Of all the countries in the world, Peru is one of the most interesting in agricultural history. The diversity of plants and climates from rainforests to snowy mountains to hot deserts are all in a place about 1/8 the size of the United States. The origins of many important food crops such as potato, sweet potato, and certain peppers are here. Researchers in Peru and around the world are aware of the great importance of this region and many are devoting their life’s work to improving agriculture for the country’s people.
I wanted to learn more about this curious place of so much diversity. The potato, for example: many thousands of varieties grow only in Peru – nowhere else. I wanted to learn about the research, the farmers, and the farms that are thriving in a country that isn’t highly developed, but seems to have a lot of potential. A fellow graduate student from Peru who is working on plant breeding in the U.S. connected me with some people he thought I should visit and I set out not knowing what to expect. Arriving in early May, I first stopped in the Cuzco region, the south central part of Peru. I traveled to the Urubamba valley area where I spent several days in the towns of Urubamba and Pisaq. This area is about 9,000 – 12,000+ foot elevation and has cool temperatures even in the summer. Somewhat near to the famous Inca ruins called Machu Pichu, this valley is a productive agriculture area. The most important crops here are potatoes, barley, corn, and quinoa.
There is also a great diversity of vegetables grown here supplying the local population. The small farm field plots are 5 – 10 acres in size with decreasing field sizes with elevation into the surrounding mountains. Some tractors are used but they are few in number and mainly in the lower valley area. Various types of cows, pigs, and chickens are abundant as well.
During the time I was there was the peak of the corn harvest. The corn grown here is different from anything I have seen elsewhere. The most popular type of corn has giant white kernels almost 1 inch across. It is harvested both as “sweet corn” and as mature dried corn. The “sweet corn” ears are called choclo and are boiled fresh and eaten on the cob. There are also other colors and types of corn that are grown for the dried kernels. Different types of corn are grown at different elevations with the highest elevations having the greatest diversity of different corn types.
The local farm markets which occur in greatest extent on Sunday mornings in the Urubamba valley are an amazing site of diversity of fruits, vegetables, fresh meat, cheeses, and many other products. Thirty different varieties of potatoes were being sold. A person can buy both local produce and that which is brought in from other parts of Peru, such as bananas and avocados. Others come to the markets and set up tents to prepare cooked food for people to eat during the market times.
From Cuzco, I traveled to Lima to visit the International Potato Center also known as CIP. CIP is the largest potato research organization in the world. CIP’s goals are to serve as a germplasm bank for Andean roots and tubers for researchers around the world and work on research to improve farm production in Peru. At CIP I was shown many types of roots that can be eaten that I have never seen before. Of course, the greatest efforts there are the scientists working on potato research for the country. I visited the entomology lab and the processing lab. At the entomology lab, a researcher discussed various methods being discovered to reduce the damage of different types of insects. Their goals are to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals that are being sprayed on the potato fields. Since potatoes are the chief income crop, farmers tend use insecticide in an attempt to achieve maximum yield. The processing lab cooks potatoes and makes chips to analyze various quality characteristics of the varieties being developed. They also complete taste tests by a group of judges that rank various aspects of flavor on a scale of 1 – 5.
Next, I took a bus up the Peruvian coast to the agricultural town of Casma. The area around Casma provides a large quantity of produce for export. These farms are much larger than in the Andes and are mechanized with many laborers who work for the farm owners. I was greeted here by an avocado grower who grows the fruit for export to several countries in Europe. This area is an irrigated desert, but the soils are very fertile and many crops, especially avocadoes, grow well here. Much asparagus is also grown here as well as papaya, watermelon, sugar cane, and corn. A principle source of fertilizer for these farms is guano, which is bat manure that is harvested from caves.
My final stop was as the Agriculture University of La Molina which is near Lima. The climate here reminded me of the Southern California coast: dry air and low rainfall. The university is quite extensive in size and I did not have time to explore everything. Professors here are engaged is many aspects of research on many different Peruvian crops and students are busy studying to be the future’s best agriculturalists. I met with professors working with legumes and potatoes. Dr. Camarena introduced me to his work with legumes. One of the most interesting legumes is a type of bean called a pop bean that is said to grow only in Peru. When heated, the beans pop open similar to popcorn. I also learned about Andean lupins called Chocho that grow in the mountain area. Dr. Egusquiza discussed the challenges and ongoing research with potatoes that he is involved in and gave me a copy of his book, “Papa en el Peru”
Next I visited “el huerto”. This is the part of La Molina University where many gardens are tended by the students. I was amazed to find out that everything grown in these gardens is organic. On the day that I arrived, the school was having farmers’ market day and the locals were busy purchasing vegetables and herbs that had just been harvested by the students. I was greeting by several students who showed me the farm. First, we visited the university pepper research plots. Researchers gathered over 300 pepper varieties, both hot and sweet, from local gardens around Peru to grow and evaluate them. Next, I learned about the tomato research that the graduate students are working on. Experimentation is being done with several varieties of tomatoes both inside hoop houses and outside using different production methods. In contrast to the abundance of local pepper varieties, most tomato varieties grown in Peru come from the U.S. I was also surprised to find that the university is having success growing apples here. They do this by spraying a chemical called Dormex on the trees that replaces the required chill hours needed for flowering.
My visit to Peru was an experience I will never forget. The helpfulness and kindness of the people were much beyond what I have experienced anywhere else. The investment being made to make real improvements in agriculture rather than looking for short-term chemical solutions was especially exciting. The food production in the Urubamba valley really shows how fragile much of the world must be, depending on imported food. The amount of underutilized plants in the country shows that there is still a frontier of science that has yet to be discovered.