HARVEST OF HOPE
For a small
Andean village, farming quinoa for a Chicago company offers a chance for a
March 31, 2006
Clare Howard/(Peoria) Journal Star
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
fledgling field of quinoa.
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
for those select crops tolerant of 12,000-foot elevations,
intense sun and arid conditions: Quinoa, potatoes, beans.
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
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.
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
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
has increased because of the new markets for quinoa
Inca Organics. Before the indigenous farmers
Marjorie Leventry, president of Inca Organics, stands in a frost-damaged field
growing quinoa for Inca Organics, their average
quinoa outside Riobamba, Ecuador.
annual income was $230. In Ecuador, $360 a year
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
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
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
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;
load Inca Organics quinoa into a shipping container
Marjorie Leventry was in food and nutrition. He went on to become executive
warehouse outside Riobamba. From there, the con-
president at RLI Corp., a specialty insurance company in Peoria; she taught
trucked to Guayaquil, where it is shipped to California Illinois Central College in Peoria. The couple first tasted quinoa and
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.
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
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.
armers 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
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.
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
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
"This creates political instability, can
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
said. "They can look for products that promote trade." Durbin said it
naive to think free trade solves
Since working with Inca Organics, the average income in Silveria has grown
Bob Leventry said, "It doesn't take
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."
For recipes using quinoa, go to www.incaorganics.com