Quinoa, once a staple of the Incas, is now increasingly popular in the U.S. It's high in protein and iron, and much of it comes from the windswept, high-altitude plains of Bolivia, known as the altiplano.
The Bolivian altiplano doesn't look like good farmland. It doesn't even look fertile. Everything is covered in bleached-out scrub and rocks. Llamas graze on the barren landscape amid occasional whirls of dust.
But this seemingly hostile environment has ideal conditions for quinoa: It's about 2 miles above sea level, sandy and arid. The nearby Uyuni salt flat provides the right minerals, and dung from herds of grazing llamas and sheep means good fertilizer.
Farmer Ernesto Choquetopa admires the soil. He says quinoa's recent popularity is changing the lives of farmers.
"Before people didn't go to study," he says. "They were born, they grew up, and that was it. They went on to herd sheep and llamas. Nothing more.
"Now people here, we think about doing something with our lives."
Thanks to his earnings from quinoa, Choquetopa's oldest daughter is now in medical school.
The dark-green quinoa plants have cone-shaped flowers, filled with the edible seeds, and look like a cross between broccoli and lupines. Once ready for harvest, they'll turn gold, deep red, even purple.
Choquetopa is part of an association of organic farmers. His harvest will go to their processing plant where it is cleaned, rinsed, packaged and bought by exporters like Fabricio Nunez, general manager of Andean Organics, which sources quinoa to stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.
"Once we promoted it and the product was on the shelves, it started flying off," Nunez said. "People are still looking for quinoa and we're not able to supply as fast as they want it."
But for all the health benefits, and the way sales support small farmers, popularity abroad is pushing up prices and gradually making it harder for Bolivians to buy.
Nunez says a few years ago, 16 ounces of Andean Organics quinoa retailed for $2 at Trader Joe's. It's now $4. And if prices keep climbing, quinoa could stop showing up in traditional soups and porridges in Bolivia.
But on the street corners of downtown La Paz, quinoa remains a popular breakfast: The delicate, curly seeds are served with hot milk and sugar, as a thick drink. At about 30 cents for an 8-ounce cup, it's still cheap even by Bolivian standards.
The Bolivian government is backing quinoa, supporting loans to small farmers and promoting internal consumption by giving rations to pregnant women and young children.
Dr. Margarita Flores, who works for Bolivia's Ministry of Health and oversees the program, says that a drop in production would worry the government because Bolivia has obligations at home and abroad to produce quinoa, and because it's part of the country's strategy to fight malnutrition.
The challenge is striking a balance. In spite of growing prosperity, many quinoa farmers are concerned about the environment. In fact, in Choquetapo's community, people who use chemical fertilizers or uproot native grasses around quinoa fields are fined, or even punished.
"We want to keep the production sustainable," Choquetapo says. "We don't want to exploit every bit of it. This piece of earth has to support our kids and grandchildren, too." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.