Day 7 – Salinas’ quinoa farmers

Day 7 – Salinas’ quinoa farmers

Sitting on the warm sunny patio of Hotel Suk’arani, Thunupa, Neives and I spoke over glasses of “refresco” a sweet, ground toasted wheat drink which needed stirring each time a sip was taken. Thunupa was named by his mother for the volcano which dominates the Salinas landscape and is the beloved mother of so many folk lore tales.  Both Thunupa and Nieves had graduated from the Salinas high school a few years apart from each other.  Each chose to marry, raise families, and live in Salinas while working in their ancestral quinoa fields, Nieves’ being to the north and Thunupa’s being in the south.  This is where their similarities ended.

Thunupa quietly followed in his families’ footsteps growing quinoa as they always had, though with the additional help of a tractor now and as a member of the local APROQUIR producer group. He had 2 hectacres in production since prices were so low and with light fumigation, produced about 20 quintales of finished quinoa per hectacre which provided a supplemental income for the family and a health food source for his children.  He invests about $12 in fumigation, using natural pesticides, and earns about $3,000 a year (before paying membership fees for his growing group) with his quinoa production.  This is enough to cover basic costs but not provide much for investment or savings. “It’s for maintenance, nothing more,” explained Thunupa, referencing his small quinoa earnings.

Nieves was a much more active producer.  Since a child she was enthralled with organic quinoa production and has always been interested in nutrition, organic eating, and organic production.  She is a member of PROQUIRCA, another Salinas quinoa group with an organic certification from IMO-Cert that costs 3,000Bs ($428) per hectacre to maintain.  Nieves grows her certified organic quinoa in the community of Chayuquota and plants it both inside and alongside a vast crater left by a meteorite thousands (maybe millions) of years ago.  I asked if the quality or characteristics of her quinoa changed whether it was planted inside or outside of the crater and she said it as the same.  I had thought perhaps some special space minerals left from the meteorite would favor the quinoa inside the crater!  She takes much care with her quinoa investing into prevention applying more expensive, certified organic insecticides almost bi-weekly in the early growing season of the quinoa.  She talks eagerly of the different quinoa varieties she plants, psaqalla for puffed quinoa, chilpi to make ground toasted quinoa with for beverages, and the pantela and toledo used in soups.  She also produces black quinoa toasted and used as a chocolate flavor.  Nieve’s certified organic quinoa fetches a 15% – 20% higher market price than Thunulpa’s non-certified production.  However, as many producers point out, the costs in money and time for organic production, do not cover the extra they earn in the market.  Never-the-less, they maintain their certifications anyway, largely because of the commitment they feel for producing heathy food and caring for the earth.

DAY 24 – Rural Credit and the Quinoa fields

DAY 24 – Rural Credit and the Quinoa fields

Young quinoa seed head forming in its first 6 weeks of growth.

Young quinoa seed head forming in its first 6 weeks of growth.

PRODEM, a privately financed bank in Bolivia founded in 1988 to provide financing to medium and small, rural businesses, has the solution.  With over 2,600 employees and a network of 54 urban and 69 rural agencies, PRODEM is the finance source that many farmers turn to.  Savings accounts in Bolivianos are offered at a 2% annual interest rate.  Credit to farmers is offered to producers over the age of 18 who own land and have been commercially farming it for at least one year.  PRODEM offers everything from 9 month loans to agriculture wholesale buyers and distributors to a one year loan for farmland development and a 4 year option for farmers to buy equipment with.  Though their rates are not published online, farmers tell me they are at 12% – 21% depending on the type of loan, guarantee and term.prodem

We’re in Otuyo, the heart of the Royal Quinoa growing lands and despite nearly two weeks of steady, daily rain, many fields lie empty.  Some are fallow – the Bolivians follow a strict two-year rotation cycle for farming their delicate altiplano soils.  The fallow lands are bare, flat, dirt – the deep furrows that once housed robust quinoa plants are now leveled by the wind, a few dried quinoa stalks lay testament that indeed, there was once production there, not long ago.  Large, dark piles of llama manure dot these fields.  This will be spread by tractor in the fall (March-April) to organically feed the soil for the spring planting of quinoa in October 2017.

quinoa-growingMeanwhile other fields with deep furrows also lie vacant – these were prepared with manure and carefully planted in October and November – but drought and winds caused the delicate germinated seeds to wither and die or covered the emerging plants with dirt and also killing them.  The mayor of Oruro predicted a month ago that 50% of the quinoa harvest would be lost to drought this year.  And while the rains came just in time for some – as quinoa seed heads were just starting to droop – it was not soon enough for many.

