Day 21 – Explaining quinoa markets in Poopo.

Day 21 – Explaining quinoa markets in Poopo.

I was invited to the mid-sized altiplano mining town of Poopo by the indigenous leaders in charge of local development.  They were not in the Royal Quinoa export growing region, but produced quinoa for their own local markets and consumption and wanted to learn more about what was happening in the quinoa industry.  We set up a workshop date with the Mayor and for two weeks, broadcast it over the radio and through local networks.  The mayor’s secretary had a copy of my presentation on her laptop and I had made copies to distribute as well.

The day of the workshop came and I waited in the mayor’s courtyard as the time passed.  The workshop was to be at 2pm but it was now almost 2:30 and no one was to be seen.  This brought back memories of times 15 years ago when I ran a rural newspaper in the valley regions of Cochabamba.  Meetings in these sleepy towns would always happen an hour after they were scheduled and change and events passed slowly.  I was reminded that the punctual, market motivated people of the quinoa lands were not the norm of all of Bolivia.

Eventually, staff began to appear and it was confirmed that there was in fact a quinoa presentation scheduled for today.  A quinoa farmer appeared, Primo Quispe Cheqa from Quilla.  A few phone calls were made and eventually, Fausto Flores from Tola Pampa also arrived.  We were set.  It was a sunny afternoon in the cool altiplano.  Both gentlemen decided they would prefer to hold the workshop in the mayor’s courtyard instead of a cold meeting room.  So we did.

The quinoa in Poopo is grown in addition to incomes earned in mining and animal production.  Families there often had a few llamas, cows or pigs that they raised for food and extra income, mostly selling locally in their own market.  The Poopo market prices were a bit higher (about 10-15%) than those in the city an hour away.  This is because there was less competition to drive down prices and the miners had money to buy products with.  Families also farmed maintaining several parcels, which were largely 1 acre lots that were located in different micro-climate zones with varying soil types.  Her people grew largely wheat, fava beans, potatoes and quinoa for themselves and alfalfa for their cows.  In some regions where there was irrigation, small crops of lettuce and onions were also planted.

Primo and Fausto were fascinated with the markets, prices and consumer demands in the US.  How the crops arrived there and the distribution channels.  They had no desire to enter these markets, nor had the production necessary to do so.  Their quinoa yields were substantially smaller than those of the Quinoa Real region with production being about 5-8 quintals produced per family per year.  In comparison in the quinoa region families produce an average of 150 quintales a year – valued at about $1,200.

Soon the skies darkened, wind began to blow and a hail storm appeared on the horizon.  We ended our workshop in a friendly manner and enjoyed the time we had to talk informally about quinoa markets and how they worked.

Day 20– the mountain quinoa revisited – Monica Cayo.

Day 20– the mountain quinoa revisited – Monica Cayo.

It was good seeing Monica Cayo again.  I had spent a long weekend with her family in the high mountains on the Chilean border where the organic mountain quinoa is grown.  Monica is a quinoa farmer and regional development leader.  We had held workshops in her community of Lluvica and spent time in the quinoa fields of her youth where she still cultivates several hactacres of hand grown mountains quinoa for export each year.   When I was at her home last, her teenage nieces from Chile were visiting during their summer vacation.  It was their first time back to the quinoa lands since the boom.

Monica explains how the drop in quinoa prices led to increased migration to the interstellar region of Chile and Argentina as families sought economic stability..  The 460Bs per quintal price they were receiving no longer covered their costs and quinoa was becoming once again, a task of subsistence farming for families without any other alternatives.  She saw this affecting other sectors in Bolivia as well.  Local stores closed as families moved out of the small towns and there were no more customers.  She felt that if there could be a guaranteed minimum price of 600 to 700Bs per quintal for the farmers it would motivate them to stay and farm.  But without that stability, it’s becoming harder and harder for farmers to trust in the work.  Quinoa has a 9 month growing period with costs coming up front – fertilizing, planting, weeding, pest management… all have costs and there are risks of drought, frost and hail.  The high up-front costs and risks exacerbated by climate change mixed with the low quinoa prices make it a tough choice for families who want to stay and farm.

Monica had recently arrived from an Assembly of the quinoa cooperative members where it was discussed that not all quinoa is the same and that consumers should know where their quinoa came from – if it was hand mountain grown, organically planted with tractors or large scale farmed with chemicals.  She noted that it was hard to control the production and quality of quinoa once family production exceeded 10 hectacres.  Very few families in the Assembly had production higher than 10 hectacres.

I asked her why people stayed.  Why even bother with quinoa farming anymore?  She explained that the older people have no other choice.  They are quinoa farmers and that is what they do, what they know.  It is their only livelihood and the only way of life they know.  “They are there,” explained Monica.  “To survive they grow quinoa.  It’s their life.”

The younger people, she explained change activities.  They go to the city and work as mechanics, transportation drivers with trucks, mini vans and taxis, open stores or go to the university.  With a stable economy, she believes, the young people will come back but will continue to look for work elsewhere for extra money for their children.  She notes that the llama population has dropped which traditionally provided extra income and food security for families.  Without being in the rural communities all of the time, one cannot maintain their traditional herds of 30-40 llamas per family.

