Archives for December 2016

DAY 4: No potatoes this year

DAY 4: No potatoes this year

“I did not even plant potatoes this year, explained Hugo Mamanai, “why bother.  It’s too dry.  Nothing will grow.  In vain I will be working.”  Hugo like many people in El Alto, maintain their family lands in the countryside, traveling out on weekends to grow crops for family consumption in the city.  “I love being in the countryside, it is my meditation,” explained his wife, Nica, who also lives in El Alto, running a corner store and telephone service, “but it’s harder and harder to go there, especially when there is nothing to do, it is a lot of work.”

With President Evo Morales’s recent land reform and re-development of traditional land management methods, which include a rotation of community leaders overseeing land use and development, Hugo had returned to his ancestral lands to re-claim them, reconstruct the small house there and cultivate potatoes, a native crop.  But now with the drought and uncertain agriculture conditions, he is leaving it empty again.


What fields look like with traditional grasses holding down the topsoils. Contrast this to the featured photos of a drought affected field and no grasses.

Traveling from La Paz to Oruro, it looks like winter.  The once light green hills are now vast empty places of dry, plowed dirt, surrounded by fringes of wild green plants – the remnants of what once were slopes dotted with scrubby brush, tolla grasses and tufts of green patches.  Dust devils are lifted with the wind.  Industrialized agriculture has taken over the highlands by storm – via donated Chinese tractors from what I heard.  Unfortunately, the climate and appropriate use of technology have not kept up.  Fragile, highland soils are now plowed in inappropriate ways, leaving the top soils vulnerable and eliminating important carbon inputs such as natural grasses and animal dung.

It seems the wheat, quinoa and potatoes that were meant for those lands were either not planted or were planted but did not germinate.  Where are the university programs with the students making analysis, innovations and teaching best practices?  Where are the extension agents?  The Department of Agriculture?  The infrastructure we are so accustomed to in the US, is not present here.

“University students do not do field work here,” I’m told again and again, “it’s not like the US.  Here they work with theory in the classroom, that’s it.”

I’m told that even the Center for Quinoa Research built in the quinoa heartlands of Salinas, and managed by Oruro’s state university (UTO), is no longer staffed and its key has been lost.  I hope to be out there in a few weeks to learn more about this myself!

DAY 2: A visit to Bolivia’s largest quinoa processing plant

DAY 2: A visit to Bolivia’s largest quinoa processing plant

Entel in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

A busy morning was spent changing my phone chip to that of Entel, the best provider of internet service to the rural countryside where we will be working these next 2 months.  For 20Bs (a little less than $3) I now have my own Bolivian phone number (011-591-71223765).  Buying a whopping 100Bs ($17) of credit will give me full data and phone service for the next few days at least – depending on how I use it.  I tend to average about $17 a week in phone calls.

My first phone call was to Jose Santacruz, an agricultural engineer who recently began working with Jacha Inti.  Santacruz is a Fulbright scholar who earned his masters in agriculture in the US.  This past semester my UMass students have been working with him on two projects.  One is to develop a kickstarter promotion for Kaniwa, a seed similar to quinoa.  The other was a market study of the US consumer’s interest in a Denomination of Origin for Bolivia’s Royal Quinoa.  It was great working with Santacruz from our Amherst, MA classroom – skyping and e-mailing with him, getting on the ground reports of families, conditions, stories and photos related to the ancient Andean grains.

Now we were meeting in person. We took the public transport through the teeming streets of El Alto, Bolivia’s newest and fastest growing city – surging to over a million habitants in just 35 years.   At first people come to El Alto for access to jobs, schools and opportunities.  Now they are coming less from choice and more from need, as drought, hail, and wind from climate change chases them off their family farms.

Jacha Inti founder, Sergio Nunez, with a sheath of quinoa - yet to be processed.

Jacha Inti founder, Sergio Nunez, with a sheath of quinoa – yet to be processed.

I have been to several quinoa processing plants and Jacha Inti (Quechua for “Big Sun”) was by far the most organized, clean, and carefully set up.  Eighty employees worked in two shifts to process 20 ton lots of quinoa that were collected largely from a network of 18 quinoa grower associations.  Jacha Inti is the production arm of US based Andean Naturals, the largest quinoa distributor in the world.  Andean Naturals was founded by Bolivian, Sergio de Arco in the early 2000s.

As Santacruz introduced us to the plant it soon became clear that we were in an exceptional facility.  The company provided free hot lunches each day.  The lunch the day we visited was a generous portion of thinly sliced, fried beef, mixed vegetables such as broccoli and carrots, sliced baked potato, rice with vegetables, a natural fruit drink, and an apple for dessert.  Workers also get free company transportation which picks them up and brings them home from convenient locations, and an on-sight doctor and free medical care.

