Quinoa, lost crop of the Incas, finds new life
High in the Andes mountain range of Ecuador grows a grain that may hold both the past and the future of the indigenous farmers in its seed.

By Amanda Kimble-Evans
with Bob and Marjorie Leventry, Inca Organics


SLIDESHOW Mother Grain: Bringing back the lost crop of the Incas

September 3, 2003: Nestled high in the Chimborazo province, where the Andes stretch to their greatest altitude, is Los Angeles de Colta, a farming village of 59 families. The hamlet is home to an indigenous (pre-Incan Puruhua) community moving swiftly into the future by following their past.

The people of Los Angeles, like most of those in the region, farm the land of their ancestors. Unlike most of the farmers, they are also growing the crops of their ancestors and tending to them in the ancient ways. Quinoa is the crop and organic is the way.

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wá), a seed grain, has been cultivated in the Andean region for over 7,000 years and was considered sacred by the Inca Empire. The crop was relegated to status of animal feed by Spanish colonists, perhaps because of its religious significance and, later, shouldered almost completely out of production by cereals such as barley and wheat and other crops such as potatoes and corn.

But farmers' fortunes were few growing these "new" crops. The Andean highlands' cold, dry plateaus are perfect for quinoa, but challenging for many of the non-native crops. And a glut of product in the national market bottomed out already low prices.

In response to the poor yield from non-native crops, US pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers have led an aggressive campaign in the region with the support of the government and governmental agencies. Pesticide and fertilizer use in Ecuador has increased dramatically over the years leading to depleted soil and a rise in associated health problems. In fact, DDT, supplied by a US company, is still being used on Ecuador's agricultural land.

The Angels of Colta

Not long ago, the crops of Los Angeles were no different than those of the rest of the Ecuadorian agricultural industry. The famers' yields were low, their return was almost nonexistent, and their children were suffering from malnutrition.

"After just one year, those 12 farmers increased their incomes to roughly 50% more than that of other area farmers. This year, 4025 families in four provinces of Ecuador are planting over 2800 acres to produce over 400 metric tons of organic heirloom quinoa for exportation and they're thriving."

In 1998, 12 Los Angeles de Colta families (298 families across Ecuador) agreed to cultivate quinoa in the traditional organic way for a group called the Heirloom Quinoa Project. The Project is the cooperative effort of four international organizations: The People's Educational Radio of Ecuador (ERPE), a progressive radio station dedicated to education and social service; Germany's Bio Control System (BCS), a global organic certification organization; the Canadian Development Fund, a fund for Ecuadorian development based in Canada; and Chicago's Inca Organics, the distributor and marketer of the finished product.

The goals of the project are to provide adequate income for indigenous farmers, teach organic gardening and promote traditional nutritional food products for both exportation and local consumption. And the farmers of Los Angeles de Colta are some of the pioneers in this bold effort.

After just one year, those 12 farmers increased their incomes to roughly 50% more than that of other area farmers. The very next year, 36 families agreed to raise heirloom quinoa and by 2000, 51 families were participating in the project. This year, 4025 families in four provinces of Ecuador are planting over 2800 acres to produce over 400 metric tons of organic heirloom quinoa for exportation and they're thriving.

Jose Balla, a Chimboarazan farmer remembers, "Before, my father and his father had lost the knowledge of growing quinoa and planted just a little for personal use. Today, two-thirds of my farm (three hectare) is dedicated to producing the grain for export."

Finding the "lost crop of the Incas"

It all begins in August and September of each year with organization meetings held at various villages throughout the southern sierra region of Ecuador. The farmers that attend receive pricing information and organic training from IncaFood S.A. (the Ecadorian export arm of Inca Organics) and ERPE.

The beginning of the wet season in October and November marks the start of the growing season for the Los Angeles farmers. No chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides are allowed, but the farmers do employ some familiar organic techniques to boost yield, fertilize and fight weeds.

Compost is used, but only after it has passed through the large worm farms they maintain and is reduced to "bono". This version of castings is then applied as a very effective fertilizer. Yield has increased with its use from approximately 1000 kilos per hectare to 1400 kilos per hectare.

The farmers rotate their quinoa crop with the Andean Lupin bean. The Lupin, called ChoCho by the indigenous people, is from the same family as the Italian Lupini bean and is used to fix nitrogen the quinoa has depleted from the soil. The beans provide a secondary income-generating crop and are also harvested and sold or eaten locally as an excellent source of protein. Also grown, sold abroad and eaten locally is an Andean heirloom variety of black amaranth.