Monica sees the future of quinoa as a product that will help to raise the health levels of the people of Bolivia as a nation and sees more space for the development of national, internal markets. She sees an opportunity for the government to promote more national quinoa consumption and further develop a national quinoa noodle market.  Recently there has been a rise in the number of quinoa cooperatives who now have their own product lines of packaged cookies, noodles, quinoa puffs and quinoa flakes.

Day 18 – The future of the quinoa farmers?

Day 18 – The future of the quinoa farmers?

Can fair prices that respect Bolivia’s love and connection to the earth and each other revitalize the ancient ways of being to re-form the robust, sustainable, rural communities of the past united with the technologies of today?  Maybe.

The quinoa culture is disappearing observes Melina Cayo, organic quinoa grower and agricultural engineer.  She notes five ways in which it is impacted:

  1. There are abandoned lands, empty pasturelands that were plowed up in the height of the quinoa craze and now years later still lay barren. Plants grow slowly in the high dessert quinoa lands often needing decades to develop.  This was once forage for the wild vicunas – a shy, graceful fawn-like animal that resembles a llama crossed with an antelope.  Vicunas have the finest wool in the world with a mere pound of fiber being valued at over $60.  These animals cannot be domesticated and roam the vast altiplano in small harams led by a single male and 5 or 6 females.  Once hunted almost to extinction, these animals are now protected and have made a comeback.  However with the recent loss of pastureland they have been forced to mingle with llama herds, come close to quinoa communities and even eat quinoa plants.  Once revered as a sacred, mystical, beautiful gift, vicunas some quinoa farmers, observed Melina, are now calling them pests and some are starting to hunt them again.
  2. Less land is being farmed, noted Melina as well. Families that once farmed 15 to 20 hectacres of land are now farming a mere 7 to 12 hectacres.  And these small amounts of land are being farmed poorly due to the lack of financial resources for investment which are a consequence of the low quinoa prices.  Organic composted llama manure is now more expensive because there are less llamas due to drought, loss of pastureland and largely because quinoa families have migrated to the cities and no longer maintain their own llama herds.  So quinoa growers often use half of the amount of manure they need for their fields.  This results in lower yields and weaker plants, but the farmers feel it’s a trade-off they have to make.
  3. There are no longer active families living in the quinoa communities. Rural quinoa communities that once had 30-40 families living in them now just have seven.  There is no one to come to the community meetings, to make decisions, request resources, lead development, and talk about what is needed.  The 30+ families who have left their communities are now considered passive members – they come to the quinoa communities one or two times a year for a short festival and that is it.  All families return to their communities in January during carnival and summer vacation to have a q-olla – a traditional Andean celebration of thanks celebrated with fires, dance and respects paid to the earth and that’s it.  The children no longer have the tradition or habit of being in the countryside and feel more comfortable in the cities.  To them, going to the countryside for summer vacation is a punishment.
  4. Children have also lost the habit of consuming quinoa, explained Melina. With the quinoa boom came the new habit of families buying cheap rice and noodles instead of eating their expensive quinoa which they preferred to sell.  Before the quinoa boom, families couldn’t afford the cheap rice and noodles and ate quinoa they grew themselves three to four times a week or more.  Now with noodles and rice being affordable, quinoa moms noticed how much easier they were to cook and prepare and even with the low quinoa prices, prefer to cook with noodles and rice.  Children are now used to sugary processed foods and do not like to eat the mild flavored quinoa when it is prepared.
  5. Melina also noted the communities lost the tradition of “ayllu” where everyone chips in together to help each other in a constant exchange of favors and reciprocity. Ayllu had no monetary value but instead carried tremendous cultural and personal value.  Now all work in the quinoa fields is paid for.  Tractors are hired instead of borrowed, labor is paid instead of shared, manure is purchased instead of collected.  All earnings go directly back to the family with no investment into the rural community.  Family houses are not kept up and continue to deteriorate more each year.

Development directors and academics I have spoken with are hopeful that the new Vivir Bien – Live well – model can help to rejuvenate the rural communities and animate people to value and invest in the rural areas one again.  Meanwhile Melina tearfully reflects upon the tremendous changes and losses that have happened in the past 10 years – often happening so quickly that without giving a pause to think of how it once was not so long ago, it is easy to overlook or forget.

Day 17 – What happens when they all leave and the $20 difference.  Talking with Melinda Cayo

Day 17 – What happens when they all leave and the $20 difference.  Talking with Melinda Cayo

The countrysides are emptying out.  Driving the hundred miles from Curahuara de Canagas to Oruro one passes one brown, dusty town after another.  Empty windows, boarded up doors, deserted dirt streets, only the wind blowing between the handful of silent houses.  New schools, basketball courts and small houses made of sturdy brick topped with shiny tin roofs stand alongside eroded adobe homes – thatched roofs caving in, windows broken, doors hanging from broken hinges.  This is not quinoa lands – it is llama and sheep pasture lands and old mining towns but the remote quinoa communities to the south look very similar. There are new roads and electricity but instead of making the countryside more comfortable and productive, it has made it easier to leave instead.

Today I am talking with Melina Cayo, a 37 year old quinoa producer, agronomist, organic production expert, and mom.  We are in her small neighborhood store in the city of Uyuni where she lives with her husband, mother and two daughters one just a few months old and the other now nine years old. We are reflecting on the future of quinoa and the quinoa lands.

