Seeds of Change

people lean over grass among mountains

Early on a Monday morning, high in the Andes of Peru, I stood sleepy-eyed at the edge of a small plot, watching half a dozen men swing pickaxes to loosen knobby, golden potatoes from clumps of earth. Women followed behind the men, gathering the potatoes and rubbing them clean with their quick fingers. They made piles in the centers of handwoven blankets spread on the ground. I squatted beside one of the women and sifted soil through my fingers, keeping my head low to avoid the arc of a falling ax. For each handful of potatoes she gathered, I cleaned and gathered only one. After ten minutes, I stood, breathed deeply, and shook off the tingly sensation at my temples. I looked around.

On the periphery of the potato plot, the purple flowers of the Lupinus plant grew. Beyond the purple, three young boys played, pounding small wooden tools into the ground, mimicking their fathers and uncles. Beyond the boys, an undulating patchwork quilt of farmed land rose above us. Behind me, the land cascaded far below. I shifted my eyes from the valley to the brilliant blue sky, seemingly close enough to touch. With my neck craned and my eyes off the ground, I lost my footing and felt a twinge of vertigo. The boys giggled at me, a weary and woozy looking woman. At 3600 meters, I was slightly off balance, a complete stranger to the altitude, not to mention potato harvesting.

I was not alone. Eight of us—all strangers to the landscape—had traveled to the village of Picol, an hour by dirt road from Cusco, Peru. At Penn State, we pursue formal degrees—sociology, biochemistry, science education, biology and philosophy, agronomy, geography, horticulture, and English. But for one week in early March, we were an interdisciplinary research team, sent by the Schreyer Honors College to explore the Andean ecosystem. We were students in a seminar called Seeds of Change—an interdisciplinary course about the scientific, cultural, and historical relationships between plants and people.

The Peruvian Andes, we had learned, is a major center of crop and genetic diversity. Potatoes and tomatoes are the two most commonly known plants first domesticated in that area. But there are others, mashua, oca, ulluco—root and tuber crops that were used by the Incas and are still grown and eaten today by subsistence farmers high in the Andes, like the villagers of Picol. Our leaders, Hector Flores and Marleni Ramirez, knew the Andes, both the plants and the people, well; they were raised and educated in Lima, and they married there. After earning doctorates in different parts of the United States, they came to Penn State together in 1988. Flores, professor of biotechnology and plant pathology and director of the Science, Technology, and Society program, teaches the Seeds of Change seminar every spring.

He considers the trip to Peru an almost essential field component to his course. "I can tell you how foods taste and smell," he had said to the class in February, "but you really have to experience them for yourself." Ramirez, an anthropologist and a research associate in the food science department, planned a journey to satisfy all our interests—the bounty of fresh food, preservation of biodiversity, the role of women and children in Andean farming communities, the cultivation of medicinal plants, nonthreatening uses of technology, the stunning height of the mountains . . . "But Hector and I had second thoughts," Ramirez said. "How could we do it in such a short period of time? Then we thought, why not? We could use our project as a base."

Their current research project, funded by the McKnight Foundation, is an interdisciplinary study of the biodiversity of Andean tubers, the role of women in the agricultural system, the impact of modern technology on the traditional farming practices of the indigenous people, and land-use in the rugged terrain of the Andes. "We chose Picol because of the high altitude and the many varieties of tubers grown here," Ramirez said. Flores and Ramirez had taken students to Picol and to another community, Ayacucho, before. One undergraduate, Andrea Meyer, wrote an honors thesis based on the work she had done in Ayacucho. But they had never taken so many undergraduates, nor had they tried to pack so much history, culture, science, and food into one week.

Our rise to 3600 meters was sudden. We arrived in the capital, Lima, a city on the desert coast of Peru where the sea-level air was hot and stifling. We slept lined up on a cool concrete floor in the airport's only terminal while we waited for our connecting flight. On the plane—a small, noisy craft emblazoned with the Aeroperu logo—we turned away from the desert coast. I watched the mountains rise up and it looked unreal, like the clay relief map I had made in second grade: reds, greens, browns, the rich colors of earth; mountains interrupted by deep valleys.

drawing of person holding two tree branches

We landed in Cusco: 71° 56'12" W longitude and 13° 31' 53" S latitude and an elevation of 3248 meters. Cusco is a city without high rises. The roads are cobbled. The buildings are of Spanish-style stucco built on top of the Incan walls that were once the foundation of the city. The rooftops are layered with ceramic half cylinders. A 15-meter white Jesus stands on a hilltop above the city. Houses cover the valley and extend up the mountain. The people use the mountainsides as billboards for political slogans, the coat of arms of Peru, declarations of love. Animals freely roam the city. Old men sit on park benches in the garden in the center of town. At night, peddlers line the streets and walkways selling blankets and sweaters and jewelry.