To enter the plant, we needed to wear a sock and other protective gear such as hair nets and shoe coverings to keep both ourselves and the product safe.  However we never felt endangered.  The quinoa comes in form the countryside already partially sorted and cleaned in 21-22 ton lots.  Famer associations are given one to two week’s notice of the need for a quinoa lot and begin sorting and cleaning the quinoa they have already harvested and stored.  All quinoa harvesting is done in May and sales of quinoa continue over the course of the year, one lot at a time, at a rate of one lot every 4-6 weeks.

At Jacha Inti, the quinoa lots are stored in a holding facility and processed over a 2 day period.  To begin quinoa is sorted by size – too large, just right and too small.  Only the “just right” size continues through the process.  About 5 to 10% of each quinoa lot will be sorted out as second quality and saved for sale as seconds.  Then the quinoa is sorted by weight, the seeds that are too light are selected out.  The remaining seeds are then de-hulled which removes about 80% of the saponin, a bitter protective coating that protects the seed from being eaten by birds and has use in pharmaceuticals and beauty products (it is soapy).  The next step is washing.  A water bath removes the remaining saponin, a centrifuge machine removes the water, and the 24% humid quinoa is quickly transported to hot air drying tables where workers rake it over heating vents until it is at 12% humidity and ready for its next step of processing.

Quinoa testing at Jacha Inti

Quinoa testing at Jacha Inti

The final processing happens in another part of the facility.  Covered tubes transport the quinoa up, down and through the steps mentioned above.  In this same tube, the quinoa is brought to the next room.  Here a team of quality control technicians check the quinoa for contaminants.  If the quinoa does not pass the chemical analysis test for organic certification – it is either returned to the producer association or sold as a lesser price as conventional quinoa. Strick organic guidelines permit only a .01 milligram of chemical presence per 100 tons of quinoa. The chemical most present in the quinoa is cypermethrin, a chemical used in early production to ward off leaf eating pests.  Santacruz explains that cypermethrin is permitted to be present at a .03mg rate for other organic crops such as corn and wheat.  Since organic quinoa is a newer crop, there still needs to be more testing done to establish he proper guidelines for chemical presence, so in the meantime, the USDA has a very strict .01 tolerance set at the guidelines. To prevent their quinoa from losing its organic certification, farmers simply avoid using cypermethrin and turn to other organic pest control methods such as phenome traps.  In a certified organic processing plant, everything is organic, even the mouse traps which line the outer walls of the facility.  These have a natural phenome which repels the mice.

If the quinoa is particularly dirty, it goes through an additional magnetic sort which removes any remaining soil and debris – which is magnetic due to the high mineral quality of the soils where the quinoa grows. The producers are charged extra for this step, so they work hard on their end to make sure the quinoa they sell to Jacha Inti is as clean as possible.

Finally, after a day and half of processing, the quinoa is ready to be bagged for export.  It goes through one more sorting and magnetic recovery process, where any loose screws from the massive machinery and fine soil particles are sorted out.  Here it is stored in another warehouse for up to a month as arrangements are made for international shipping mostly to large US buyers such as Kelloggs, Whole Foods and Pepsi.

DAYS 1 to 4 – Leaving the US and immersing into Bolivia

DAYS 1 to 4 – Leaving the US and immersing into Bolivia

Leaving for Bolivia before the academic semester ends and while KUSIKUY holiday is selling strong, means that Bolivia has been lived with one foot in the still in the US. While visting quinoa processing plants and seeing radical new agriculture projects (postings coming soon about this), I have also been attending to student grades and assignments, KUSIKUY orders and job searches for next semester. The days have passed fast!

Rumor has it that 50% of he quinoa crop has been lost to drought this year and a special meeting is being held by the mayor in Oruro to discuss this, this afternoon.  Saturday we’ll back out with the producers hearing and seeing first hand the results of the crash of the quinoa boom, climate change.

Meanwhile – here’s a photo shout-out to the family and friends who have made these four days so easy!

Visiting with academic colleague, author and friend, Linda Farthing in Sopocachi, La Paz.

Gigantic pizza party with cousins in Nuevos Horizontes, El Alto, La Paz

Gigantic pizza party with cousins in Nuevos Horizontes, El Alto, La Paz

Heading to Bolivia 

Sunset over Philadelphia

This time I’m traveling with my research partner, my 13 year old daughter, Musi.  I’ll be researching and homeschooling. My curriculum, a hybrid matching of middle school learning and Bolivian research was approved by the state of Vermont.  So her with her chrome book and I with my MacBook are headed out for a holiday summer adventure in the Andes.

 My goal is to explore more ways to use my phone for high quality, interactive field research – that can continue once I’m out of the field too. 

Musi’s goal is to improve her Spanish.