Melina grew up in Manicua a small quinoa growing community of the edge of the Uyuni salt flats in the Department of Potosi.  Her community was too small to have a school so she would ride her bicycle 30 minutes to attend the neighboring elementary school.  Monica loved to learn and loved to farm.  In those days, 30 years ago, quinoa was largely grown mostly for personal consumption and local market sales.  The nearest high school was in the large town of Uyuni, a three-hour bus ride away across the salt flats (salar) – if the salar was not flooded which it often was.  In order to go to high school, Melina needed to stay in Uyuni.  Her family did not have a home or other family members in Uyuni and could not afford to rent a room. So in order to afford a small room shared with her sisters, Melina worked days as a maid the local hotels and attended night school.

One day when she was home during summer break, a team of agricultural engineers from IPTA came to her community for a study.  They contracted her to help them with their work for a month and Melina was hooked.  She loved the work and was amazed that such a job existed.  Getting to know the engineers, she learned how she could go to college and learn to work like they did.   For five years after she completed high school, Melina continued her hotel  in Uyuni saving money so she could afford housing in the city of Oruro where the Technical University of Oruro (UTO), was.  Tuition was minimal but housing and food needed to be paid for.  Melina graduated college and began working as a technician, or extension agent, for different agriculture development organizations and cooperatives in her highlands region.  She worked at Centro Inti, served the CECOAT cooperative, Department of Potosi and spent five years at Real Andina where she became an expert in organic certifications: Boli-Cert, IMO, Bio-Latina.  Being a rural extension agent is difficult with long trips to remote areas and days away from home.  Little by little, Melina began building her own business in Uyuni.  When Melina had her second daughter, she left her contract work and opened her store and consultant service.  Her mother runs another store the family owns closer to the center of Uyuni where more tourists visit. It specializes in natural foods and organic quinoa products.  The family continues to maintain its organic quinoa lands in Manicua as well, rotating the fields with 3 hactacres left fallow each rotation.

Melina believes the quinoa has its stages.  When prices were high everyone returned to the quinoa lands form the far off places they had migrated.  They ripped up the delicate pampas and planted quinoa wherever and however they could, reaping its economic benefits but not much else.  When the prices dropped, they left.  Sometimes she thinks this time of high activity was good.  It reunited families, revitalized the rural communities, brought in new technologies and ideas, a revitalization of indigenous knowledge and language, and improved the rural infrastructure with new houses, better roads and services. However she notes, there was an imbalance at that moment.  People were working too much for themselves instead of the community.  The quinoa earnings went largely to the pockets of the producers and were invested in ways that bettered them.  Houses were bought in far away cities, SUVs purchased to get there and very little thought was put into building a robust rural local community with permanent residents and a good quality of life.  Today the new brick houses with shiny metal roofs lay vacant, the cleared lands lay barren exposed to wind erosion, and the new schools and health posts remain unstaffed since there are no residents for them to serve.  When there is a community anniversary, carnival celebration, or the planting/harvest season arrives – so do the migrant residents.  Otherwise, the rural communities are empty.

I asked Melina about the loss of language and native culture I was observing as families left the rural areas and lost contact with the elderly producers who tended to stay in the countryside.  The elderly are the ones who know the language, legends, bio-indicators, and indigenous farming methods which sustained centuries of quinoa growing.  As this population is marginalized by their distance from the city-living families there is no longer the exchange of knowledge that existed for thousands of years.   And as this aging population dyes off, this knowledge and language is lost forever.

Though Melina knows Aymara and her mother speaks it more often than Spanish, her children are only slightly aware of it.  Like most children of today’s quinoa farmers, they understand Aymara (or Quechua – depending on where they are from) but do not speak it.  Aymara and Quechua are the primary languages of the rural communities but are quickly replaced by Spanish – the primary language of the cities.  Though it is required that all Bolivian public schools teach the local native language, this teaching is sparse and not thorough enough for a child to fully learn the language.  The learning comes from times spent in the rural communities where the native languages dominate all conversations.

Melina tearfully acknowledged this loss of language and culture as families moved further away from their rural communities – losing those close connections with the community elders and natural rhythms of life.  It is a pain she says she lives with every day.

I ask her what she sees the future of quinoa being.  She notes that the organic certifications that she works with bring a minimal 500Bs per quintal market price to the quinoa, in contrast to uncertified quinoa that is often sold as low as 300Bs a quintal.   This $20 difference she hopes will motivate people to be more careful in their farming and not use chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers which bring long term harm to the region’s delicate soils.  Melina knows that quinoa will not rise to its 1,500Bs a quintal price from its heyday, nor does she want it to.  She feels that with the too-high prices came too much greed and a lack of respect for the community and the land.  Melina thinks that with stable prices will come a stabilization of the community with more people returning to the rural areas and living a balanced, dignified life with adequate local resources, a rural revitalization and living as comfortable or more so than the city dwellers.  Like almost every producer I have spoken with, she puts this stable price at 800Bs a quintal.  Enough to support high quality farming with adequate amounts of investment into natural composted llama manure and organic methods of pest control.  She wants farmers to be able to produce moderate-high yields so less land needs to be farmed in order for producers to generate enough income to cover their costs and save for their futures.

As they see themselves, whether consciously or not, as the end of an era, the last of the language speakers, carriers of ancient wisdom and children of mother earth, Pachamama.