Melquiades Kana, a longtime friend of Flores and Ramirez and the driver of the van that transported us for four days of the trip, took us to Picol early the next morning. He had black hair, a ruddy brown complexion, and dark, friendly eyes that crinkled up in the corners when he smiled. He spoke Spanish, but his first language was Quechua, the language of the indigenous people of the Peruvian Andes. He introduced himself in English with a firm handshake, and it still took me two days to learn his full name. I had him write it down in my field notebook.

We drove up through the mountains, first on paved roads, then on flat dusty dirt roads. The van creaked as we turned onto a deeply rutted road that wound past Picol's neighboring villages. At the entrance of Picol, Benito, the only villager to have traveled to the United States, greeted us wearing white corduroys, a bright red wool sweater, and a white button-down shirt. He was on his way to Cusco for an inter-community meeting. He introduced us to some of the men in the community, including the current president Damian Chauca. While Chauca called the community members together to prepare to harvest the plot of potatoes, Ramirez took us into the village's greenhouse—a structure about 8 feet by 12 feet with an adobe base and a canvas covering.

"We helped the community build this greenhouse," said Ramirez. "To help them with the weevil problem. The weevil preys on the oca; it goes from the soil to the tuber. So when farmers take the tubers and use them to plant new crops, they are using dirty tubers, infested with weevils. Then the new crop is infected too. To control the weevils, they must allow clean tubers to sprout in the greenhouse, then take them to the field." Tubers, like potatoes and oca, are propagated vegetatively, we had learned in Flores' class. Pieces of tuber are cut up and used as seeds. Each piece must contain an eye, or an axillary bud, for new growth to take place. The buds give rise to new shoots and plant.

Initially, only five or six of the 21 families in Picol were interested in using the greenhouse method. Many of these were young families who had less to risk. "That first year, the harvest was excellent," said Ramirez. "So the second year, we had 18 families interested."

depiction of people farming with red flowers between images

When the villagers were ready, we harvested the potatoes in a community plot at the base of the village. Then we climbed almost a hundred meters to the higher plots. The men and women walked briskly, powered by their muscular calves. The children and dogs ran up the mountainside behind them. We followed, stopping many times along the way to catch our breaths and drink bottled water. One of the villagers offered a ride on his mule. No one took him up on it.

The higher plots were shaped irregularly. The colors distinguished the different plots—orangeflowered plants bordered yellowflowered plants. Keira Henning, a biology and philosophy major, and Jenny Edwards, a science education major, sketched pictures of the plants in their field books. Flores and Ramirez translated as the villagers talked excitedly about their crops. Some varieties of these minor tubers, the oca, mashua, and ulluco, are so sweet and tasty you can eat them during harvest, right out of the ground. "The sharing in the field is very social. The tubers taste delicious and they bring so much joy to the people," explained Ramirez. But it was too early now, only March, near the end of the rainy season. Although the plants were flowering on the surface, the tubers below the ground were not yet ready to eat.

We tasted mashua. Flores pulled it out of the ground and took a bite, offering it to the rest of us. It was crispy, with a high water content, but bitter and almost spicy. I could feel the granules of starch on my lips. Mashua is in the same family as the nastertium, Tropacolaceae, and has the same bite to it. Its reddishorange flowers, shaped like bells, faced down the mountain, away from the wind.

"Many kinds of tubers have whimsical names, they are named for the characteristics of people," explained Ramirez: Yananahui means black eyes; occhu means silky blond hair.

One of the farmers called us over to see his potatoes. As we watched, he swung a pick and unearthed wonderful golden tubers, much larger than the ones we had harvested in the communal plot. His wife posed for a picture holding a small bouquet of the bright orange flowers of the mashua.

