which will yield enough seed for testing and provide seed for a handful of farmers to scale even more!

So we had a seed source but would it work for the buyer?