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State Journal-Register, Springfield, IL

Cultivating  Lives




For a small Andean village, farming quinoa for a Chicago company offers a chance for a better life

March 31, 2006

Clare Howard/(Peoria) Journal Star

ECUADOR - High in the Andes Mountains outside Riobamba, the women of Silveria bend over dusty volcanic soil, working the land with tools that their Puruhua ancestors have farmed with for more than 1,500 years. Isolation buffers the women from world news but not from world trade policies. Buying decisions in grocery stores in the heartland of America are felt in Silveria.

   The women live beyond global communication systems: no land phones, cell phones, Internet. No private cars, television, newspapers, mail. To communicate with the women of Silveria, you have to stand before them.

   So when Marjorie and Bob Leventry learned a record-breaking frost had settled over Silveria, threatening the quinoa crop, they planned to fly down to assess the damage. Their Chicago-based company, Inca Organics, is the No. 1 importer of quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) into the United States and England. Serious crop damage would mean juggled orders, late shipments and loss of income for their Puruhua farm co-ops.

   The couple left from O'Hare International Airport in mid-January on a now-routine itinerary: fly from Chicago to Miami, then Miami to Quito, and drive four hours in their 1992 Subaru south on the Pan American Highway to Riobamba. Bob Leventry, 66, remained in Riobamba for meetings. Marjorie Leventry, 65, joined a consultant and together they headed west, toward the Andes Mountains and the women of Silveria.

   The trip took Leventry to one of the highest points in the world. She buckled into the back seat of a Mitsubishi Montero, and the driver pushed his silver, mud-splattered SUV to 40 mph on narrow, stone-cobbled roads searching for this indigenous, all-woman farm co-op and

its fledgling field of quinoa.

   Leventry, a former Peorian and president of Inca Organics, braced herself as the Montero swerved. She and her husband, Bob, retired from jobs in central Illinois and volunteered with the Peace Corps in Ecuador 10 years ago. After their service, they couldn't walk away from what they saw and learned living among the indigenous people.

   "I thought I was going to Ecuador with the Peace Corps to teach nutrition," Leventry said. "I went there and learned."

   In 1998, they combined his knowledge of business and hers of nutrition to start their company. And they use the business to raise awareness in the U.S. of the difference between free trade and fair trade.

   The Montero remained the lone car on the road as it maneuvered around cavernous ruts, heading northwest toward cloud-shrouded peaks, passing a patchwork of small farm fields and terraced plots

suited only for those select crops tolerant of 12,000-foot elevations,

                                                                                                                           intense sun and arid conditions: Quinoa, potatoes, beans.

Siverian women crouch on the leeward side of a berm to protect themselves      About 20 minutes off the main road, the Montero stopped alongside a      from the dusty wind sweeping across the volcanic field in which they work        field worked by nine of the women of Silveria.  Leventry climbed out

                                                                                                                           and greeted the women in Spanish. They speak only Quechua, but

goodwill transcends words.

   Silveria is a tiny community of women and children. Walking to the edge of the field, the women unwrapped babies bound to their backs. They crouched on the leeward side of a berm, protected from dusty wind sweeping across their field. They have worked this plot of land every day, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Though their culture has changed little in 1,500 years, changing global economic forces have come to their doorstep, imposing the fallout of a worldwide debate on free trade versus fair trade.

   Leventry weighs heavily on the side of fair trade.

   Some women crocheted while Leventry spoke in Spanish about a future with organic quinoa. After her remarks, Lorenzo Cepeda spoke in Quechua. He's with ERPE, Escuelas Radiofonicas Populares del Ecuador, a nonprofit progressive radio station and farming cooperative founded in Riobamba in the 1960s.

   When the group broke for lunch, the women escorted their visitors higher up the mountainside to a tiny complex of huts.     

Before 1998, when Inca Organics and ERPE started contracting with these women for quinoa, the homes were made of mud blocks. Today, the homes are cinderblock with dirt floors.

   Before 1998, malnutrition among these children exceeded 74 percent. Now malnutrition among the children is less than 20 percent, in large part because of a requirement that the indigenous farmers can sell only two-thirds of their quinoa to the co-op and must feed one-third to their families.   Income

 has increased because of the new markets for quinoa

developed by Inca Organics. Before the indigenous farmers               Marjorie Leventry, president of Inca Organics, stands in a frost-damaged field of

started growing quinoa for Inca Organics, their average                                                     quinoa outside Riobamba, Ecuador.

annual income was $230. In Ecuador, $360 a year is considered

poverty level. Farmers producing organic quinoa for Inca Organics earn an average of $524 a year.

   The children of Silveria are healthy evidence of the benefit of quinoa and Inca Organics. One young Puruhua girl, Manuela Usca, 5, kept her distance, always peering at Leventry, a blue-eyed woman in a world of brown eyes.

