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Seed Week 2019 – Klaus Laitenberger

I was selected as one of the Irish Nuffield Farming Scholars in 2018.  My travels took me through many countries travelling with a group of International Scholars through the Netherlands, Italy, Washington DC, Texas, British Columbia, Argentina and Chile.  Then on my own I continued the journey to Peru, Bolivia and New Zealand to pursue my own study topic – The Lost Crops of the Incas.

For many years I had this passion for growing all these unusual and most adaptable crops from South America which for some bizarre reason were never taken by the Spanish invaders for world-wide cultivation.  Only the potato, sweet potato and maize have spread throughout the world.  In recent years, other crops from the Incas – quinoa and amaranth –are quickly gaining popularity.  However, most of the other incredible crops have drifted into obscurity.  On my travels through Chile and Argentina these native crops had completely disappeared and people have adopted a complete western diet.  Only in the remote highlands of Peru and Bolivia do these amazing crops still exist.

Apart from the potato, the Incas had 10 different edible tubers and very importantly – each one belonged to a different plant family. Each type also had hundreds of local varieties.  So if one type gets destroyed by pests, diseases or unfavourable environmental conditions, the remaining ones could be okay.

This is quite an amazing survival strategy, especially when compared to Ireland where in 1845 the main source of vegetable was the potato and with predominantly only one variety (Lumper) grown.  This was the first large-scale experiment with monoculture with disastrous consequences when a quarter of the population died from starvation or emigrated.

Apart from the different tuber crops, the Incas also developed many grain varieties.  Quinoa and amaranth (locally called kiwicha) are already well known in the western world and used as a gluten free and health promoting alternative to mass produced wheat.  Quinoa is already grown at field scale in Europe.  Kaniwa is the third grain and only known in the highlands of Peru.  There are also a number of amazing legumes.  My favourites were the Nuna popping beans and tarwi – an edible lupin.

In Ireland I have grown the following crops successfully and I believe they have great potential for cultivation elsewhere even if it is just for the preservation of a crop.

Yacon, Mashua (tuberous nasturtium), Oca, Ulluco, Tarwi (edible lupin), Pepino, Quinoa, Amaranth, Achocha and there are many others.

The Andes and the Incas

The Andes mountains are one of the tallest and most inhospitable areas in the world but yet the ancient Incas not only managed to survive in this unfriendly climate, but even managed to tame the landscape and to breed some of the most important food crops.

From 1483 until 1533, the Inca Empire comprised most of western South America.  Large parts of Ecuador, Bolivia, northwest Argentina, Chile and a small part of modern Colombia made up this vast Empire.  The Inca language was Quechuan.  The Quechuan’s still live in the highlands of Peru and still follow the same traditions as long ago.  It’s interesting that the Incas only made up a very small percentage of their population.  There were only about 15,000 to 40,000 Incas who ruled a population of around 10 million people.

In 1533, the entire empire was destroyed by a small group of Spaniards under the lead of a swineherd’s son – Pizarro.

  1. The Incas as plant breeders – Moray

While conquering other tribes – mainly quite peacefully – they also took all their food crops.  The potato and all the other crops were already eaten thousands of years before the Incas established their kingdom, but the Incas were amazing plant breeders who developed the potato and other crops even further. I visited the Moray terraces near Cusco and the theory is that this was one of their main plant breeding stations of the empire.

The Incas were aware that only a healthy, sustainable agricultural system is the guarantee for a society’s stability.

The Moray terraces are perfectly round – each terrace about 2m tall spanning a height difference of about 300m.  As the Incas brought more and more food plants back from their conquests to Peru they trialled them in Moray and grew them at different altitudes. In the centre of Moray there is still the foundation of the Head Gardeners house.   This moving of crops throughout the continent is what makes South American crops so much more adaptable even to this day.

The Incas were either lucky or possibly even knew that these crops from different regions cross-pollinated. The big jump in potato development came when many different species of potatoes were grown close together and cross-pollination occurred naturally.  Their seeds (true seeds) may have fallen on the ground and germinated and produced lots of new cultivars.  The better or most suitable ones were selected and grown again.

  1. Incas as agricultural and engineering specialists

  1. - Structures

The Incas managed to tame the wild landscape of the Andes and not just to survive on but to build one of the wealthiest empires in the world.

They created all these amazing structures without the use of wheeled vehicles or even animals to ride on or to pull carts or ploughs. They were equally unaware of steel or iron. There was also no system of writing, except an accountancy system called Quipu using knotted strings to keep detailed accounts of harvests.

Without all the above, the Incas managed to create the most monumental architecture such as Machu Pichu and many other incredible buildings as well as the most extensive network of roads that connected all parts of the empire.  This was no easy feat in such a mountainous region.

They also managed to build terraces into the mountains, partly to prevent erosion in an earthquake prone region and more importantly to produce food.  These terraces were specially designed and cleverly crafted.

