We excitedly received a few packaged products from Essential Living Foods, anxious to try them out on our American palates. These were powdered forms of what is referred to as "Lost Crops of Incas"--a purple corn extract, Aji Amarillo Powder, and Camu Camu. We especially enjoyed spicy hot Aji Amarillo powder. With its lightly sour, warming taste, it has been fabulous on brown rice, and eggs. The Camu Camu is also slightly sour, but also slightly sweet, and seems to give bring out an entirely new taste dimension to whatever we put it on, from leafy greens to cantaloupe.
Reflecting on this, I became acutely aware of how limited my taste experience has been, and how certain tastes I grew up with represent smallest fraction of outrageously vast diversity I've missed out on in my life. I saw my diet as a puny product of modern American monoculture, where vast fields of a select micro-world of hybridized foods are mass produced by huge mega-corporate growers for all wrong reasons: shelf life, color, consistency, and packagability. This is truly a sad state of affairs in a modern global world--corporate giants carving out their niches and then exploiting them to max for maximum profitability. It made me wince.
I gained an entirely new level of respect for Christopher Daugherty, founder and purveyor of Essential Living Foods. Far beyond idea of commandeering new food crops for marketing to a modern palate aching for more diversity, Daugherty has incorporated concepts of organic farming, permaculture and conscious consumerism into his mission, not only to provide great new tastes and nutritional options, but to enhance lives of thousands of indigenous native farmers, elevating their farming practices, and re-establishing a profitable agro-culture that recruits new members away from urban areas and back to land. After all, it was huge agricultural conglomerates who squeezed out small farmers in first place, who were then forced to seek new careers in city. This not only happened in America, but across globe. Agronomy theories and practices taught in universities funded by agricultural corporations were turning out a new breed of farmer now armed with unnatural technologies within a paradigm of Nature as Enemy. Yes, it's not natural to plant 1,000 solid acres of corn. Nature tends to attack such a battle plan for profits.
The lost crops... Ironically, Daugherty's mentor was trained in those universities in late 50's and early 60's along with several would be farmers from South America. As they headed back to their respective villages to apply their new found technological theories for profitable farming, Daugherty's mentor decided to become an airline pilot. Yet, he stayed in touch with his fellow agronomists and invested in their operations. He further developed a passion for work of Hugh Popenoe and National Research Council, who published a book in 1989, Lost Crops of Incas: Little-Known Plants of Andes With Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. This passion and vision was passed on to his alumni, and to a young Daugherty, who became a certified organic farmer in Florida. "I met him, and we just stayed very close friends," says Daugherty. "His family was into farming in South Florida and he used to teach me a lot about plant names and species, and plant culture--just fundamentals about how important our ecosystems are; not getting too overwhelmed with saving earth, but just doing what you can locally to provide a global response."
Far from adhering to 60's-style agronomy--which would tend to re-locate these Lost Crops to a California monoculture test farm for hybridization--Daugherty was offered opportunity by his mentor to oversee application of organic farming methods to these crops, and doing it in their indigenous setting. After all, that's where crops came from, so why not simply grow them there? Plus, his mentor's Peruvian alumni had already provided a foothold for organic farming in Peru. "He offered me a deal a couple of years ago to sell product for these individuals. It was first year that they became certified organic. So I, luckily, sold everything there, and have created a very tightly-bound organization--responsibility and response--and trying to do a lot of problem solving."
Social impact... Inspired by great potential for positive social impact on a near-third world area, Daugherty and his team plowed into multitude of logistical problems. It became clear it was truly possible to not only bring these organic crops to market, but provide indigenous people with a profitable new career opportunity. These people's ancestors thrived on these crops hundreds and thousands of years ago without chemical technology--there was a connection with land in these people that could only potentize results. It was an opportunity to literally get back to their roots. "We deal with impact we are having both on economy and social aspects, and impact we're having on society as we are growing these products, and what we can divert and intervene into our processes, so that we can really have a solid project," Daugherty says.
"These foods are ones we are slowly working on to develop to see what ones have commercial value," says Daugherty. "A lot of them are new flavors. For those that can't be consumed directly, we look into energetic qualities, also nutritional value of them. We're just trying to create a story and folklore around traditional uses, and Incan staple value--where in map of Incas did they actually consume this crop, and how much of it they were growing, and why they grew it, and if there were any fasting or dieting regimes on it."
Daugherty stressed importance of taking time to sustainably bring these crops to a worldwide market. "We're just being very careful how we open door and let people know about them, because it just seems to create havoc every time we bring a new product out. Everybody's looking for it trying to get it. But what's happening is that they are also de-valuing quality by over-producing, and people trying to compete with a lesser value product. All in all, we're just taking it one step at a time until we feel we've succeeded with each product, and then move on to next."
Daugherty's mentor was enchanted with Peruvian culture. "He had a true passion for all Quechua products and Quechua crops, and Aymara. Those are two main native languages where we're working. Most of people on our farms speak those languages. He became clearly passionate about what it was that they had to offer and their work ethic--the true heart of these people."
Making it all work... Although Daugherty has run up against a maņana-maņana initial response with locals, once they commit to working, they throw themselves into it. "We have a little more structured system where our head people in business are all German-based and have agronomy backgrounds. So we have a very intent pushing system. It's very clear we're focused on heart with a very clear business strategy," says Daugherty.