At over 9,000 feet, the village experiences temperatures low enough for seven to nine months out of the year to make cover crops unnecessary. Unfortunately, weeds don't mind the altitude. The families form community working groups, called mingas, to weed and harvest crops more efficiently. The mingas start weeding the fields about one month after the quinoa has sprouted.

Harvesting quinoa follows the same pattern as field preparation and weeding during the six to nine month growing season. Mingas are formed to manually separate the grain onto white canvas. The grain is then taken to a post-harvest facility for inspection and cleaning.

Since all crops available for the international market are grown organically, they must also be certified for export as such. Technicians are recruited from within the villages and trained by BCS for organic certification and by ERPE for organic farming techniques. These technicians are then employed by ERPE to give technical aid to the farmers, certify their fields organic and inspect the quinoa before it goes onto the post harvest facility for cleaning and packaging.

The post harvest facility, located at 10,000 feet, also employs area villagers, adding more Ecuadorians, in addition to the farmers, who can enjoy a secure job in a country that has an unemployment rate of over 10%. The facility was built in 1998 as another international cooperative effort. The Canadian Development Fund provided money for the creation of the building, Inca Organics funded additional warehouse space and quality control equipment and DED, a German development organization, designed and built specialized cleaning equipment.

Just the right size: A sorting machine separates the quinoa into small, medium and large sizes before washing.

Most quinoa is mechanically polished rather than washed which removes valuable nutrients in the process. Polished quinoa also retains a powdery residue that must be rinsed off before cooking. Heirloom Qunioa Project quinoa goes through a much more simplified and straight-forward washing rather than polishing to preserve the dietary fiber found in the germ layer. The washing is more labor intensive, providing more jobs for local families. And, no additional rinsing by the consumer is required.

The grain is divided into large, medium, and small sizes by vibrating screens and dumped into separate washing tanks. First, the quinoa is given a hot water wash to remove saponine, a naturally-occurring, soapy-tasting coating. Then cold water is pumped in, separating any foreign material from the grain.

The quinoa is centrifuged to remove most of the water from the washing process and moved by conveyor belt to a final drying bed. Hot air is blown through the grain to reduce the moisture content to less than 3%. Finally, the quinoa is re-inspected, packed and stored or loaded for shipment.

Growing more than just quinoa

A newfound spirit of cooperation and industry isn't the only change seen in the village of Los Angeles de Colta. This year, almost all the families are growing organic quinoa and the villages reflect their success.

New homes of cement block are replacing the traditional chozas (a windowless dwelling made of mud blocks with thatched roofs). The average farmers' income has increased by an astonishing 50%--a rarity in Ecuador where dollarization of the economy and high inflation are causing economic crisis. Juan Perex, director of ERPE notes, "The typical farmers' income has steadily increased from $230 per year in 1996, just before the quinoa project started, to $450 per year today."

"Whatever quinoa's global destiny, this ancient seed has changed the way the world sees these Ecuadorian farmers and the way they see themselves."

Malnutrition is but a ghost in the Heirloom Quinoa villages. While two-thirds of the quinoa is exported, one-third is used by the villagers to improve their diets. The supergrain is high in protein, low in carbohydrates, easy to digest, and an excellent source of dietary fiber, phosphorus, iron, vitamins B6 and E, magnesium and zinc. The families are now relearning to prepare their traditional quinoa dishes and repair the damage done by fast food.

"When we started out in 1997, one could hardly find quinoa growing in the area. Now it's easily seen as you drive through the provinces," said Marjorie Leventry, Vice President of Inca Organics.

The premium quinoa produced by the Ecuadorian farmers in the Heirloom Quinoa Project is recognized by world-renowned chefs, such as Charlie Trotter, and international organizations, such as the Slow Food Movement, for its superior flavor and cleanliness. And the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) considers quinoa "one of the crops destined to offer food security in the next century."

Whatever quinoa's global destiny, this ancient seed has changed the way the world sees these Ecuadorian farmers and the way they see themselves. The Heirloom Quinoa members discovered most projects initially underestimated the abilities of the farmers. They didn't need instructions on how to farm. What they needed were markets for their products. Markets that are fair trade and can sustain the production.

Ruben Vinoil, a farmer and village leader expressed it best, "The life of the soil is also our life. We use organic means to improve the life of the soil and it has certainly improved our life."