At the height of the Incan Empire there were one million hectares of terraces constructed in Peru for food production for the Empire. Only a very small percentage of these terraces are still in use which I thought was such a pity.

Inca engineers also designed cisterns and the most extensive irrigation systems that wound their way down the mountains.

  1. Soil Fertility

The Incas knew about the importance of giving something back to the soil.  Pachamama –Mother Earth – is the giver of life and abundance, and the Incas realised the need of giving something back to her.

The Incas learned how to manage the soil using ridges and furrows or raised beds (waru waru) which included both irrigation and drainage; they also installed ‘Quochas’ or depressions on the land which collect rainwater.

Picture of Waru Waru:

The Incas were also fully aware about the need to restore soil fertility by using Guano fertiliser from the islands, dried llama manure and fish heads.  One of the possible reasons for the decline of Machu Pichu is that the last Inca civilisation no longer had access to Guano fertilisers.  Machu Pichu was possibly the last refuge of the Incas as they fled the Spanish invaders and was located in the middle of the forest with no access to the outside world.

Crop rotations and mixed cropping

A potato crop would have been followed with less demanding tubers such as oca or ulluco.  In some areas where land was not limited, the whole communal vegetable field would rotate around the mountain.  Often the land is prepared by alpacas in the previous year where lots of animals are enclosed in a coral.  They trample and plough the ground as well as fertilising it.

Different crops are grown in one field, however, they are not grown in patches or rows – they are intercropped.  Each family would have at least 20 different potato varieties which are grown all over the field and only sorted after harvesting.  In between there are odd tubers such as oca, mashua and ulluco grown.  Apparently mashua has insecticidal properties and oca is believed to reduce potato eelworm infestations.

  1. Storage of food

The ancient Incas had developed incredible methods for preserving and storing food.  Freeze-dried potatoes (chunos) and other tubers were kept in storehouses ‘qollqa’ – these still exist in the mountain areas of the Andes. These were one roomed circular stone buildings generally built on hillside to make use of the cold air.  The floor included a drainage channel, a gravel floor and ventilation in the floor and roof.   The stored food was closely monitored by Inca officials who used the ‘quipu’ which was a recording instrument made of strings and knots.

Freeze-drying potatoes (chunos) is quite a laborious process, but still it enabled people to have food reserves during lean times of the year and also if there was a crop failure or some environmental disaster.  The local Quechuans still use this technique today.

Potatoes are harvested in late autumn and left out in the frost for 3 days, then they are placed in a running stream for a week.  After that the potato tubers were walked/stamped on to squeeze out the liquids.  After this they are dried indoors.  They end up as dry rubbery potatoes that will keep for a number of year.  They are then ground up and used for cooking in soups or stews.


One of the most interesting discoveries I made in Peru was the ‘chakitaklla’ – which is nearly identical to the Irish loy.  They call it the foot plough and it’s used in the same way as the Irish loy – to flop over sods of grass to grow potatoes.  The system of growing potatoes in the Andes was identical to that in Ireland in the 18th century.  There was even a similar feel to the landscape as it is in Connemara. There is a another amazing tool for earthing up the potatoes but unfortunately I didn’t get the local name.

chakitaklla, loy and ridger

  1. Inca Agriculture and Religion

I spent a wonderful day at Kusi Kawsay organic farm in Pisac.  It’s a training centre for young Quechuans in bio-dynamic gardening.  I was meant to teach them some organic techniques but learned far more from them and more importantly I got some inspiration back.  I really felt their close connection with the land and the plants as well as to the larger being – Pachamama – Mother Earth.  They explained that she is all giving and how important it is to give something back to her.  Every month there is a festival and it’s always based around the earth, the mountain and the sun.  In September they have the festival of blessing the seeds.  The whole community gathers and the elders come down from the mountains, all seeds that are to be sown this season are spread on blanket and the elders chant and spit home-made chichi beer over the seeds.  Then the whole community walks to the field where the crops are to be grown and chant.

The youngsters – only in their late teens – where quite amazing.  I asked them if gardening makes them happy and Juan said ‘Of course – when I’m in the garden and touch the soil, I share my problems with Mother Earth’.  They also have a project of playing music to plants to see what effects it has on them.  One of them plays the harp in the garden first thing in the morning – for the plants – just like the elders did in the past.  It’s wonderful to see a community reviving old traditions, rather than trying to copy our destructive methods.

By Klaus Laitenberger

Many thanks to Klaus for sharing his Nuffield Scholarship research tour to discover these lost crops, and ancient sustainable practices – which maintain inspirational potential potential for Ireland and the UK. Klaus is a respected horticulturalist, an organic inspector, and author of three gardening books for outdoor & protected crops based on decades of  experience in the Irish climate. He also curates a collection of selected seeds for sale through – where you can also sign up for a very informative monthly gardening newsletter. Also Tweets @KLaitenberger

– Wayne Frankham, Regional Seed Sovereignty Coordinator at Irish Seed Savers Assoc.


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