For lunch we ate cheese, bread, onion and tomato salsa, spicy peanut sauce, and the small, golden, potatoes that we had harvested that morning. The village women had boiled them and brought them to us in a large pot. We gnawed on hardy ears of corn, each kernel as wide as a nickel. Some of the men shared the meal with us; the women hung back and the children prowled curiously around the edges of our eating area. Before we left the village, we met Timoteo Surco, a wealthier member of the community. He grew kisuar—a very hard wood used to make native instruments. The tree is becoming scarce and he is leading a community project to preserve it.

Back in Cusco we walked through winding cobbled streets and back alleys, where we passed a group of children playing cards in a doorway. We visited the Centro San Bartolome De Las Casas (CBC), a nongovernmental organization named for a Spanish priest who defended the native people of South America. Researchers there are building a centralized database of information about the Andes. They offer a library, a collection of photographs, and a geographic information system that are open to students and village governments to use to help in the planning of their communities. They also offer graduate courses for international students.

Down the street from the CBC's main building is a center devoted to research on medicinal plants. One of the biochemists there led us through the building that doubles as a clinic for villagers when they come into Cusco. A wooden rack stood in the hallway with cloth stretched across. Dried plants rested on each layer.

"The CBC works very closely with the peasants to decide which plants they are going to grow," explained Flores. In the courtyard of this building was a demonstration garden, to show the farmers the many kinds of herbs they could grow. "We give the peasants an income source for producing the plants. The peasants sell the dried material to the CBC."

"Do the scientists go into the village to talk to the campesinos?," asked Keira Henning. "Do they ask if the knowledge is passed down from mother to daughter?"

"There are two types of information systems," Flores said, translating the bio chemist's answer. "The shamans have a traditional knowledge of plants. But it is very hard to get information from them. The best information comes from the mothers, from the things they try with their kids. 'This plant from the marigold family is very good for this,' the mothers will say. The scientists will then compare that with the literature."

"The local markets are very different from the international market. Locally we sell medicines for skin, digestive, and respiratory problems. Internationally, the drugs are for AIDS and are used as immunosuppressants, but mostly they are for constipation, hemorrhoids, things like that." Flores chuckled. "It has to do with the lack of fiber in the diet."

"We just got a big order from Italy for drugs for hemorrhoids," Flores translated. The biochemist smiled.

The next undergraduate group that comes to Peru with him, Flores noted, will get a tour of the communities where the medicinal plants are grown.

That night, back at the hotel, we ate cuy—guinea pig baked in an adobe oven over a wood fire. Cuy is a delicacy; the meal, prepared for us by Melquiades Kana, was a traditional feast of the indigenous people of the Peruvian Andes. Along with the guinea pig, we ate three kinds of potatoes, tomatoes, and a sauce made of peanuts and cilantro, and drank Pisco, a Peruvian grape brandy.

The cuy were split into two parts, the head and the backside, and Flores instructed us to eat everything but the bones. The meat tasted like the dark parts of a turkey. We toasted Kana and each other, "Salud!" I finished the last of a bottle of Pisco. Kana told me that I could make a wish as I placed the cap back on the empty bottle.

During the meal, Flores allowed us to joke around with him, about the bit of cuy sauce dribbling across his cheek and chin, about his excitement over being back in his country, about our performance on the exam that we took in his class right before the trip. We talked about food and chemistry, how drinking alcohol with a fatty meal helps with digestion. "It makes an emulsion in your stomach," said Flores, holding his glass of Pisco in the air.

We knew of Flores' love for eating before we came. He had made baklava, salads, breads, even California rolls for the class. He is a wonderful cook and an accomplished eater, although both he and Ramirez are petite.

The next morning over a breakfast of bread, jam, papaya juice, coffee, and coca tea in the common room of our hotel, Flores explained more about the Andean agricultural system. "The subsistence system in Picol is amazingly resilient," he said. "When the Spanish came they tried to obliterate the culture." There are about 5,000 farming communities in the Peruvian Andes. Some, like Picol, were formed recently, after the Agrarian Reform of 1969. Others have existed since Incan times; their names were found in the chronicles—the record of the Spanish conquest in South America. The communities operate within a system of bartering: corn from the villages at lower altitudes is exchanged for sweet tubers grown at the high altitudes.

"They practice sustainable agriculture," said Flores. "They use very few chemicals on the crops. Improved varieties come from experimental stations in Peru."

