Quinoa: The Story of a Cursed Crop

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Love hurts.

The early setbacks were practical and expected. Throughout South America, quinoa had a reputation as an Indian food, unsophisticated trash scorned by the middle class in Lima and Quito. As a result, the quinoa economy was ill-equipped for any kind of export, existing in pockets of subsistence farmers who mostly traded among themselves. Gorad traveled to Chilean markets, trying to get what he could. He was able to find a larger grower in Southern Chile who had been sponsored by the Allende government to research quinoa, but not much else. Eventually, some friends of his were able to arrange a 50-pound bag of grain to be shipped to America.

Things seemed to be going well in the late seventies. Gorad met up with Don McKinley, a friend who had studied with Ichazo, and they took their new grain to health-food distributors, doing demonstrations for the managers. They got an overwhelmingly positive response. Of course, they had no idea what to do next.

Years passed before McKinley found a third member of Team Quinoa, an idealistic history Ph.D. from the University of Denver who was the son of a potato farmer. David Cusack was the head of a growing organization called Sierra Blanca in Colorado's San Luis Valley. If import was so hard, they thought, then they could grow the Andean crop in the high altitudes of the Rockies. Together they formed Quinoa Corporation, in 1983.

Gorad was in Chile at the time, and they asked him to ship some quinoa up north. They planted it, but after a year had nothing but weeds. As it turned out, they had grain quinoa, not seed. Quinoa is coated with a bitter substance called saponin, which must be washed off before it can be eaten. But once it has been washed off, it can't be planted.

"Don says 'it didn't work,'" Gorad says. "And I say 'what didn't work?' And he says 'it didn't grow' and I say 'You idiot! You didn't ask me for seed!' This time, I went to get seed. It's not that easy. Actually, doing anything in Chile isn't easy."

Gorad set off to find quinoa—seed quinoa—but he had an even harder time than he did with grain quinoa. One of his contacts finally came through the day before he was scheduled to fly home empty-handed. He brought him a beautiful bag of multi-colored Chilean Altiplano. Gorad looked around, and because he was about to leave he didn't have anything to give this guy in exchange for the quinoa. Exasperated, he fell back on cliché. He bought their first seed with the shirt off his back.

The three members of Quinoa Corp.—McKinley, Cusack, and Gorad—thought it might take around five years to develop a breed of quinoa appropriate to the San Luis Valley. They thought they would be able to prepare the market with imports. The name was a sticking point—the Spanish name was "quinua" with a "u," but they went with the Chilean "quinoa" because it looked nicer.

They offered it to the public for the first time at a health food store in Boulder. People loved it, and it sold as well as they could hope.

They didn't know that the day after, David Cusack would be murdered at a ruin outside La Paz.



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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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