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Growing Chia in Kentucky

Chia is a popular ingredient in smoothies and snacks thanks to its reputation as a super food. It has very specific growing needs, but thanks to researchers at the University of Kentucky, it’s now a viable crop in the commonwealth.

“Chia was one of the staple foods of the Aztec Indians thousands of years ago,” says Chris Kummer of Kentucky Specialty Grains. “Chia is native to the higher, arid elevations of Central and South America. It’s traditionally been grown within about 15 degrees either side of the equator.”

Kummer explains that wild chia is triggered to flower at the spring and fall equinox, and then takes another month or so before it goes to seed. That means that unless it’s in a location where it’s warm year round, it will freeze before it produces seeds.

At the University of Kentucky, professor David Hildebrand and Dr. Tim Phillips developed a variety of chia that flowers in late July, which means seeds appear by the end of October.

“We planted the first crop in 2011,” says Kummer. “Initially when we licensed the chia from the University of Kentucky we had two goals. Those were to benefit farmers and to benefit consumers in the U.S. with the healthier food ingredients from chia.”

Kummer says chia is a sustainable crop with low water and fertilizer needs. It is also biologically different from the more common crops grown in Kentucky, like corn, wheat, and soybeans, so it can be added into a crop rotation to break disease and pest cycles.

There are several reasons why chia has earned its reputation as a super food.

“Chia has three components: fiber, protein, and oil,” says Kummer. “There are numerous medical studies on chia that show that it lowers cholesterol and has many other health benefits due to that fiber component. The oil is 63 percent omega-3, that’s an extremely high amount of omega-3 in a naturally occurring form. And the protein is what’s called a complete protein. It’s got all the amino acids that a person needs to live. And that’s rare in plants.”

It’s a crop that benefits consumers, benefits farmers, and should be a source of pride for Kentucky.

“Nothing we’re doing would be possible without the work that started at the University of Kentucky when David Hildebrand started breeding for earlier flowering so that we could grow chia at more northern latitudes,” says Kummer. “It’s a great story that’s now coming full circle. We’re selling chia grown in Kentucky, in Kentucky, and it was developed at the University of Kentucky.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2313 which originally aired on May 19, 2018. Watch the full episode.