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.