Archives for July 23, 2015

Day 20 – Meet my brother-in-law and organic quinoa grower, Efraim Argilar.

Day 20 – Meet my brother-in-law and organic quinoa grower, Efraim Argilar.

We’ll be talking a lot about the Bolivian altiplano now. Here’s some background info: Bolivian Altiplano.

Efraim Argilar, Bollivian orgnaic quinoa farmer.

Efraim Argilar, Bollivian orgnaic quinoa farmer.

I have not seen my brother-in-law Efraim Argilar in many years. Last I knew he had a good job in a national paper company. Things changed. With the raise in value of quinoa, Efraim left his company job and became a quinoa farmer. Fifty-five years old, with a high school education and learned knowledge of farming from his family (he had grown up on a small farm) Efraim returned to his family lands in Playa Verde and began to plant quinoa. Other farmers in his community began to do the same. Soon Efraim had 30 hectareas  (74 acres) of quinoa in rotation with 15 hectares (37 acres) planted each year. The farmers in the region realized that they needed to work together in order to improve their production and market access. Seven years ago in 2008, with the help of ANAPQUI (define and explain ) they registered themselves as a legal association; the Producers of Quinoa and Camelids (mainly llamas), PQCAS, with 72 members. With this legal recognition, ANAPQUI provided technical assistance teaching the farmers soil management, organic growing techniques and natural pest control.

One pest control method included hanging lanterns in the fields at night with tubs of soapy water underneath. The moths, drawn to the light, would then drown in the soapy water. It was a lot of work, explained Efraim, and all PQCAS members needed to coordinate the work together so all moths could be destroyed at once. Even so only about 80% of the moth population was destroyed. Bolivia has made organic farming a law and many universities are working on effective organic methods of pest control.

Efraim produces about 150 quintals  (put into pounds and verify yield of 5 quintals/hectacre) of  quinoa a year. He yields an average of 5 quintals per hectare. With last year’s quinoa prices set at $178 a quintal, he net almost $27,000 which is more than double the earnings of the average non-quinoa growing family in that region. Farmers who traditionally lived in adobe homes with thatched roofs, dirt floors and no running water or electricity, now had electricity, brick or wood floors, tiled bathrooms with running water and a hot shower or at least a latrine, explained Efraim. Some of this was developed through the quinoa earnings though some projects such as the running water and electricity were provided by the state through new laws developed under the new (2007 or 2009) constitution.

This year, with international competition, prices have dropped 60% to $71 a quintal. This was a huge loss for quinoa farmers who were paying $42 a day labor rates for the quinoa which was triple the customary $14 a day rate that was the standard six years ago, before the quinoa boom. Fortunately PQCAS recently received their organic certification and can now be earning $128 a quintal for their quinoa, 45% higher than the non-certified rate.

For the last two years, Efraim was an elected dirigente (or leader) of his region. He wore the traditional outfit of a hand woven tan colored poncho made of llama wool, hand woven black wool pants, carried a whip across his shoulders and a specially decorated stick that symbolized his authority. He networked with quinoa buyers and organizations to get the best prices for his region. All PQCAS members meet quarterly and also in times in between when a problem or concern arises. In the meetings, members share techniques, problems and solutions. Technical support from ANAPQUI  is solicited when the group feels thy have an issue they can not solve.

Individually members also use traditional methods to care for their land and crops. Efraim explains that he regularly has a qu’olla or blessing at the start of the planting season where a burnt offering of specially selected herbs, incense, 2″ tiles made of sugar in different forms to represent different needs, llama hair, sometimes a dried llama or sheep fetus is made to the Earth Mother (Pachamama), alcohol and the local Huari beer also accompanies the ceremony that the farmers themselves carry out on their own lands. Sometimes authorities are invited to call in the rain which indicates the start of the growing season with a larger ceremony that includes a llama or sheep sacrifice. One tradition Efraim has is on the morning of the first day of August, a rock is picked up, if it has frost on it, that means the growing season will begin as normal. If it does not, that means a drought is coming the and the start of the growing season will be delayed.

PQCAS members have a Book of Actions where these customs are noted and also details on who owns what land, work that was done and any problems that might have come up.

