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Earlier this year, I attended a “Peruvian Farmers Dinner” at Andina, a popular Peruvian restaurant here in Portland, Oregon. There I met Stefan Bederski, a third-generation German-Peruvian farmer who grows specialty produce for Andina on his farm in Chincha, Peru. I left the dinner with two overriding impressions: intrigue about the close business and personal relationship that had grown between Bederski and the Platt family, who owns Andina, despite their far-flung geography; and a feeling of reverence for the inky purple ears of corn Bederski grows. I wanted to know the story behind how these exquisite agricultural products had traveled so far.
When Klaus Bederski sought the ideal place to start his farm in the 1960s, he visited multiple citrus plantations in Peru. He fell in love with the Topara Valley, located in the coastal desert of the Chincha Province, 200 kilometers south of Lima. At 400 to 600 meters above sea level, it was sunnier and devoid of the fog and chilly breezes of nearby areas. So in 1968, Bederski bought his property and founded Topara Farm.
“My father is a person with a great vision and understanding of agriculture, farming, water resources, climate conditions and nature in general,” Stefan Bederski told me. Farming in an area where he could only access river water three months of the year, the senior Bederski developed his own irrigation techniques, stored water in reservoirs and developed a liquid fertilizer made from rabbit droppings.
In 2000, Stefan saw the future, and it was organic. “Thanks to the organic growing of goods, we have a constant, secure, reliable and profitable market for all our goods,” Bederski explains. But organic farming in Peru means growing for the export market, since most organic products wind up in Europe and the U.S. “Here in Peru, there is still a very small organic market,” Bederski says. “People are not very aware of the benefits and conditions for certified organic products.“ Small, local farmers‘ markets are just starting to catch on with more affluent citizens in Lima.
Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, a restaurant named Andina opened. Romantic backstory: Doris Rodriguez de Platt grew up in the northern Andean city of Cajamarca. After completing her studies in pharmacy at the University of Trujillo in the mid-1960s, she returned to her hometown. There she met John Platt, a Peace Corps volunteer from Portland. They married in 1975 and moved to Oregon a few years later. Their son, Peter, founded Andina in 2003. His parents and two brothers later joined the business.
Peter Platt explained to me that Peruvian cooking requires the right mix of five types of aji peppers: amarillo, panca, mirasol, limo, and rocoto. During Andina’s first year of operation, Platt couldn’t find the perfect pepper combination. “We weren’t going to settle for the standard stuff on the market,” he said. “So I started calling up brokers who imported food from Peru.”
An importer in San Francisco connected Platt with Bederski. A few months later, Platt flew to Lima, and took a bus to Chincha. “Stefan’s farm is located 40 minutes away on a pretty bumpy mining road heading up into the foothills of the Andes,” Platt says. “He picked me up at the bus station in a jacked-up Volkswagen bug.”
On the farm, Platt learned that Bederski was involved with an initiative backed by the German government to basically rediscover the genome of hot peppers, the capsicum family. “He was growing lots of lost varieties of peppers that had previously grown indigenously in Peru but had been lost during the process of colonization.” Despite the fact that 80 percent of Bederski’s crop is pecans, “He’s a pepperhead,” says Platt approvingly. “He just loves ajis.”
Andina had found its supplier. “We did a handshake deal. You grow it, we’ll buy it.”
For the next two years, Topara Farm supplied Andina through standard freight. Then they devised a more efficient and cost-effective plan by working with the Seattle-based Culinary Collective. “Again, we did a handshake deal,” Platt said. “I’ll introduce you to Stefan and you can learn about the crazy world of Peruvian food. So in exchange, you’ll be our importer.”
The arrangement has been fantastic for Bederski, Andina and the Culinary Collective. Topara Farm now manufactures a jarred line of aji chili products under the label name Costa Peruana. Culinary Collective imports products that Bederski has helped them source, Platt said. Other products from Peru include chocolate, beans, kaniwa grain, and mesquite flour. “So basically what we’ve ended up doing is creating our own supply stream, which is a lot of fun,” Platt said. “And it gives us a real competitive advantage. But it’s also part of our social mission, which is to work with growers, do things the right way.”
Indeed, farmworkers in Peru benefit from the partnership. In addition to its organic certification, Topara Farm is fair trade certified. The 45 year-round employees receive benefits like social security, vacations and pensions. The farm offers employees access to a cafeteria, a health station staffed with doctors three days a week and ongoing training and workshops. “We have whole families working with us at the farm, creating a good and trustworthy work environment,” Bederski said. Some of his employees have worked there more than twenty years.
“Stefan is committed to a cooperative vision of farming, and to building capacity within the valley that he’s farming with his family,” Platt said, adding that many of Bederski’s former workers now have their own farms. “It’s a cooperative. They’ve diversified incredibly. “
Platt and Bederski like to brainstorm ways to help disenfranchised Peruvian farmers by improving the agricultural sector of Peru’s economy. “It’s what’s happened worldwide with coffee and chocolate,” Platt said. “There’s a growing market now worldwide for Peruvian cuisine. And you’ve got to have the right ingredients.”
For a dish from Andina using Bederski’s ajis, check out this recipe for Quinoa with Vegetables.