Cultivars developed at UK make chia a viable crop in Kentucky

On his family farm in Simpson County, Chris Kummer, owner of Kentucky Specialty Grains, is growing 117 acres of an early flowering variety of chia developed by University of Kentucky researchers.
On his family farm in Simpson County, Chris Kummer, owner of Kentucky Specialty Grains, is growing 117 acres of an early flowering variety of chia developed by University of Kentucky researchers. Susan Smith-Durisek

FRANKLIN — Along with the established soybeans, wheat and corn on his Simpson County farm, Chris Kummer is raising chia, a surprising, emergent grain crop for Kentucky.

No longer relegated to simply sprouting green fuzz on clay Chia Pet statuettes, fully mature chia — or as it's known in botanical circles, Salvia hispanica — is in demand as a superfood seed source, packed with possible health benefits and rich in omega-3 fatty acids, insoluble fiber, protein and minerals.

A member of the mint family, chia is closely related to the familiar herb sage and ornamental salvia. The spikes of leafy green stalks tipped by clustered rows of delicate blue flowers are familiar to home gardeners.

Chia has been grown for centuries in tropical and subtropical regions, and it was a major crop raised by the Aztecs. Australia and countries in South and Central America, including Mexico, Argentina and Ecuador, are currently major suppliers for markets in the United States.

It took a collaboration between University of Kentucky researchers and Kummer's business, Kentucky Specialty Grains, to develop, test and grow new cultivars of chia that are able to produce seed in the cooler climate of the Upper South and Midwest, with the potential to increase production of this crop with a traceable domestic supply.

The process is well along. Since about 2005, professors Tim Phillips and David Hildebrand, plant scientists in UK's College of Agriculture, Food and the Environment, have been working to extend the range in which chia may be grown by using chemical and radiation treatments to mutate the plant's genetic characteristics.

Phillips says that chia, much like the poinsettia, is stimulated to flower at a time of year when daylight hours are getting shorter, and that in Kentucky, because the weather gets colder in late fall, there is little time for continued growth toward seed formation before a killing frost occurs.

"When plant breeders need variation for a trait that cannot be found in other lines of a species or related wild species," Phillips says, "we can use mutation breeding in an attempt to create it."

This technique, used in the United States since the 1950s, is considered a non-genetically modified organism method to introduce more variation in a plant genome. By 2009, the research team had plants that flowered in mid-July.

"It was a huge breakthrough, in that chia could now be grown under long day lengths farther from the tropics than the original, which needs to be grown in frost-free locations between 25 degrees latitude north or south of the equator," Phillips says.

Research is planned to continue to improve other chia attributes, for instance in developing larger seeds, higher yields and agronomic traits such as reduced lodging and shattering.

Kummer, a UK graduate who is active in the Kentucky Small Grain Growers Association, was aware of this chia research project and became interested in the idea.

Kummer, a fourth- generation farmer who keeps about 3,000 acres of grain under cultivation each year, still appreciates innovation and learning.

He has been participating in field studies to determine chia cultivation requirements such as best planting dates, row spacing, the number of seeds per acre, fertilizer requirements and weed control.

"UK has a patent pending on the early flowering chia, and my company, Kentucky Specialty Grains, has acquired an exclusive license on that patent," he says. "We have been working over the last three years to develop production techniques and understanding of chia in Kentucky as part of our effort to commercialize this new crop opportunity."

Kummer started in 2011 with three acres. He grew 17 acres last year; this month he will harvest about 110.

Market opportunities are strong, with demand outpacing supply. Kummer says the chia he's growing this season will be sold to a whole-seed vendor and another company that will process it as a food additive for products such as breads and cereals.

Want to try a taste?

Chia can be found in Lexington in large groceries and online in products as diverse as a package of whole seed, in baby food and in energy bars. It does not have a distinct flavor in itself, but it claims to pack a healthy punch.