Hands hold a cluster of maca bulbs.
MCC Photo by Nina Linton

An indigenous crop in the Andes, maca grows well at high altitudes, and sells for much more than the traditional crop of potatoes.

From Cochabamba, Bolivia, the gravel roads leading up into the Andes are a maze of sharp switchbacks, steep uphill stretches and drop-offs punctuated by cattle, llamas and herds of sheep.

On mountain slopes, below the snowcapped peaks, lie farmers’ fields — plots on an incline so steep it’s difficult to imagine planting, weeding and harvesting, especially when an altitude of more than 4,000 metres can make walking a challenge for the unacclimated.

For generations, though, farmers have relied on what they can dig out of these fields to sustain their families.

Traditionally, that’s meant potatoes — in a variety of colours and sizes unseen in Canada and the U.S., some white with pink and purple splotches, others long and thin like carrots.

Large trucks bring the crop down from the mountains, driving slowly and clinging to the tight corners. Farmers pile in with their crops, perched in the open backs atop heaps of potatoes.

Unfortunately, farmers say, when those potatoes get to market, they aren’t worth enough for producers to support their families.

To get some money in your pocket, that you can have access to education, health . . . that’s food security for us.”

“You need money for food and for your clothes and for education,” says German Perez Saènz, a father of five. “With only potatoes we don’t have enough.”

But a new crop could mean more money for his family.

With support from MCC, the social development organization of the Bolivian Baptist church (Organización Bautista de Desarrollo Social or OBADES) is training farmers to grow maca, a crop which can currently sell for four times more than potatoes.

Maca is a root crop that is native to the region and, unlike potatoes, can withstand frosts at the high altitudes in the Andes. Once harvested, the maca root is dried and often ground into powder or flour. It may be used locally but is often exported to Canada and the U.S., where maca is sold as a nutritional supplement.

Sofia and German Pere smile as they spread out a pile of maca in the sun.  Farmer German Perez Saènz, with sister Sofia Perez, rotates his maca crop as it dries.

In Totorani, where Perez lives, OBADES supports 30 families in growing maca. It provides training and startup seeds there and also to farmers in 14 other communities in the Tunari mountain range.

But convincing farmers to begin growing maca hasn’t always been easy. While potatoes don’t make large profits, they are a familiar crop in the area and popular across the country.

So, in addition to seeds and training, OBADES works to make it easier for farmers to sell maca, helping to set up producers associations and facilitate contracts with buyers who will process the maca to sell or export.

Before, individual farmers would travel down the mountains to market with their potatoes, paying for transportation and losing a day of work at home. Through the associations, each farmer’s maca is weighed ahead of time, then one person takes the product from the whole group to market. Profits are shared based on how much each farmer contributed.

Eventually, OBADES agronomist Edgar Chuquimia hopes the project will lead to creating maca processing facility in the mountains.

All these pieces work together, helping farmers earn more than just enough to get by.

“Our concept of food security is not only to produce something to eat,” Chuquimia says, but also that they can be profitable. To get some money in your pocket, that you can have access to education, health and access to the market, that’s food security for us.”

Emily Loewen is a writer for MCC Canada. Nina Linton is a photographer in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Make a difference