Some families were out replanting their quinoa, now that the rains were present, hoping to squeeze in a second chance at a decent harvest.  Though many others opted not to.  It was late in the season they explained, the weather future is so unknown it is hard to make an educated decision for a late planting.  Hail and frost can come and kill off the plants too – especially later in the growing season.  And who knows how long the rains will last for, they add.

So back to the loans.  In my recent research, I noticed a recent trend for quinoa farmers to have loans – often pretty large ones of 11,000BS to 30,000Bs and upwards of $10,000 – some through banks others through cooperatives.  Considering the average rural family’s per capital income is $2,800 a year, according to the FSD, this can represent an entire year of income – taken out in loans.  Previously the families in the quinoa fields had risen to a much higher level, increasing by 39% according to the Borgen Project

This brings family earning levels to almost $4,000.  I observed families earning much more than this but these were the ones associated with powerful producer associations and high quality export certified organic and Fair Trade production.  Never-the-less, with relatively high debt load and a bleak agriculture and economic outcome for 2017, I was concerned about what would happen with the loans.

I asked the farmers if they had loans, many did. I asked if they were concerned, they were not.  I asked why.  They explained that the loans were backed by their farmland.  The banks had sent out agronomists who assessed and valuated the lands.  Legally, the banks cannot take these lands, only use them as guarantees for loans.  The farmers are producing on the lands as they had promised, so they see they part of the deal being covered.  Loans get paid at harvest time.  If they do not have the money to pay the loan at harvest, they explained, then they simply renegotiate terms with the bank.  At this rate, it seems that most will be defaulting on their loans to some degree.  These are also relatively new loans most just 1 or 2 years old. Most were given just as quinoa prices began to fall and farmers still had vast wealth accumulated from the previous 5-7 years of the quinoa boom and high production/earnings levels.  It will be interested to see if the banks are as relaxed with the potential defaults coming in June as the farmers are.

DAY 21 – When is research no longer “real search”?

DAY 21 – When is research no longer “real search”?


Me in Salinas – walking the quinoa trail alone?

What is the role of a researcher? It can be that of a non-participant observer, like one watching Aristotle’s cave. An interpreter of images on a wall.  Or is it can be a data gather.  A survey taker – rushing in to measure something looking for quantity, measurements and numbers –  Coming up with thousands of responses and statistical significance showing causal effects of something.  It is also a gather or other’s data – a cruncher of numbers and purveyor of literature – re-combining others’ ideas in new ways.

For me what’s important is the context.  What is the point of view where the data was collected?  How does it fit into the larger picture?  What influences may cause it to be presented or interpreted in different ways?  What was not reported?  How was the researcher perceived by those being studied?  How does this affect the information given?

Looking for guidance from Robert Chambers and his “participatory rural appraisal approach” creates a place for the researcher to be a part of and apart from the people being studied.  By participating in daily activities trust and experience is built.  Instead of writing that farming is hard, the researchers do the hard farming themselves.  This takes time, commitment and moments of unease and discomfort.  But then relationships are born and friendships made.

Now I’m in stage II of my research – back with my friends made over last year’s first steps into the quinoa lands.  I now know the people places, stories, histories and backgrounds.  That initial, self-conscious, deep reflection, first immersion is gone.  I know the towns, neighboring areas, the best place for lunch and dinner, it’s familiar and feels almost too easy to just relax into what I already know and verify that it’s what I think it is.  I’m beginning to feel anecdotal as I ask women quinoa farmers how their quinoa is and they tell me it’s bad, market prices are down, there are not good sales, they are owed money by their associations from past sales, they are saving their quinoa and not selling it until prices rise.