Day 13 – Visiting Oscar – a US quinoa exporter in Uyuni – Real Andina

Day 13 – Visiting Oscar – a US quinoa exporter in Uyuni – Real Andina

Visiting with Oscar Mamani Ramos is like meeting with a long-lost uncle.  His affable, personal manner makes him easy to talk to and work with.  He is a creative entrepreneur who grew up as a quinoa producer in the Nor Lipez region of Southeast Potosi.  For years he held the reigns at ANAPQUI, the large quinoa cooperative in which he was a member.  He fought to keep Bolivian quinoa in Bolivia – when agronomists at the University of Colorado tried to patent Bolivian varieties of the seed in 1996.  And he fights now to keep quinoa clean, organic and benefitting the producers from his regions.  He maintains an organic certification and attends international trade shows including Expo East in the US and Bio Faq in Germany – the two biggest natural foods trade shows.  He is a mid-sized exporter having shipped 18 containers of quinoa in 2015 at the height of the quinoa boom and 12 containers in 2017.

Ramos’ customers are from Canada, the US and Australia and he works with private label, small orders and specialty goods.  His latest venture has been into Tarija’s pink salts, similar to the popular pink slats from Tibet in the US.

I introduced the idea of selling quinoa by varieties.  He showed me the varieties he was unloading from a shipment in from Nor Lipez at the moment.  The farmers were there to assist with the transportation. They proudly opened their bags to show the robust seed, talk about the quinoa varieties, and quality of the harvest.

I liked that Ramos, like the few other mid-sized quinoa exporters I had met over the years, had strong direct ties to the producers in his home community and kept his production local, right in Uyuni, the land of the quinoa growers.  In contrast, large quinoa exporters have usually located hundreds of miles away in La Paz and do not have a strong direct contact with the quinoa producers and often do not share a family connection either.

Ramos showed us his quinoa cleaning facility – complete with optical and magnetic sorters, a two-stage saponin removal system – both dry and wet, professional drying equipment – to keep quinoa at its required 10% humidity, and its well-managed storerooms.  A shipment of quinoa was being readied for Australia.

I stepped out of my role as an economic researcher, as that this project was now nearing its end and I saw opportunities to do more with the information I have learned.  I told Ramos of my idea to offer quinoa by varieties in the US but by starting small first, with a few sacks of cleaned, sorted product to get started with instead of a container.  It would be a great project for my Entrepreneurship students at Landmark College where I was now assistant faculty.  He felt that was a marvelous idea and said he often sent containers with mixed product to the US – for example, the pink salts.  Ramos offered to put me in contact with his US clients to see if we could coordinate something.  I look forward to following up on this.

Day 12 – The “right” way to cook quinoa.

Day 12 – The “right” way to cook quinoa.

We have thousands of quinoa recipes in the US now – most are delicious, my favorite being quinoa salad made with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, raisins, almonds, kale, lemon juice, and a few grated carrots and beats for color.  Yum!

The Bolivians have been cooking quinoa for thousands of years and have come up with some sure-fire ways to prepare and consume it – often several times a week.  Alicia shared some of her favorites with us:

Pisara – consumed as a side dish, much like rice.

Ingredients (makes 2 portions)

1 cup of white quinoa

1 ½ cups water

Directions.

  1. Wash the quinoa seed by putting it in a large bowl and covering it with about 3” of water. Roughly rub the quinoa seeds together under the water with your hands.  Soon your water will be turning cloudy.  Take a fine strainer and pour off the cloudy water, being sure not to lose your quinoa seed in the process.  Repeat this 2-3 times until the water runs (mostly) clear.  Now your quinoa is clean and ready to cook with.  Even the most professionally processed quinoas, still have remnants of saponins on them.  Always wash your quinoa before you cook with it and you will have light, fresh tasting dishes.  Cooking with “dirty” quinoa leaves a bitter flavor.
  2. Heat up a dry cast iron frying pan (preferred though a stainless steel pan works too – do not use Teflon or aluminum since the heat will release toxins in your food). Toast the damp quinoa using a medium heat, stirring often, until the little seeds begin turning slightly yellow and start “popping.”
  3. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized saucepan bring to a boil 1 ½ cups of water.
  4. Once your quinoa is dried and toasted (light yellow in color), transfer it to the boiling water. Turn down the flame and let it simmer for minutes.
  5. Turn of the flame. Cover the pot and let the quinoa sit for 5 minutes more.
  6. Fluff up the grains with a spoon and you now have Bolivian pisara. The quinoa can be lightly salted and enjoyed in its natural state.  Other flavorings can be added too.  This is a dryer, nuttier tasting way of eating quinoa.

Pito – I still believe there is a place for this in the US culinary craze.  Pito is a toasted, powdered form of quinoa that is traditionally consumed mixed into drinks for a lovely chocolate-like flavor, or eaten dry with sugar sprinkled in it.  I think it will go well with power shakes, Bullet recipes, blender drinks and sprinkled over yogurt. Here’s how to make it.

