BRATTLEBORO — It may be hard to believe when you consider its current popularity, but until recently, Bolivian subsistence farmers were the only people who understood the value of quinoa.
“Since 1997, quinoa was looked at as food for the birds,” said Tamara Stenn, translating for a quinoa farmer calling from the Bolivian highlands.
But into the 21st century, people around the world began to discover quinoa, a powerful seed packed with nutrients, Stenn explained during an online discussion hosted by the Windham World Affairs Council on Sunday.
This was a boon with hidden challenges for the farmers whose ancestors have been growing quinoa for 4,000 years. When the quinoa craze took off, said Stenn, the farmers saw the price of their product skyrocket, providing income they had never seen before.
Between 2005 and 2013, the price of quinoa surged by 600 percent, and in 2014 the price peaked at $5,335 a ton. And though the farmers in the highlands only received a small portion of that, it was enough to rebuild homes, buy cars and send their kids to the city for a better life, said Stenn.
But when the big, international producers got into the game, the price of quinoa dropped in 2016 to $2,350 a ton.
This competition, said Stenn, “knocked the market out from under these producers.”
The farmers in Bolivia also had to watch as the quality of the quinoa around the world dropped due to mass production, she said. But while the farmers were knocked back by the surge in demand and its unintended consequences, they weren’t about to give up, said Stenn.
“They take a 500-year view,” she said.
Stenn traveled to Bolivia as a Fulbright Scholar in 2015 to conduct an ethnographic study of women quinoa farmers. Stenn and the farmers, with the help of Stenn’s students in the Economics and Entrepreneurship and Innovation program at Landmark College in Putney, founded A Perfect Seed to help the Bolivians sell their quinoa.
“A Perfect Seed supports food sovereignty, heritage foods, indigenous rights, and sustainable development working with rare Fair Trade, organic, hand-grown quinoa varieties,” states Stenn’s Linked In page.
A Perfect Seed markets organic varieties of Royal Quinoa, which are cultivated in the Oruruo and Potosi regions of the Altiplano, or Bolivian Highlands. Those varieties include K’ispina, Negra, Toledo Rojo, Amarillo and Naranja, which can be purchased online or locally at Riverbend Farm Market in Townshend and Wilmington and at Lawrence’s Smoke Shop, also in Townshend.
The producers of Royal Quinoa live in small communities scattered along the 50-mile wide shoreline of the vast volcano-ringed Uyuni salt flats.
“The high mineral content of the salty, volcanic soils, intense sunlight, extreme temperatures, harsh, desert environment, and thousands of years of ancestral wisdom come together to enable us to produce the world’s finest Royal Quinoa,” states A Perfect Seed’s website.
Finding new markets for Royal Quinoa is essential for the survival of these small producers, said Stenn.
“Bolivians feel this deep, deep commitment ... to share quinoa with the world,” she said. “But they would also like to be able to eat and live themselves. But the farmers can’t survive on local consumers. They need those outside resource to help distribute earnings to everybody.”
Finding a market for Royal Quinoa is just one of the challenges for the farmers, said Stenn.
They are also faced with urban migration, which has led to semi-abandoned communities in the Altiplano, populated mainly by older people who continue the old ways but without a younger generation to teach. People fleeing for the cities has also decreased the number of llamas in the region, whose manure is necessary for the fertilization of the quinoa, said Stenn.
Despite the drop in price and global competition, the production of Royal Quinoa has increased, with most of it being sold to consumers in the United States, she said.
The farmers, who rely on natural rainfall to water their crops, are also subject to climate change and its varying levels of weather disruption.
Despite these challenges, the quinoa farmers believe a renewed interest in indigenous cultures around the world will help them survive.
“They are very proud of their culture, their dress and their traditions,” said Stenn.
Stenn first traveled to Bolivia as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1996. She is an economist and author of two books, “Social Entrepreneurship as Sustainability” and “The Cultural and Political Intersection of Fair Trade and Justice, Managing a Global Industry.”