The farmers want a minimum of 600BS per quintal ($86 per quintal or about $0.39 a pound) or preferably 800Bs ($.52 a pound) which is what was considered a dignified price by the Fair Trade associations a year ago.  This is double the current 300Bs per quintal price most Fair Trade organizations are paying farmers for their quinoa.  300B does not cover production costs.  I noted this to the Fair Trade buyers and was told that farmers exaggerated their production costs and can actually accommodate quinoa production at 300Bs.  Seeing that just for a 3-acre plot (1 hectare) that produces about 5 quintals of processed and cleaned quinoa there is a $100 cost for llama manure, $30 cost for pheromone traps and $100 cost for paid labor, $230 total – the numbers do not match up.  At current prices of 300Bs a quintal total earnings are just $214.  For a year’s worth of work, the farmer makes $16 per hectare of quinoa planted.  In the heart of the quinoa lands farmers are cultivating about 8 hectares each.  This is much less than the 15-20 hectacre plots being managed when quinoa prices provided a living wage.  At current planting rates, the total yield for the year is about $128, which in Bolivian currency is enough to sustain a family of 5 for about a month.  When I tell this to the buyers, they explain that farmers need to improve their yields which the buyers are working on helping the farmers to do.  However – the delicate lands of the quinoa region do not bode well with massive production – they quinoa is a heavy feeder, pulling vast amounts of minerals and nitrogen out of the earth.  These take time to replace.  So it is an evolving problem-solution story.

After eight years of ever more quinoa production and ever higher prices – increasing at a rate of 20% a year and hen plummeting in 2015 by 300% in just two months and staying at this low price level –  this is the first time, that issues of soil loss, unpaid expenses and economic instability have emerged.

But where is the research here?  I have piles of surveys, but the high school seniors who used to do the surveying for me are away on their two-month summer vacations.  I can visit quinoa communities for observation and to offer women’s workshops but the rains finally came but now the quinoa communities are left inaccessible as the slippery dirt roads that climb the vast mountain scape become impassable.  I can offer workshops in the (accessible) larger quinoa towns, but many farmers are not present as this is time for families to be together and many have left for the cities and abroad in search of better work.  In addition, my NGO counterparts have left as their organizations have moved onto other projects.  I have lost a lot of my infrastructure and backing – and am now here in towns with friends, stories and observations.  I feel lucky and lot at the same time.

I worry about my data.  My work is about the life of the women and I worry my friends are not representative of that, or that the few people I am having informal conversations with in passing – the woman on the bus, the indigenous leader in the plaza, the lady butcher – who are all women export quinoa farmers – are not a significant data base.  I don’t want my data to be anecdotal (not really accurate or measurable) and I also don’t want to be missing important data this is not being collected.

I want to do the study that was done before one again, but now the time has changed.  Do I plug away with my old research method anyway trying my hardest to get the surveys out myself, set up workshops on my own?  Or is there something different I can be doing instead?  Or is a hybrid of a bit of both – some surveys and workshops and more participant observation, informal interviews and modified workshops?  The clock is ticking.

My friends are sympathetic and trying to help out – they introduce me to a doctor that I can tag along with for a rural site visit and offer a workshop to women while he is checking baby weights, another engineer offers to take me to his town where there is a women’s group I can meet with and hold a workshop with.  But I already started with this type of research, working with Tito as he visited Fair Trade communities – spending a few hours in each one. And I feel that a few hours spent collecting data in a community creates more questions than answers and does not give me the deep understanding I need to properly interpret the data nor does not build the trust I feel when I’m with a community for several days.  It’s just numbers – not understanding.

I feel we are applying patches rather than a real, deep plan.  But I also feel I’m in an important place in that I do have these connections and understanding.  So the big question is quality versus quantity, the degree of bias from small sample sizes, how much to measure and what…