Ingredients (makes a week’s supply if used daily)

1 cup of clean, washed white quinoa

Directions:

  1. Heat up a dry cast iron frying pan (preferred though a stainless steel pan works too – do not use Teflon or aluminum since the heat will release toxins into your food). Toast the dry quinoa using a medium heat, stirring often, until the little seeds begin turning slightly yellow and start “popping.”
  2. Wash the hot quinoa seeds by putting them in a large bowl of cold water with about 3” of water covering the seeds. Roughly rub the quinoa seeds together under the water with your hands.  Soon your water will be turning cloudy.  Take a fine strainer and pour off the cloudy water, being sure not to lose your quinoa seeds in the process.
  3. Pour fresh water over the quinoa again and leave it to soak for the night. It may begin to sprout – that is fine.
  4. In the morning, pour off the water and re-toast the quinoa until it is dry using the same hot skillet method as before.
  5. In a clean grinder (like the Krups coffee grinders) grind up the dry, toasted quinoa seeds until it is a semi-fine powder. This is your pito!

How to eat pito like a Bolivian:

  • Pito can be eaten in a shallow bowl with a spoon with sugar sprinkled over it – be sure to have some tea of coffee nearby to help it go down – it’s dry. Use ¼ cup of pito and 1 teaspoon for granulated sugar for starters.
  • Pito can be made into a hot or cold drink called Refresco. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of pito to a cup of boiled water (or ½  cup milk and ½ cup water) and stir.  Add a teaspoon of sugar or honey if you wish.  A cinnamon stick can be boiled in the water/milk too.  Drink this either hot or room temperature, stirring frequently.

Alicia’s recipes for Pito and Pisara are best made with chana moka quinoa – which is currently not available in the US.

Another recipe Alicia and thousands of native quinoa farmers prepare is a gelatin using caslala, quispina or ch’illpi quinoa – also not available in the US is a very simple and highly nutritious gelatin.  This recipe is similar to pisaga but does not toast the quinoa and uses 3 cups of water and a cinnamon stick instead of 1 ½.  A cup of washed caslala, quispina or ch’illpi quinoa is cooked down in the water until it becomes thick.  Then it is poured into little cups and left to cool overnight, becoming gelatin the next day.  Sugar, honey or maple syrup can be sprinkled on top.

Caslala, quispina or ch’illpi quinoa is also used in flour when baking quinoa bread, cakes or cookies.  Traditional Andean people  would never dream of using any other variety other than caslala, quispina or ch’illpi quinoa when they bake.  In the US we have no access to the caslala, quispina or ch’illpi quinoa variety of quinoa so our quinoa baking flours are often mixed with tapioca, chickpeas, or potato starch to make them glutinous.  Cslala, quispina or ch’illpi quinoa has the stickiness needed for banking, naturally.

I am interested in working with quinoa growers, exporters, and distributors to develop markets for quinoa varieties.  It would be a good classroom project for my Entrepreneurship college students too.  There are so many more creative uses we can get with our quinoa when we have access to the special Royal Quinoa varieties only found in Bolivia.  These varieties have been stables of Andean households since pre-Inca times.  Andean women would never dream of cooking with the mixed up quinoa we use today.  Cooking by varieties (and not color) brings the full flavor, texture and character of the quinoa to the palette.  Using the authentic Royal Quinoa varieties gives consumers the most nutrition, vitamins, omega 3s, and full proteins – more than any other type of quinoa one can buy.

Day 11 – 255 native varieties of quinoa

Day 11 – 255 native varieties of quinoa

Agricultural engineer Alicia Lucas collects quinoa seeds, professionally.  She has helped to cultivate and preserve hundreds of native varieties, developing seedbanks and working with her true passion, Bolivia’s royal quinoa.

After becoming used to the small grain quinoa that dots our supermarkets and co-ops across the US, I am amazed at the huge, robust size of the authentic, true “Royal Quinoa” of Bolivia.  This grain can only be grown from its birthplace alongside the shores of Bolivia’s highland salt flats.  The salty, volcanic soils, high radiation, dry cool air, organic llama fertilizer, and high altitude (13,000 feet) all work together to create an amazingly huge seed, about twice the size of those found in the US which mostly are from Peru with some Bolivian seed (the larger ones) mixed in.

Smaller seeds here are called “sweet quinoa” and are considered tough, hard, and mostly used as chicken feed when they do appear.  “Not fit for human consumption,” is what most farmers say about small seed quinoas.  Lucas explains it is called “chini” in her native Aymara language and is left as an offering for mice and rats.

Lucas calls the Royal Quinoa region, a small strip about 50 miles wide surrounding the Uyuni salt flats, the “heart of the quinoa.”  She grew up in the small mountain community of Unicay in the Department of Potosi with the mountain quinoa – the most authentic, and culturally steeped quinoa still planted and harvest by hand, even today.

Currently the Unicay quinoa, like all hand grown mountain quinoa, is mixed with all others and sold as “Royal Bolivia Quinoa.”  I hope in time we can start valuing the differences between the different quinoa properties, cultivations, and varieties.  Much as Thailand has different ways of selling its nine main varieties of export rice from a cheap “white rice 25%” at $364 FOB as of July 11, 2018 to the premium Thai Hom Mali rice selling at more than three times the price, for $1,197 FOB the same date (http://www.thairiceexporters.or.th/price.htm) .  Lucas’ hand grown, organic,  mountain quinoa would be the Bolivian quinoa equivalent of the Thai Hom Mali rice.

