What Is Quinoa? How Quinoa Became America's Hottest Whole Grain and Brought New Income to Bolivian Farmers

By Matthew Thompson, "Rediscovering Quinoa," March/April 2013

Farming quinoa has become big buiness in rural Bolivia as quinoa's nutrition and health benefits have made it the whole-grain darling of healthy diets.

"The argument that the expanding international quinoa market "brought new income to Bolivian farmers" is misleading insofar as it is meant to make consumers from rich countries feel that by buying quinoa they are part of a process of...

In Challapata, a town at the edge of quinoa country in western Bolivia, I sit in a small room with seven wind-beaten men, wearing gray sweaters over collared shirts, to talk about how America’s new love affair with quinoa has impacted this region. On the walls hang strings of paper flowers and auto-parts calendars emblazoned with scantily clad women. Outside, the insistent wind of the plains mutters at the window. I’m meeting with senior members of ANAPQUI, an Indian farming cooperative that helps set quinoa prices for the region.

“During the 1980s,” ANAPQUI president Juan Ernesto Crispin says, “100 pounds of quinoa couldn’t buy a T-shirt.” He rattles off a blizzard of numbers, the upshot being this: quinoa is worth 10 times now what it was 30 years ago. That’s not a past that farmers are interested in going back to. His co-workers paint a dire picture of years when farmers lived hand-to-mouth and many moved to the cities to seek work or beg. Without the benefit of modern technology, rural farmers relied on ancient lore to decide when to plant or harvest—a darker-colored lizard meant rains were coming; a bird’s nest sitting deep in a bush meant a cold winter. Families worked the fields by hand, the husband pushing a plow through the gray soil and the wife following behind to sow seeds.

Now, the ANAPQUI farmers tell me, life is different. “We can buy the little things,” says a board member. “We can make improvements to our houses,” adds another. Communities have been able to buy tractors, so work that once took a week is done in an hour. They’ve dug wells and invested in irrigation to bring water to the fields. Across the region, farm-family incomes have tripled in the last five years (up from $35 a month in 2007 to $220 a month in 2012) and the flow of immigration has reversed, with many who had sought work in the cities returning to their hometowns to plant.

Next: Challapata's Youth & Fertilizer »

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