   Girls in Silveria usually do not attend school. Boys do. When boys become young men, they marry, have children and leave searching for jobs, creating countless tiny Andean villages of women and children. This economically imposed pattern has been repeated over and over in hundreds of isolated communities.

   Leventry, Cepeda and two others in their group were escorted into a tiny hut, where they were seated at a table in the middle of an otherwise dim, empty room. With obvious pride, the Puruhua women presented them with metal plates piled with beans, potatoes and roasted guinea pig. Leventry is as comfortable eating roasted guinea pig in an indigenous village high in the Andes Mountains as she is eating organic brie and whole-wheat crackers at the Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.

   Notebaert Nature Museum was the setting for a dinner reception for the "All Things Organic" trade show at McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago in early May last year. The show was one of five food events that drew more than 30,000 people from around the world. It's an annual venue for Inca Organics' message.

   The convention center buzzed as dazzling and sophisticated corporate displays helped big conglomerates vie for lucrative contracts. Wine flowed. Cheeses, chocolates and pates considered among the best in the world were doled out in seemingly unlimited quantities.

   Amid such opulence, one tiny booth in the 900-row of the All Things Organic trade show was startling in its contrast. At the Inca Organics booth, there were two metal chairs and a small table from Midge and Bob Leventry's apartment terrace. There were a few woven Ecuadorian rugs hanging on the back curtains. Handouts were duplicated at a copy center.  Two scrapbooks filled with color photos were stacked on a table. Marjorie Leventry handed out tiny cups of quinoa prepared in a rice cooker she brought from home.

   No ad agency helped frame the message or present the corporate image. Over the three-day show, thousands of people walked by without stopping, but those who visited the booth invariably learned something.

   "I had to stop by this booth. I'd read a little about you. This is just so totally Peace Corps," said Jennifer Snyder of the Organic Exchange, Berkeley, Calif.

   Snyder had been in the Peace Corps in Hungary and read that Inca Organics had its origins with the Leventry's stint with the Peace Corps in Ecuador.

   "The energy of quinoa is so incredible. It's so incredible that you are not pushing the American agenda. You measure success in building understanding, not in counting money," Snyder said, pledging to champion quinoa use within her own company.

   Later, Bob Leventry said, "The Peace Corps says give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Baloney. They know how to fish. They need markets."

   Therein lies the challenge for Inca Organics, a break-even operation for the Leventrys but a matter of survival for their indigenous farmers. Inca Organics is one layer of truth in what the Leventrys believe is a sometimes-disingenuous global debate over free trade or fair trade. 

  Both graduates of Cornell University, Bob Leventry was an engineering major;

Workers load Inca Organics quinoa into a shipping container          Marjorie Leventry was in food and nutrition. He went on to become executive

from a warehouse outside Riobamba. From there, the con-              president at RLI Corp., a specialty insurance company in Peoria; she taught at

tainer is trucked to Guayaquil, where it is shipped to California       Illinois Central College in Peoria.  The couple first tasted quinoa and learned its

                                                                                                        heritage during their Peace Corps years.

   Quinoa has a nutty flavor and the subtle crunch of caviar. Not a true grain, it's the seed of a leafy plant. Lorna Sass, food writer and researcher of whole-grain cooking, calls quinoa a pseudo-grain because it behaves like a grain nutritionally in the body. But among all other plant-based proteins, quinoa is unique. Only quinoa is a complete protein.

   It was the primary protein for the ancient Incas who were vegetarian; they considered quinoa the "Mother Grain." Spanish conquistadors perceived that Incas derived their strength from quinoa and ordered the entire crop destroyed, leading ultimately to the defeat of the Inca Empire in the 1530s.

   When the Leventrys formed their company, they "kicked up" flagging U.S. interest in quinoa, Bob Leventry said. Until Inca Organics, the limited amount of quinoa available in the U.S. was gritty, often mixed with pebbles, and in need of tedious cleaning. Inca Organics quinoa came on the market pre-cleaned and pure.

   Marjorie Leventry researched and developed recipes, and contacted chefs and natural food distributors. Her vision for quinoa in the American diet was strengthened by Bob Leventry's understanding of global trade.

"NAFTA only addresses tariffs, not internal subsidies. In France, 20 percent of the budget goes to farm subsidies. England subsidizes exported wheat but not domestic wheat," he said. "With free trade, rich countries subsidize farm exports and poor countries can't compete."

   Leventry saw that quinoa provided an opportunity for indigenous Ecuadorians to export grain without running head-to-head against subsidized competition from wealthy countries. Quinoa is grown primarily in the poor nations along the equator. While there are more than 100 varieties of quinoa, only six can grow in Colorado. Nature has helped poor countries virtually corner the market.

   While the theory seems failsafe, the pragmatic history of Inca Organics tells of ongoing struggle.