After breakfast, Flores continued the lesson on food while we walked to the city market. "Cusco is a hub," he explained. "It's where the food systems from the coast, the highlands, and the rainforest of Peru merge. People buy food in markets on a daily basis," he continues. "Many don't have refrigeration."

In the market's main building, we saw stalls displaying fruit, grains, and vegetables. Women and girls with blenders made fruit drinks from banana, papaya, guava, and passion fruit. Women moved quickly through the market, carrying babies or food in blankets tied to their backs. Two young boys wrestled with each other on the concrete floor in between the aisles. Flores walked toward a woman selling big brown mushrooms. "When the thunder strikes," she told him, "then these sprout."

two women lean of pile of food

We tasted prickly pear. A woman sliced the red juicy flesh from the skin, quartered it, and offered us chunks from the tip of her knife. It was sweet and delicious. We passed stands displaying black tea leaves and ground coffee, a huge pumpkin cut open to reveal the bright orange flesh and pale seeds, stacks of green, yellow, red, and orange peppers, pungent wheels of cheese.

We saw avocados, fresh figs, huge rounds of bread, cancha—toasted corn kernels, black chuño—freeze dried potatoes, bags of grains—corn, barley, amaranth powder. We smelled freshwater fish, piles of red and black fish roe, dried strips of llama meat. "Like beef jerky," Flores said. "Except it's llama." A woman sold globs of blue green algae from high altitude lakes: "Good for soups," said Flores. As a slightly squeamish person, I did extraordinarily well with all of the different smells.

I faltered in the meat section, however. Boar and goat hearts, brains, bile glands, and stomachs. As children, my sister and I were fascinated with the cow tongues on display at the local Acme. They were wrapped carefully in plastic, no juices leaking, no offensive odor. We'd poke at them when no one was looking; to us, they were oddities. In the Cusco market, I saw a dozen different oddities, parts of animals that I had never seen before: a basket filled with rosy pigs' feet; a boar's intestines hanging from a hook; a goat's head staring at me, stuck on a post over the stall. There was no plastic wrapping: parts just rested on counters, blood dripped onto the floor. I felt trapped in the narrow corridor. There were people ahead of me and behind me, no way to make a quick exit.

In the last stall a woman sold testicles. Brian Kelch and Dave Gregal, the only male students on the trip, stared wide-eyed as she made a slicing motion with her knife. She spoke to them, laughing. Ramirez translated. "She says you're next. She says you're not leaving here with yours."

I made it outside into the hot sun, where vendors sold little frogs from a big bucket of water and scoops of bright orange, gold, and green spices from carts underneath canopies. A woman sold brown and white furred guinea pigs. Another displayed brightly colored skeins of yarn from llama and alpaca wool. A man with a big wad of chew in each cheek sold bags of coca leaves.

We took the food we purchased at the market and piled into the van for a two-hour drive to Moray. At Moray, the Incas converted four natural depressions in the landscape into concentric circular terraces, which, due to different degrees of exposure to the sun, represented many different ecological zones at a single site.

"When it rains, the base of the terrace never floods," Flores explained. Down at the bottom level, potatoes grew. On the fourth through ninth terraces, corn grew.

"During certain times of the year, there's a big temperature differential between the lower terraces and the upper terraces," explained Flores.

"Originally, archaeologists thought that the terraces were an amphitheater, but they were really experimental stations, used for the development of different crop strains.

"The results of some of the experiments conducted here were then used in farming villages in the surrounding valleys.

"The Incas had an extensive system of roads and people who relayed information. They had an excellent communication system. Runners took information from one point to the next."

We descended to the bottom level of the largest terrace for lunch. The caretakers' sons joined us. They struggled to climb down the huge stone slabs, stairs inserted into the sides of the terraces by the Incas.

Kana placed a few pieces of fruit in the center of the terrace to make an offering to Pacha Mama, mother earth. We ate the rich, oily flesh of the avocado, slicing chunks with a Swiss Army knife. We ate more prickly pear. "It's called tuna," explained Flores. "And it's not even in the same family as the pear. It's a member of the cactus family. It has short, thin spines on the outside that are usually rubbed off by hand." Fresh figs, sticky and sweet, red seeded flesh. We ripped sections from the circle of bread and made sandwiches of bread, nuts and cheese, or avocado and cheese and salt from a big bag that Flores purchased. "The Incas had salt mines in the Andes. They traded with the civilizations on the coast. You know, salted fish?" he said.