Mountain quinoa is a labor of love, explains Lucas.  Famers work from 5am to 6pm.  Planting and weeding the tiny quinoa seedlings “al pulso” – by hand.  Planting means digging a large round hole about 2 feet wide and 8” deep in which to plant a single tiny seed.  The depression protects the seeds from frost and helps to funnel scarce water to seed as well.  It takes a week to hand plant a hectare of mountainside land like this.  Meanwhile, down below in the flat plains that extend out from the skirts of the mountains, tractors can be seen quickly plowing and planting their quinoa – managing an average of 10 – 15 hectare lots (about 40 acres) and planting the quinoa in long, deep furrows.  In a day their multiple acreage of flatland quinoa is planted.  A single hectare of hand planted mountain grown quinoa takes a week and a half to plant.

“We take care of them like babies, like our own children,” explained Lucas describing how the families cultivate small, one-hectare plots (about 2.5 acres) personally getting to know each plant.  Farmers painstakingly gather thorny branches from Leguminosae, a native plant in the Cassia family.  They carefully place a small amount of thorns each around each tiny, emerging seedling to protect it from birds and rabbits who can nibble on the tender green shoots, being careful to still give the seedlings room to grow.

Planting is not the only act of love when it comes to quinoa, explains Lucas.  There is also the constant weeding.  With water scarce, weeds can quickly drink up the water the quinoa needs to grow.  There is no irrigation here, so getting rid of weeds is essential for the plants to have enough to drink.

Then comes the harvest and cleaning.  Quinoa ripens at different rates over a two month period of time with different varieties and sectors of the quinoa ripening at different times.  So the harvest extends over a good two-month period of time, explained Lucas.  During this time, people hand cut the huge sheaves of quinoa – with each weighing many pounds and often being more than 6 feet tall.  The sheaves are laid on tarps and hit with heavy clubs to release the seeds from the seed head.  Some farmers run them over with trucks or tractors too.  These sturdy seeds are winnowed, sifter and sorted several times using different grades of sifters, to remove the chaff and stems.  The people harvesting the larger quantities of plains quinoa down below do not have time for such labor-heavy work and have more earnings too.  They often have small machines that help with the thrashing and sorting of their quinoa.

Once the mountain quinoa is cleaned to a certain degree, the hard saponin coating needs to be removed.  This coating, explained Lucas, is what protects the seed from birds and insects – its bitter flavor is unpleasant to most animals.  It is unpleasant to humans too and must be completely removed in order for the quinoa to have its light delicate creamy flavor which is lo loved by all.

Here is where mountain grown quinoa really begins to be different.  In order to sperate the saponin coating, the people use “poquera” a very special type of hard, powdered earth (like “white flour” described Lucas) that is only found in certain mountain areas.  They lightly wet the poquera and mix the quinoa with this and then grind it with their bare feet in ancient “taquiranas” or hollowed out stones that they inherited from their ancestors and which have been dated back to 5,000 years.  “They last forever,” explained Lucas.

Lucas loves her varieties.  She starts naming the most well known: pandela; chana moq’o – a white quinoa used to make pito, an edible quinoa powder;  and the toledos: rojo, Amarillo and naranja (red, yellow and orange) – all white quinoas which are great for soup, mo’kuna (a dry steamed quinoa dumpling with llama meat in the center), and graneada de quinoa or qu’ispa (granulated quinoa – toasted and prepared similar to rice). Then comes the quinoa roja (red quinoa) whose red sees is delicious when toasted and the quinoa negra (black quinoa) whose sweet, black seeds are also great for pito and mo’kuna –with a bit of sweetness.  Finally she speaks of my favorite, the quispina or ch’ilpi, the crystalline mountain grown quinoa seed that when cooked down becomes gummy and chewy.  It makes great quinoa gelatin and is a favorite for grinding into flour for quinoa breads, cookies and cakes.  I imagine it being used to make “quinoa sushi” rolled in seaweed leaves and stuffed with fresh bits of carrot, cucumber, picked beats, chives, and salmon – yum!  In the next post, Lucas will share some of her favorite quinoa recipes with us.

So I ask Lucas, the question I have been asking everyone in the quinoa fields.  “Why are you still here?”  There are so many opportunities in other places, jobs in the cities, easier lives elsewhere.  Why stay in this hard, cold, isolated, rustic environment?  With global quinoa market prices still low, no one in Bolivia is making enough with their quinoa to cover their production costs, little let alone cover their own living costs and save for their children’s future.  Why not just leave?  Lucas answers as many have since I started asking the question, she is accustomed to this lifestyle.  She knows how to do it. She is secure in her skills and abilities and is very good at it.  She has good yields, cares for the seeds and protects and nurtures the plants.  For seven years she was president of FAUTAPO, a large national agricultural development organization.  She was also the elected leader of her community, the Authoridad.  This is where her home and heart is.  She believes in “living well” the Andean ways of sustainability.

Day 10 – A clandestine “taxi” ride to Uyuni

Day 10 – A clandestine “taxi” ride to Uyuni

It was 4:00pm but the hot Andean sun would be setting soon enough and then the icy cold, dark Andean night would envelop us.  Uyuni was a good 3-4 hours away.  We set our belongings down at the side of the road and prepared to wait.  A bus had just passed, but it was full.  We’ll wait for the next, maybe it will come in an hour or so.  I figured we would eventually find a bus with room and arrive in Uyuni some time around 9:00pm.

The woman next to me, also with her belongings and teenage son placed curbside had just begun to sharply question our origin, where we were going, what we were doing, etc.  when a battered white station wagon scooted up.

