Quinoa, a Cursed Crop: Part II

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Photo by Angela Tchou/FlickrCC


This post is the second in a two-part series on the mysterious story of "the mother grain" and its journey to the United States. To read part one, click here.

David Cusack was shot in the back with a copper-clad 22-caliber bullet. A brief investigation concluded that he was likely the victim of a botched robbery. Few people close to him believe this was the case.

A 1986 Denver Post article lists a few disquieting facts: none of Cusack's business contacts in Bolivia, even those who went to the police voluntarily, were ever questioned; film from the camera Cusack was carrying was missing from his personal effects; a mysterious pair of tourists seemed to be following Cusack before disappearing entirely; and, finally, a young girl reported to the police that around the time Cusack was murdered she saw a man with a rifle leave the ruins by the rear gate shortly after she heard two shots fired.

Uncle John wrote in a 1992 essay: "Quinoa seems to use people, rather than the other way around."

Theories as to why Cusack could have been murdered vary vastly from mistaken identity to rumors of a fortune. One explanation involves his work with Quinoa Corp.: some believe that business interests in Bolivia began to feel threatened by the solidarity amongst the quinoa-growing campesinos Cusack was working with—and that they saw him as the problem.

Cusack's murder was a terrible blow to Quinoa Corp. Gorad and McKinley were ready to scrap the project entirely, but the public outpouring of support for quinoa was too much to ignore. After Cusack's death in 1984, John McCamant—my Uncle John—took over for Cusack at Sierra Blanca and continued his work trying to grow Quiona in the San Luis Valley. (He firmly believes Cusack was murdered by the CIA, but there isn't space in this article for the wealth of evidence required to elaborate on this accusation.)

Only a bit daunted, Gorad took up Cusack's mantle and traveled back to Bolivia to find more quinoa.

Shortly after Gorad returned, he began having pounding headaches. He went to doctors for three years trying to cure them—he had his head x-rayed, his eyes and teeth examined—but nobody had any explanation. At the end of his rope, he and a friend went to a Peruvian shaman who was visiting Boulder. The shaman, after going in and out of trances and absorbing so much negative energy that Gorad's friend was afraid he was going to die, uncovered what he thought was the root cause. Somebody had put a curse on quinoa. The shaman told Gorad that he, like Cusack, was sighted down the barrel of a gun.

The shaman removed the curse, and Gorad's headaches went away. Regarding Cusack, Gorad had never put much stock in the conspiracy theories surrounding his death. He believes somebody, maybe a hunter, fired off a gun, and that the bullet was guided by the same unseen force that caused his headaches. He notes that the indigenous populations who grew most of the quinoa have had a history of bad relations with outsiders ever since the Spanish came in the 16th century. The notion that now they were coming for the mother grain may have been too much to bear.

The fact remained, though, that quinoa was reluctant to take root in Colorado. Every year, some disaster seems to befall Uncle John's farm, and now, 24 years into its existence, it has yet to consistently produce a crop. Even Uncle John, a literalist at heart, has seen so much ill that he cannot find any explanation other than the curse.

And yet quinoa persists. It found its way into American markets in the late nineties through companies like Inca Organics (they had an easier time of it, since Gorad's shaman had already taken care of the curse). [Curator's note: In 2002, I visited Ecuador and the Chicago-based founders of Inca Organics, and as evidenced by this piece, the curse indeed seemed to have been lifted.]Those slapdash, scattered markets where Gorad tried so hard to find seed during the early eighties evolved into agricultural operations ready to export. The real success story isn't anyone associated with quinoa, but rather the mother grain itself.

Uncle John wrote in a 1992 essay: "Quinoa seems to use people, rather than the other way around ... spirits of the Andes may have placed all kinds of obstacles in the path of those trying to preserve and disseminate the 'mother grain,' but it seems destined nonetheless to take its rightful place among the crops of the world."

There are still a few strains of quinoa at White Mountain Farm that show possibilities of development, among them "Dave Quinoa," named in honor of Dave Cusack. "As long as I'm alive," Uncle John says, "I think I'll keep trying."

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Dave Thier

David Thier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Republic, AOLNews, Wired.com, IGN.com, and South Magazine.

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