Day 19 – Meet the quinoa experts

Day 19 – Meet the quinoa experts


Juan Pablo with his sack of quinoa that was sold at the Brattleboro Food Co-op in the US.

Following the value chain, UNFI buys their quinoa from Juan Pablo Selene of Quinoa Foods Company in La Paz, Bolivia. Selene exports 1,000 tons of certified organic quinoa a year, largely to UNFI. Of that 1,500 tons is purchased directly from the 37 certified organic producers he works with and the other 500 is purchased from other quinoa exporters to fill his orders. CERES, a German organization, oversees the organic certification process which is also recognized by the USDA. The average Bolivian market price for organically certified Bolivian quinoa is $3,500 a ton, putting Selene’s in-country investments at $3.5 million.

In 1990, Selene, a chemical engineer, received a Fulbright Scholarship to earn his MBA at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). This is where he discovered the market for quinoa, after studying the work of ANAPQUI, Bolivia’s first quinoa exporter, and deciding it was a good market for him to go into too. Quinoa goes through three stages of cleaning before it is ready for the export market, first dust and dirt needs to be removed from the seeds, then the outer cover needs to be rubbed off and finally it needs to be washed several times to remove the bitter saponins that cover the seed. Selene’s Masters Thesis was a design for a quinoa washing machine. The business side of things also interested Selene. He and a US colleague won a $3,000 prize in their UNH Entrepreneurship class for their project to import quinoa to the US. They split the prize earnings and with $1,500 in his pocket, Selene returned to Bolivia. Though this was not enough to start Quinoa Foods Co., it was enough to help him begin planning for it.

From 1994 until 2002, Selene kept the dream of having his own export quinoa company alive. He designed logos, bags, and a marketing plan. He developed contact with potential US buyers through a long, intense e-mail campaign. He got to know Bolivian producers, other exporters, engineers and developed the infrastructure needed to export a container of quinoa to the US. Meanwhile he was working as a quality control manager at Coca-Cola. Here Selene learned a lot about human resources, different quality control systems, efficiency and motivation. This helps him today to have a safety certified plant and good relations with his unionized workers. He also worked to export Bolivian made furniture when enabled him to better understand the export process from Bolivia.

Juan Pablo stands besides a container of orgnaic quinoa ready for export to the US through Arica, Chile.

Juan Pablo stands besides a container of orgnaic quinoa ready for export to the US through Arica, Chile.

In 2003 came his big break, UNFI responded to his e-mails and ordered a container of quinoa! Selena activated the business that he had designed 12 years ago renting space for quinoa to be processed, ordering the bags he designed to be made, contacting his chain of producers with the help of ANAPQUI to deliver the unprocessed quinoa, and hiring 15 women to hand clean the quinoa to export quality standards. However Selene needed $20,000 to export the container. He contacted his friend from ANAPQUI, Wilson Barco, who already was exporting containers of quinoa worldwide and asked for help. Wilson gave Selene the $20,000 credit he needed to ship that first container. However it was delayed in the Arica, Chile port while USDA inspectors mulled over who this new quinoa exporter was. Meanwhile UNFI ordered another container of quinoa. Since the first container had not been delivered yet, Selene had no funds to pay for this next container. Again he went to his friend Barco and again his friend responded with the credit needed to export another container. This one made it through Arica but was then stuck in he port of Boston while the USDA inspectors once again mulled over who this new quinoa exporter was. Not to be deterred, UNFI ordered still another container of quinoa! One more time, Selene asked Barco for support. Barco agreed but said this would be the last loan. Now $60,000 in debt, Selene crossed his fingers as he sent out his third container of quinoa to his new client. Fortunately this one arrived successfully. UNFI was very impressed with the quality and flavor of the quinoa that they ordered another container. This one also arrived safely and on time. Within two weeks, the quinoa from Boston was released and four weeks later, the quinoa from Chile also entered the US. And this is how the relationship between UNFI and Quinoa Foods Company was formed and Quinoa Foods Command officially launched.