“Uyuni?” asked the woman to the driver.  He nodded and quick she scooped up her belongings throwing them in the back he had just opened and whisked her and her teen inside.

“Lets go,” she shouted at me.  I hesitated.  It was not a taxi and I had been warned many times about being careful not to get into private cars without knowing the drivers.  I asked the driver how much it would cost.  30Bs he said.  I was not sure.

This was a woman and she seemed confident.  The driver, a non-descript, pudgy, middle aged man, was still outside waiting for us to load our items.  My daughter dutifully stayed with them as I leaned inside the car and whispered to the woman, “Is it safe?”

“Yes, Yes,” she said, “we’re lucky. I’m just going to Seravuyo, but he’s going to Uyuni.  It’s fine.  Lets go.”

  1. It was late, night was coming and if we were lucky we would get to Uyuni by dusk.

“Lets do it,” I called to my daughter and we all piled into the car and sped down the long, straight, recently paved highway.   I hoped I had made a good call.

The woman it turns out was a quinoa farmer named Eva, who had just sold some quinoa in the local Challapata market and was heading home after the weekend.  Prices were climbing, she had made a good sale (570 a quintal) and her spirits were high.

Eva talked in length about her excellent quinoa farming boasting how she gets 60 quintals per hectacre from the 10-15 hectacres she plants (the average production boast is 20 quintals and most farmers actually clear about 12-15 quintals once the quinoa is sorted and cleaned).

She then went on to talk about Daniel, a red-haired , 28 year old researcher from the US who spent six years studying Sevaruyo’s llamas, learning the Aymara language, dressing in traditional woven wool pants, and eating all of the crazy, exotic dishes the women would cook for him.  The communities loved him and all of the women claimed him as their “son-in-law.”  Finally, the fateful day came when Daniel’s hard work at learning the language and writing about llamas paid off and he was offered a chance at a full time position somewhere in the US academic system and was never heard from again.  How she loved him.  But Eva said they were glad he never returned because it meant he had found good work in the US.  They are still saving his motorcycle and meek belongings left being though, “just in case.”  It’s been 6 years since he left…

Time went fast with Eva’s constant conversation and soon we were pulling into the dusty train yard of Sevaruyo.  She directed the driver where to stop and hopped out the car with her teenage son and leaving me with her cell number and an invitation to come and spend the weekend with her, left me and my daughter with the still unknown driver and a long desolate road ahead of us.

I took a deep breath.

“Come sit up here with me,” invited the diver reaching over to open the front door.  Not wanting him to fall asleep on the monotonous drive, I climbed into the bouncy, worn out front seat.  After all it was customary to accompany drivers on long rides to keep them awake.

With folklore music brightly playing we headed across the bumpy train yard and out to the open road once again.  The sun was progressing across the sky and I checked my phone – it seemed we would make it there by 6:30.

The driver saw me.  “We’ll be there by 6:30,” he assured me.  I agreed.

My daughter settled down into the wide back seat that was left all to her and we sped down the highway.  “Unknown Road” my phone’s Maps App likes to call Bolivia’s Route 5.

The driver identified himself as Alberto Ramos, a quinoa farmer from the times of his ancestors.  He was raised on quinoa, potatoes and llama in Santiago del Alto, where his family hand planted, hand weeded and hand harvested their quinoa.  Thrashing it and winnowing it to remove the chafe, scraping it several times to remove saponins by grinding it by foot in an ancient bowl cut stone, and then washing it several times before cooking with it.  “Quinoa is work,” he said.  “But we love it.”

He said he has 10 hectacres under production, using tractors, which he sells himself year-round.  He takes a few sacks (quintales) to market in Challapata every other week or so to smooth out the cash flow.

Ramos explained he was returning to Uyuni from Challapata where he is building his retirement home.  It is comfortable he explained, with 4 bedrooms, a kitchen living, room and dining room  It’s two stories.  And he’s building it himself by hand.  Though I am sure he has occasional tradesmen coming to help as well – brick layers, roofers, electricians.  Family members can be helping him too – especially if he is making adobe bricks, etc.  It is not unusual for people to slowly build their own houses – often over a 2-3 year period of time.

Ramos’ steady work comes from the Sofia chicken agency he sells for.  He has his own small “frial” or chicken and luncheon meats store where he also sells condiments such as mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard.  All from the Sofia Ltda., a well-known 40 year old Bolivian company. He sells about 35 slaughtered and cleaned chickens a week getting them delivered about twice a week in refrigerated trucks from Santa Cruz more than 18 hours away. Mark-ups are about 30% making the final price 14Bs ($2) for a smallish bird feet and all, and giving Ramos enough to live on.

The next day was to be Uyuni’s anniversary.  Ramos was planning on marching in the parade with the other Sofia distributors and frials.  Founded in 1889 as an outpost for moving minerals across the dessert to the Chilean ports, Salinas was now celebrating its 129th anniversary.

I’ll come by with my friends and visit you on the way to the parade!” Ramos promised.

We picked up another woman on the side of the road.  We were getting close to Uyuni and it was just starting to get cold and dark.

Ramos saw mw zipping up my feather jacket.

“What?” he asked. “It’s warm here.  This is not cold yet.  It’s warm.  If anything I should open the windows!”  he teased laughing.

