2014: Successful farming in Peru

A kaleidoscope of culture and climate leads to an incredible variety in agriculture
Vivienne Hay

Vivienne Hay

Peru is a country of diversity and contradiction. Although only one-tenth the size of the U.S., it contains all but four of the world’s 32 climate zones and spans a wide range of cultures, including urbanites in Lima, Quechua-speaking groups in the Andes, “uncontacted” communities in the Amazon rainforest and Spanish-speaking campesinos. This kaleidoscope of culture and climate leads to an incredible variety in agriculture.

Thanks in part to the Chase Coggins fellowship I had the opportunity to explore some of this rich diversity by spending two months volunteering on farms in Peru. My trip to Peru started with a visit to Machu Picchu to see its impressive and expansive agricultural terracing. Following that, I visited several family farms, both in the Andes and the Amazon, to learn about present-day small-scale agriculture. Finally, I visited the headquarters of an agriculture company that engages in large-scale production of avocado and citrus fruits for export.

In economic terms, the large-scale farm was the most successful of all of the farms I visited, since it had the scale and sophistication to access Peru’s booming food export market. Local people tend not to benefit from the export boom. The increase in exports has driven Peru’s food prices upwards. In addition, as agro-exporters purchase more land, fewer Peruvians have access to high- quality farmland. Therefore, many Peruvians can neither purchase nor produce the foods that they are accustomed to. While small-scale farmers often lose out economically, economic calculations also fail to capture how small-scale farmers think about agriculture.

Some of my most informative experiences were at a farm in the Amazon rainforest. The farm, called Winay Wayna, sat on 20 hectares of land. Since the 1980’s, the land had been used for slash-and-burn agriculture, which led to soil erosion, nutrient loss and a reduction in biodiversity. In the past 10 years the farmer, Maria, had allowed much of the forest to re-grow. Around one quarter of the land was selected for farming; the remaining three quarters were left for forest re-growth. However, in practice, it was difficult to separate the farm from the forest. As part of her focus on sustainability, Maria allowed other plants (what we would call weeds) to grow in crop fields, so long as they didn’t harm the crop plant. The goals of this were threefold. First, the other plants increased biodiversity. Second, they reduced the bare soil between crop plants, reducing soil erosion. Finally, it’s just a lot less work to run a farm if you don’t have to do so much weeding. Consequently, crops were interspersed with other native plants. Some of the crop fields were so integrated into nature that it too was hard to separate from the forest that surrounded it. In addition, the forest was used like a farm. We managed the crops that grew there, removing invasive or non-native species, and harvested food from it. Overall, the fields were encroached upon by the forest and the forest was managed as a source of food, blurring the division between cultivated and uncultivated land.

In addition, the lines between work and relaxation were blurred. As one of the more experienced volunteers at Winay Wayna explained, “formwork is so integrated into daily life that it’s hard to separate or explain it.” Eating, throwing out food scraps and even pooping all double as farm work, since snacking on tomatoes while working in the fields technically involved harvesting, throwing food scraps into the yard meant feeding the chickens and pooping produced fertilizer.

Since work on small-scale farms is so integrated with daily life, “work” is a nebulous concept. It’s futile to try to calculate return on labor. Furthermore, the amount of land that a small-scale farmer uses is difficult to define, since it may include both cultivated and relatively uncultivated areas. Given this, it’s difficult to calculate return on land. Therefore, these economic metrics fail to capture the functioning of the farm. Rather, many Peruvian farmers have a much more expansive view of what success looks like for their farm, a view that includes factors such as quality of life and environmental impact. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be able to travel to Peru and learn about these farmers’ views firsthand, and I am deeply grateful to the Chase Coggins fellowship for enabling the trip.

An update from Vivienne, 2019-06-12:

In summer 2014, immediately after I graduated, I headed to Peru for three months. The support Chase Coggins provided – both the financial support as well as going through the interview process and getting some feedback on my proposal – were invaluable in making sure the project was a success. The project reaffirmed my commitment to working in sustainable agriculture — so much so that throughout my first two years working at McKinsey, I was able to work almost exclusively on agricultural projects (despite being based in the New York office).
Two years later, I had the opportunity to take my work in a new international direction, as McKinsey solicited applications for project managers to help start a new office in Ethiopia. Again, my experience working internationally with Chase Coggins bolstered my confidence to make the leap. When I got there, I worked with the governments of East African countries to develop their food systems and promote food security in the region. On one project, we secured $100 million for forest conservation; on another, we distributed 100 million trees.
I’m now back in the U.S., and was awarded a Knight-Hennessy scholarship at Stanford, where I continue working to promote sustainability and equity in our food systems.
I am so grateful for the support from Chase Coggins, because the experience working in Peru gave me certainty that I wanted to pursue agriculture above all other paths, and the confidence to travel more abroad. Those two things combined have led to a rich set of experiences where I’ve been able to have some positive impact on the world.