Sunday, February 28, 2016


A Trip to Peru

One of the side benefits of a trip to Peru this past month was getting an introduction to Andean farming. I knew that this was potato country, but actually seeing how they managed the plots, and hearing the claims about the number of cultivars was eye-opening. We spent much of our time in prime Inca territory, the Sacred Valley around Machu Piccchu, and the captivating old Inca capital of Cusco. I gained tremendous respect for the Incas, who were masters of everything they touched – probably the greatest masons who ever lifted and set stone, and whose vast irrigation system put the Romans to shame. I've seen extensive terracing in the Himalayas of India and Nepal, but nothing to equal the Andean network, which they call andinos. During our last week we explored the Colca Canyon, at the southeast tip of the Andes, and walked among Colca Valley terraces that had been in continuous production (including generous fallow times and crop rotation) for 1700 years.

In addition to the potatoes, numbering between 1250 and 3500 cultivars, I was delighted to explore their corn world, sampling 8-10 of the 55 varieties they cultivate (most in the world). And as rich tourists, we had plenty of quinoa, though our guides told us that only the poorest quality and most common variety were available to the peasant-producers, due to soaring demand in the US and Europe. Geeta and I were exposed to quinoa as key ingredient in every part of the meal, vastly expanding our culinary imagination about using it at home.

Most of this is produced by small farmers on intercropped terraced mountain hillsides, with some upland valleys as well. Labor is animal and human, with a variant of the Inca one-man plough still in service. The tight terraces simply do not lend themselves to tractors or big machinery. Many villages share harvest, since the careful system of crop rotation involves the whole set of terraces, not just the tiny individual holdings. An outstanding example was Taquile Island in Lake Titticaca, where everything is owned in common, and the population of 3,000 share not only the harvest, but the tourist trade, taking turns hosting meals contracted with the tour agencies (ours was delicious).

My impression was that herbicides and pesticides were used little, if at all. The same goes for commercial fertilizers. A preliminary web check bore out this impression. In the 1980's, there was initial enthusiasm and high usage in Peru of herbicides and pesticides, the farmers impressed with quick results. But over time, the problems surfaced, and now the usage is way down, with the government helping in the education campaign to move away from artificial inputs.

We were there during rainy season, with food production in full swing, and there were plenty of vegetables and fruits available. Some of these came from the jungle, which is interspersed with land holdings, domestic plants in small plots amongst wild varieties. Along the trail, we were introduced to wild tree-tomatoes as well as tree-peppers. I was quite pleased with the sweet tomatoes, which were served in a few desserts we had in restaurants. The peppers varied from fruit to fruit, and were too hot to handle for this one. In Agua Calientes, at the foot of Machu Picchu, we shared the best avocado I've ever tasted, purchased in the local market for thirty cents.

At Geeta's language school in Cusco, I met Jessica, a young woman with a State Department grant to study Quetchwa, the principal indigenous language, used by many of the Andean farmers. With climate change coming fast, one of the biggest challenges will be feeding the world's billions from croplands subject to rapid alterations in heat and water. Andean farming is full of redundancy, which means that historical disasters like the Irish potato famine (one variety) don't necessarily have to be repeated. And the Incas had experimental stations all through their territory, with test plots of different varieties suited to different elevations and available water. We went to the most famous of these at Moray , 
a truly impressive system of concentric terraces for varieties of plants in multiple microclimates. The temperature differential from top to bottom at Moray is 15C, which let the Inca plant scientists explore a huge range of growing conditions.

Not only are the cultivars “redundant” in the Peruvian Andes, but the farming system itself is carefully interconnected, communalized to a high degree. There is no room for corporate monocrops here, and the Quetchwan people are too smart to be taken by middlemen. So I'm not worried about the US colonizing Andean farming. Maybe the State Department will glean more than redundant potato and corn cultivars from their observations. After all, the biggest growth in US farming year-on-year is in truck farming and small organic operations. Long life for the small farmer means potential survival of humankind - something even the US State Department knows. 

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Nicely written with insightful observations. You saw much more agriculture than we did there. Did you ask guides for that?
Good to hear from you, Brad. No, we did not ask, it was just part of being in the Andes. I was on the look-out, for I am very interested in food production. See you in Chicago.
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