The other woman settled herself in the backseat with my daughter.  Her thick knit tights apparent under her vast layers of ruffled skirts.  Wrapped in a knit sweater, dusty and dirty, with a huge amount of treasures tucked into an “aguayo” a large woven cloth she wore across her back, she somehow made it all fit in the back seat.  We ambled on.  The woman’s black dog was valiantly running after us nipping at the tires and barking loudly.

“He will tire and go home,” the woman assured us, unconcerned about her dog running around the darkening highway at night.

It had been a nice ride.  We saw scores of once elusive vicunas along the side of the road, driven closer to communities due to pasture loss from the 2014 quinoa invasion when all lands were plowed and planted for the soaring market prices quinoa was bringing.  When the prices crashed in 2015, so did many people’s desire to farm quinoa. The once tilled fields now lay fallow waiting for the slow growing highland dessert plants to reestablish themselves and anchor down the blowing topsoils and to bring food once again to the beautifully wild, elegant vicuna.

Uyuni appeared like crystal diamonds on the horizon.  Lights twinkling next to the volcanoes that appeared to float on the salt flats.  Visually lifted upwards from the expanse of white salt around them contrasting with the subtle tans and occasional tufts of dusty greens of the surrounding winter pasture.

It was 6:30.  The cold wind blew as the last of the rosy sunset slipped behind the mountains.  We pulled onto the grid of pacing stones, Uyuni’s downtown.  It still felt like the wild west outpost it had once been.  People wrapped in shawls and chulu hats with earflaps pulled down low on the head walked by.  We hurried into our hotel.  Happy to be “home” again.  The ride cost $4.50.  A room here is $11 a night.  North America’s poor become rich when in Bolivia.

Day 9: Revisiting the “perfect quino town” of Capura.

Day 9: Revisiting the “perfect quino town” of Capura.

At 8:30 Carlos and Miguel showed up to our Salinas hotel in a new Toyota Hilux to take us to AIPROCA’s monthly quinoa meeting in Capura, their rural quinoa community, a short 1 ½ hour drive away across dusty roads dotted with wild vicuna herds.  We had visited Capura in December 2016 for our Fair Trade quinoa research and it will be nice to see how things have progressed since then.  I remember Capura as being very organized, clean – a model quinoa town.  I asked the young men in their 20s if it was still like that and they agreed, smiling.  Miguel and Carlos are both from the large commercial town of Huari where the regional brewery is housed.  Carlos married into the community and is related through this marriage to Miguel.  He works as a carpenter in Oruro and Miguel is a taxi and private driver also in the large city of Oruro – 3 1/2 hours away.   They come to Capura for the monthly quinoa meetings and when any quinoa work needs to happen.  Otherwise the town is left under the care of just 2-3 families who stay there largely to take care of the llama herds.  There is a school and health post, but like most rural centers now, they ae no longer staffed or used because there is no need for them.  There is no one in the community of closed up homes.

AIPROCA is a large producer community with its 100+ members each cultivating about 15 hectacres of land under their Fair Trade, organic certifications – with a market value of about $30,000.  They are careful to follow the guidelines set by Fair Trade Europe and keep accurate records of investments into certified sprays, natural fertilizers, testing, and other projects such as recycling, greenhouse gardening, and erosion control. We were invited to a breakfast and lunch and shared a prepared powerpoint presentation with them explaining market cycles, sales chains, and consumer research my UMass and SIT students had completed in earlier semesters – as we examined the existence of markets for Certified Royal Quinoa and rare gourmet quinoa varieties.  The good news that came from my studies was that the Fair Trade price farmers wanted for their quinoa and were not getting, 800Bs per quintal ($0.51 a pound or a 30% increase over today’s certified Fair Trade organic prices) would result in the cost of a finished packaged box of quinoa raising from the current price of $7 at the Brattleboro Food Coop to $8.  Most consumers, remembering the days when quinoa cost upwards of $12 a pound, said they would gladly pay that if the product had a better nutritional value and quality (which it did).

I shared this “proof of market” study with the US distributors, wholesalers and importers in the quinoa market chain.  None were interested in pursuing the marketing of quinoa varieties yet – there were busy enough with marketing the quinoa they did have – computing with others for new market sectors and loyal customers.

The quinoa producers from Capura enjoyed the presentation – though there were shocked at the final price that their $0.29 quinoa was sold at – they understood more clearly how and why the prices rose as the grain moved down the marketing chain.  They also understood what a mature market was and how product differentiation and the development of different market sectors were important for them to maintain their market position.

AIPROCA sells through SINDAN a large Fair Trade, organic quinoa exporter to Europe.  They are not so tied in with the European markets and who the final clients are of their quinoa, SINDAN handles that for them. The producers of Capura focus on what they do best, working together to grow large amounts of clean, healthy quinoa.  When not in the quinoa fields, families like Miguel’s and Carlos’ live in Oruro or Cochabamba, preferring the opportunity, education and ease of living these places bring – over the beautiful though windswept and dusty isolation of Capura.

After we finished our presentations, surveys, workshops, took photos, had lunch and said our goodbyes, Carlos and Miguel took us to Challapata – 1 ½ hours away, to drop us off at the bus stop to Uyuni and leave us for the next part of our quinoa adventure.

Day 8: The original quinoa farmers of Alcaya

Day 8: The original quinoa farmers of Alcaya