We popped open granadilla and sucked out its jellylike flesh. On the outside the fruit looked like an orange, but if you placed your thumbs on the top and pressed in, it cracked open like a hardboiled egg. When we were full, we gathered our garbage, called kopo in the local language, Quechua: avocado peels, the skin of a prickly pear, bits of fig, and egg-fruit peels. We climbed out of the depression, back to the van.

Midweek, we boarded the early morning peasant train (not the tourist train) from Cuzco to Machu Picchu—a four-hour ride through the Andes. Women and children walked the aisles selling sandwiches, coffee, and cakes. Men with wooden boxes strapped around their shoulders sold cigarettes and candy.

We stopped frequently in small towns. Two priests sat behind us. Several European students got on with heavy rucksacks, prepared to hike the Inca Trail. The train rocked back and forth, stopped, and then lurched forward. We constantly changed direction as we climbed and descended mountainsides on switchbacks.

aerial view of mountainous village

A boy got on in Ollantaytambo. He sang loudly and off-key, then walked up and down the aisles with a seashell to collect coins for his efforts. Another boy recited poetry. By 8:30, the car was full. A woman pushed past us carrying a basket filled with huge slabs of dried pig meat. A young girl selling potatoes stuffed with meat and vegetables braced her body against one of the seats.

We passed houses made of mud brick, some with wooden doors and windowsills. Next to the houses were fields of barley, amaranth. As the train roared by, children ran toward it, coming from homes and fields. Dogs barked and chased it.

"So much food grows here, but so many people are hungry," Ramirez remarked. "So much food is lost in transportation—bad trucks, poor roads."

As we crossed the Urubamba River, on a very precarious-looking bridge, we saw a makeshift village of red tents—people who were forced out of their homes because of the recent mudslides. We began to see the vegetation change, from the brown and pale greens to bright, vibrant greens. "It's so luscious," said Ramirez, looking ahead. The train was moving down the eastern side of the Andes, approaching the rainforest, the last of Peru's three climatic zones.

"Look at how the people have modified the land," said Ramirez. I looked out the window at the houses built into the side of a mountain, the patchwork quilt fields, and the terraces.

Ramirez was reading a book about religion and culture in Peru. "Catholicism in South America is a combination of preColumbian beliefs," she told me as I sat facing her on the train. "African beliefs from the slaves brought over by the Spanish, and western Catholicism from the Spanish. The villagers include animism in their Catholic beliefs. They pay homage to the Pacha Mama and they also make the sign of the cross. Also, they worship an image of a black Christ."

We arrived at Machu Picchu in the early afternoon and we nibbled on the last of our market foods—eggfruits, papayas, nuts, bread, sweetened puffed corn, before we climbed through the ruins. As I walked up the Inca Trail toward the temple, I asked Emmalea Garver, a horticulture major and the only freshman on the trip, what she would take away from the experience. Her eyes widened and she smiled. "I thought international agriculture might be interesting, but now I know that it is. This place . . ." She looked around, over the edge of a trail without a guardrail, down a craggy rock face, the Urubamba river raging below, the Incan terraces high above. She shook her head. "This place is amazing."

The honors students who traveled to Peru for a week of research, eating, and self-exploration were: Dana Bauer, a science major in the Eberly College of Science; Keira Henning, a biology and philosophy major in the Eberly College of Science and the College of the Liberal Arts; Jenny Edwards, a science education major in the College of Education; David Gregal, a geography major in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences; Brian Kelch, a biochemistry major in the Eberly College of Science; Emmalea Garver, a horticulture major in the College of Agricultural Sciences; Anne Boyd, a sociology major in the College of the Liberal Arts; and Barbara Knupp, an agronomy and biology major in the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Eberly College of Science.

Hector Flores is professor of plant pathology and biotechnology in the Eberly College of Science and the College of Agricultural Sciences, 315 Wartik Lab, University Park, PA, 16802; 8148652955; He also directs the Science, Technology, and Society program in the College of Engineering. Marleni Ramirez is a research associate in the food science department, College of Agricultural Sciences, 008D Borland Lab; 8638015; The research trip was funded by the Schreyer Honors College and the College of Agricultural Sciences. The Andean root and tuber crop project is funded by the McKnight Foundation.

Last Updated January 10, 2014