 Maria Eugenia Lima, left, heads the         In 2005, Inca Organics imported 390 metric tons of quinoa into the U.S., and since its founding in 1998, the nonprofit RANDIMPAK, working with       company has sent a total of $1.6 million back to Ecuador.

1,500 indigenous women farmers who         Though the grain was named one of the "15 Super Foods for Super Health" by Environmental Nutrition in grow quinoa.  Lima invited Bob               its September 2005 issue, and has begun appearing in publications from Bon Appetit to Tufts University Leventry to discuss a joint venture           Health & Nutrition Letter, most Americans have never cooked it, heard of it or tasted it.

between RANDIMPAK and his Chicago        Even more frustrating to Bob Leventry is America's tepid embrace  of fair trade. For their British            based company Inca Organics.                 markets, Inca Organics is certified fair trade by the                                                           Fairtrade Labeling Organization International, based in Germany, which means a verifiable fair price must be paid to the indigenous farmers and that agricultural practices must be environmentally sustainable. To qualify for the fair trade certification in the U.S., however, the Leventrys would have to pay a fee so large it would price Inca Organics out of the market, Leventry said.

   "Quinoa is a small market in a big, enormous global food industry," says Enrique Heinemann, a German consultant to ERPE who works to find export markets. "Fair trade has a large market in the U.K. and France, but not yet in Germany. Not yet in the U.S. The potential is there."

   Heinemann said fair trade quinoa is never grown as a monoculture, but always is integrated into production of other crops. If one market fails, another crop provides subsistence. That's part of the sustainable theory of growing fair trade quinoa.

"Indigenous farmers in Ecuador cannot compete with countries that have agriculture subsidies. We need to find products wealthy countries don't subsidize. Quinoa. I'm not against free trade, but I only favor free trade when both partners are at the same eye level," he said.

"Those Puruhua women cannot compete (with subsidized producers). So we need to find products where they can compete. If you go to the government and talk about equalizing trading partners, you'll talk a lot and spend a lot of money and a lot of time. I'm not saying that's a bad approach. Another approach is to go to the store and buy a fair trade product. With fair trade, the consumer knows where the product is grown, what the conditions are and that the farmer gets a fair return."

Heinemann said Inca Organics contracts with farmers primarily in a region of about 410,000 people, 83 percent living in poverty without access to basic food.  A major obstacle to selling more fair trade products in the U.S., Heinemann said, is lack of public awareness about what fair trade means for these farmers.  "When consumers buy these products, they are helping these women come out of century-long standards of misery," he said, noting that the Ecuadorian government ran electric lines                     A quinoa farmer prepares a plate of food women of these remote villages, but the women don't have the money to buy electric lightbulbs, let         including organic potatoes and roasted

alone pay for power.                                                                                                                                                          guinea pig.

   When the Leventrys learned one-third of the most recent crop was lost to frost, they began looking for

additional sources to fill their orders. They met in January in Riobamba with Maria Eugenia Lima, head of the nonprofit organization Randimpak. Lima was a national legislator in Ecuador and ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1998. She works with 1,500 women, each of whom has an average of six children, who grow organic quinoa.

   The meeting went well and was concluded with a bountiful buffet including cuyes, or roasted guinea pig. The Leventrys were moved by what they heard at the meeting, and planned a trip further south to inspect another Randimpak facility.

"These people don't need a handout. The Peace Corps perpetuates that stereotype of teaching these people," Bob Leventry said. "I understand the Peace Corps is trying to help, but I wasted my first six months in the Peace Corps teaching basic business skills. They don't need that. They already have basic business skills. They need fair access to markets for their products. Just provide markets and a level playing field, and they'll do well."

   In an effort to equalize the playing field, poor nations raise tariffs and the U.S. and Europe scream, Leventry said, noting that each time poor nations yield to the pressure and remove tariffs, it's another step toward the elimination of the Third World's ability to feed itself.

   U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said free trade policies have created negative feelings toward the U.S. in many regions of the world, and have forced farmers in poor countries off the land, and into cities and sprawling slums.

   "This creates political instability, can lead to military problems and severe health problems. These issues can be addressed by encouraging stable and sustainable economic growth in these countries. We need to look for balance. We want our farmers to survive and prosper, but we want our policies to be sensitive to other nations," he said.  "As soon as American consumers are aware of the differences between free trade and fair trade, they can make changes," Durbin said. "They can look for products that promote trade."  Durbin said it is naive to think free trade solves problems.

                Since working with Inca Organics, the average income in Silveria has grown                                      Bob Leventry said, "It doesn't take big

                                                 from $230 a year to $524 annually                                                                     amounts of money to focus more on the     i                                                                                                                                                                         people of the Third World. The difference between European and American support for fair trade is shocking, but I think if more Americans understood the issues, fair trade would be supported."


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All content March 31, 2006- State Journal-Register, The (Springfield, IL) and may not be republished without permission.