The farmers of Alquimia remember well the day Dr. Sergio Demp arrived in the villages of southern Paraguay. He had come from Argentina to set up a rural clinic, and ended up as founder of an agricultural coop that would become a great modernizing force in the lives of the people.
His patients were poor, but paid him with what was dear to them — pure harvests of beans, chia and ancient grains — and this bounty soon filled many warehouses. And so Alquimia was born, a company that today is a partner to so many Paraguayan farmers, supplying seeds, marketing crops, advising in the fields, and lifting communities.
“For the delivery of a baby, sometimes the doctor would receive a little piglet, or several kilos of beans, even chicken eggs,” says Alquimia operations manager Pedro Linares with a smile. Two decades later, the strong bonds of love and respect at the heart of that doctor-patient relationship have matured into a prosperous network of organic farmers, most working small 10-hectare plots to feed their families and keep pace with the boundless dreams of their children.
In the village of Naranjito we met one such family proudly cultivating rows of chia, sesame and amaranth for Alquimia, and One Degree. Angel Cañete works the land with his 18-year-old son Idilio. On the day we arrived, Angel was ill, and had gone to a pharmacy run by the coop for medicine. As with the local Alquimia grocery store, farmers can buy needed items there on credit, paying later in the year when crops are harvested.
In Angel’s absence, Idilio was our gracious host. He told us that he had begun helping on the farm at a very young age. In fact, some of his earliest memories were of bringing tereré to his father in the fields. A traditional mix of brewed herbs that is served cold, the drink is loved by all Paraguayans and prepared in homes and roadside stands. A tereré jug might almost be called an essential farm implement in this land, as well as a prudent accessory for any traveler on a hot summer day. An offer to share tereré is an invitation to experience Paraguay’s culture of kindness — a chance to enjoy one’s friends, and to make new ones.
On the Cañete family farm, the work is hard and begins early. Idilio’s main task is to clear weeds with a machete. At noon, he’ll pause for a three-hour siesta, and return to the fields until the evening. After the day’s labor, he loves to play soccer with his friends. The future is never far from his thoughts. Speaking in his native Guaraní, the primary language of many farmers, he told us that he is hoping his father will loan him money he can use to buy his own land. His goal is to work hard to make his own farm a success, find a wife and start a family, becoming this community’s next well-respected family farmer.
Angel and Idilio value another aspect of the support the Alquimia coop provides: the technical expertise that has helped them perfect crop rotations and manage common agricultural challenges. Alquimia maintains a force of seven agricultural engineers who travel from farm to farm, teaching efficient growing methods, supplying seeds and arranging for loaner equipment during planting and harvests.
“We train the people to do organic production, but we also have to provide them with collateral services,” Pedro explained. “We give them tractors to use, special implements to move the land, hoes and harvesters. We provide those; they can’t afford that. When we see that a farmer is going to be ready for harvesting say on Monday, we’ll send that machine, and as soon as he is finished using it we pass it to his neighbor. We own four tractors for that purpose, and we have four motorized units farmers can use to clean the crops before they are sent to our plant for processing.”
“The father of the company would always tell us, if you want to help in Paraguay it’s not to give money, it’s to give work to the people,” added Alquimia commercial manager Tamara Pfeiffer, articulating the coop’s guiding philosophy. “If you give seeds and work to the people, the people in Paraguay love to garden and farm, and are so proud to grow crops that customers around the world want to buy.”
These days, the world is indeed lining up to buy the pure veganic harvests from a region that has been spared the plunder of global agribusinesses, and from farmers who still believe in the proven ways of their ancestors.
“Traditionally, Paraguay never used chemicals before; the farmers here are very concerned about the usage of chemicals,” farmer Diego Benitez told us as we toured his peanut fields near the town of Choré. “This is why we have always had a lifestyle of avoiding the use of chemicals — we were aware of the risks.”
In addition to his special variety of peanuts, known as runner peanuts, Diego also grows in nearby Jejui a unique type of sesame plant that we found arrayed across his fields in towering white stalks.
“Here in Paraguay sesame farming has a big impact,” he remarked. “It supports families that have no work and are not dependent on the government.” Like all the farmers we met, Diego saves unused parts of the plants to enrich the soil for the next season. Together with crop rotations, these leftover portions are key to keeping the soil healthy and fertile.
Diego especially liked One Degree’s emphasis on transparency, and the fact that we had traveled thousands of miles to learn about the real people behind the ingredients we purchase. “It is important for consumers to see how we work, from planting to harvest,” he said. “And farmers should be proud to tell the story of their crops.”
From our many travels, we’ve learned to be prepared to be inspired, deeply touched and even entertained by the stories of farmers. During our time in Paraguay, perhaps our most entertaining host was farmer Luis Anibal Vera, a musician and part-time radio DJ who loves to share his expansive hospitality and winning sense of humor. When we arrived at his farm, Anibal was preparing to leave for his radio show in Naranjito, and three of his children, dressed in their neatly pressed uniforms, were heading out for the motorcycle ride to school. He was very proud that, through his hard work, his children have educational opportunities that he was never able to experience.
Education is a core value for families in this community. Although there is a shortage of qualified teachers here, the school improvises by opening for elementary grades in the morning and higher grades in the afternoon. Everyone sacrifices; everyone pulls together to make it work.
With the kids on their way to morning classes, Anibal fetched his trumpet and began playing Paraguayan folk melodies for us. It’s the type of music he enjoys playing with friends in a group they call the Young Naranjito Band, and also during his morning show on the local FM station, Radio Naranjito.
Out in the field, Anibal showed us rows of chia, sesame and black beans. Quinoa would take root later in the season. “For quinoa, we start the cultivation cycle in September,” he noted. “We plant the quinoa after the harvest of the chia. This is our crop rotation. After we plant the chia, which has a five-month growing season, we start planting sesame, and we will also plant black beans. The beans are used in the rotation to renew the soil; it helps the soil to recover. Some of our harvest of beans we consume ourselves, and another portion we sell to Alquimia.”
Across town, we met another farmer with an extraordinary variety of beans in the field and on the menu. Our visit to Derlis Chamorro’s farm was a tranquil moment in time, the perfect break in our high-tempo itinerary. With a cool breeze blowing, we gathered in the shade of two large trees to hear his story of adventure of rediscovery. As we talked, a group of neighborhood children played with the handful of puppies and baby chicks that sprinted and stumbled about the bright teal farmhouse.
As a younger man, Derlis had left home to work in Argentina on construction projects. After life in rural Paraguay, the big city seemed like a stressful, unforgiving place. Immigration paperwork was a constant worry, and the sinking Argentine peso left him with little to send to his family. Chastened and wiser, he returned home 12 years ago, and soon received his father’s farm as an inheritance.
Derlis grows teff, chia, sesame, corn and peanuts. He especially likes teff because it doesn’t need constant attention. He also enjoys experimenting with beans, and showed us a handful of small red beans unlike anything we had ever seen. Popularly used in salads, the treasured beans are largely unknown beyond the region. We were so intrigued that we began wondering if this might be the next storied One Degree ingredient.
As we left this peaceful place, we thought about how the work of one man, a doctor from Argentina, had over time changed so much and reached so far, like concentric ripples in a pond. The doctor had come to mend fractures and deliver babies, and became rich in grain, piglets, friends and purpose. He must have soon realized that he had arrived in exactly the right place, among people who already knew the most essential lesson of farming. For as Diego Benitez told us in Choré: “Here in Paraguay, to respect nature is in the blood. It’s something we do naturally. It is our life; this is why it deserves respect.”
— Charlie Dodge