In 2009, Selene bought land in El Alto, Bolivia to build his own quinoa cleaning plant with the quinoa cleaning machinery he had designed so many years ago. With his wife, Carol (who had accompanied him to the US on his Fulbright work) managing the business administration and accounting, Juan Pablo, works on the processing and sales. Together the two make an excellent team.

Quinoa Foods Co. with their own packaged retail bags of quinoa they hope to be soon be offereing export markets.

Quinoa Foods Co. with their own packaged retail bags of quinoa they hope to be soon be offereing export markets.

Quinoa Foods Co. has grown so much over the last 12 yeas that they needed to rent a separate space for consolidating and shipping their cleaned quinoa. Selene is in the process of building a new, larger, single plant where the washing and export processing all happens at one site. He will have a visitor center there too and hopes to open this in a year. He sees the future for his quinoa exports as being favorable even with the fall in market prices, producers not wanting to sell their quinoa at low prices, and entrance of new competition. He feels the market price drop was inevitable.

Trademark for Bolivian Quinoa.

Trademark for Bolivian Quinoa.

Selene is an active member of Bolivia’s Chamber of Quinoa Exporters which with the help of the International Development Bank, is working with the Bolivian government to trademark the name “Quinoa Real” a reference to the Quinoa Real variety produced in Bolivia. The origin is important to, so with this recognition, only Bolivian quinoa can be known as “Quinoa Real” no other country except Bolivia can have this distinction. By promoting the uniqueness and authenticity of Bolivia’s Quinoa Real (the most common white quinoa on the market), quinoa exporters hope to secure a strong and lasting place in the world quinoa market.

Day 18 – Family vacation across the salt flats.

Day 18 – Family vacation across the salt flats.

Day 18 – Family Vacation across the salt flats.

To get to the Bolivia’s main quinoa growing region, we toured the vast salt flats (Salar of Uyuni) for two days, marveling at the extreme nature and beauty of Bolivia’s Southern Altiplano. Here’s a photo essay of the trip highlights including the Salt Palace Hotel, which we visited to pick up another touring family from.

Salt mining in the salt flats.  Author with her 2 children.

Salt mining in the salt flats. Author with her 2 children.

Leaving the salt flats for the volcanoe town of Tunupa.

Leaving the salt flats for the volcanoe town of Tunupa.

 

Volcanic rock formations.

Volcanic rock formations.

At the Salt Palace Hotel.  All made of salt, even the beds and furniture!

At the Salt Palace Hotel. All made of salt, even the beds and furniture!

Day 17 – Quinoa or quinua?

Day 17 – Quinoa or quinua?

Agronomist, Maria Cayoja of INIAF, shows 2 different varieties of quinoa coming from the mid-altiplano region of Bolivia.

Agronomist, Maria Cayoja of INIAF, shows 2 different varieties of quinoa coming from the mid-altiplano region of Bolivia.

In Bolivia, the sacred grain, is called quinua and pronounced keen’-oo-ah.  This name is a Spanish modification of the original Quechua name, kinwa (though quinua is mostly found in the Aymara speaking regions of Bolivia!). It’s scientific name is Chenopodium quinoa and it is related to amaranth and pigweed. To stay in line with international spelling, we will continue to refer to Bolivian quinua as quinoa.

Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andean region for over 3,000 years.  When the Spanish conquerors arrived 500 years ago, they saw it as “peasant or Indian food” and prohibited its cultivation, required people to instead grow the wheat which they brought to the region.  Never-the-less, quinoa production persisted.

Today there are hundreds of known varieties of quinoa en Bolivia ranging from all colors and sizes from the large, hardy Quinoa Real grown along Bolivia’s vast salt flats in the Southern Altiplano region to the sweeter, smaller varieties found in the mid and northern altiplano.

Characteristics of mid-altiplano quinoa - looser sead heads, and smaller seeds.

Characteristics of mid-altiplano quinoa – looser sead heads, and smaller seeds.

Known for its complete protein and high amino acid content, Bolivian quinoa also has saponins which are removed in he cleaning process (but also have industrial uses as natural cleaning agents and insecticides), and oil.  Depending on where the quinoa is produced, the oil, protein, saponin and calorie content of the quinoa will vary by as much as 10% or more.