Opening the Earth

Peruvian farmers and USD alumnus Eric Ebner


It’s a very long way from the small town of Marshall, Michigan, to the breathtaking stark isolation of the Peruvian Andes. Marshall is where Eric Ebner ’11 (BA) has his roots, raised by an attorney mother who worked for the county representing abused and neglected children, and a physician father who took each of the Ebner boys on a mission trip for his 16th birthday.

Eric’s was to Peru, which seems to have captured his heart. “It was kind of a coming-of-age trip in our family,” he remembers. “It influenced me to love the culture.”

That mission trip left such an impression that he went on to major in Spanish at USD, with a minor in visual arts. Last spring, he quit his job at a medical device company and teamed up with his brother, Aaron, who co-founded the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development and has been living in Peru since 2009.

Filmmaker Eric Ebner '11.

Filmmaker Eric Ebner ’11.

They raised $10,000 through a Kickstarter campaign and produced a stunning documentary film about a legendary potato farmer, a tiny indigenous enclave nestled high on a mountainside amid the clouds, and a precious way of life that could soon be lost. Via sweeping vistas of the snow-capped Andes and visuals so rich you can almost feel the texture of soil sliding through your fingers, Opening the Earth introduces us to Don Julio Hancco Mamani of Pampacorral, a weathered man with a mouthful of silver, revered in his community as the Potato King.

“To be honest, I don’t even know if he knows how old he is,” Ebner says. “He can’t read or write. He can barely speak Spanish.” Julio and his neighbors speak Quechua, an ancient dialect used by the Incas for thousands of years. They live in adobe huts they built themselves, with no electricity. Don Julio’s water supply flows down the mountain and into his house through a makeshift piping system. His wife Rosa weaves the colorful traditional clothing his family wears, and they subsist mainly on a diet of potatoes, chicken, lamb and guinea pigs. Their way of life is ancient and the mountain climate is punishing.

“It’s just very harsh in every sense of the word. The wind is strong, the rain is strong, it’s really cold or it’s really hot. They get frost every night and when the sun comes out it burns your skin. But they know nothing else and it doesn’t seem to bother them,” Ebner says. “They wake up with the sunrise, they go to bed with the sunset. They capture the heat in their mud brick homes. It’s all just incredibly bare-bones. But they’re able to sustain their lives given what’s around them, and they don’t want for anything.

Julio didn’t set out to become a world-renowned potato farmer, but his almost magical knack for evaluating soil and developing successful new species at various altitudes made him famous among mountain communities. Over time, he sextupled the 60 varieties of potato that his father had left him to more than 360. Word of his agricultural aptitude reached Moises Quispe Quispe, who had also grown up in the mountains, but had gone on to earn a PhD and head a non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting and developing indigenous farming communities in the Andes.

“You can have endless degrees, but if you don’t know the land, you don’t know its environment,” he says in the film.

With Quispe Quispe’s help and encouragement, Julio began traveling to city markets and entering his eye-catching produce in local contests. He always placed first.

Andean potato farmer“I developed much motivation to make something out of this ambition,” he says.

Meanwhile, most of his six children left the mountains, the farm and the traditional way of life, more interested in earning money and finding material success than in safeguarding their legacy. Only one son — Hernan — sought to perpetuate it; not by farming, but by making potato chips.

For three years, he scraped by in a two-room apartment in Peru’s capital city, Lima, sleeping on one side of the wall and slicing and frying potatoes on the other. Hernan’s lucky break arrived when Quispe Quispe invited Julio to participate in a slow food festival in Italy. He wasn’t allowed to import raw potatoes, so he brought his son’s richly colored thick-cut chips instead. They sold out in two hours, and Julio took home 2,000 euros. That’s when he began to truly appreciate the monetary value of his produce, Quispe Quispe says. And Hernan’s potato chip business took off.

“Our community of Pampacorral is very proud of my son. He is an entrepreneur,” Julio says with obvious satisfaction. “He has shown there is a market for farmers beyond just selling at local markets. The trade can be modernized.”

Finding a modern outlet for an ancient way of life might well be the key to sustaining it. But why we should worry about sustaining someone else’s tradition is a profound question that Ebner’s film, with its soaring beauty and evocative imagery, endeavors to at least try to answer. For one thing, he argues, Julio’s varieties could potentially save the planet from another catastro-phic potato famine.

“He grows more varieties of potatoes than the U.S., China and the U.K. combined. He is essentially crossbreeding species that most people have never seen in their lives,” Ebner says. “The top five varieties of potatoes in the U.S. account for 73 percent of all our products. Pests and plagues can easily affect that. Essentially, he’s providing a security blanket by diversifying our bets against ourselves and against Mother Nature.”

In truth, there’s an idea that’s even bigger here, something that surprised both Ebner brothers as they got to know Peru’s indigenous farming communities more intimately. It has to do with our society’s narrow definitions of poverty and happiness, and whether a genuine desire to help may actually be misguided.

“We want to look at poverty differently,” Eric says. “What if it wasn’t defined by a dollar a day or two dollars a day, but by how sustainable someone is? Maybe instead of trying to help these people with our own philosophy and our own way of thinking, we could learn from them. Maybe in fact they are filthy rich and we are thinking about it wrong.”

Peruvian women in the AndesThe film makes that point quite effectively, says Kevin Guerrieri, associate professor of Latin American literature and Eric’s former teacher. “Instead of viewing this community as poor simply because they don’t have financial or economic resources, it discards that approach and looks at the group’s strengths and the resilience,” he says. “Rather than seeking to link these communities with others that have financial resources and looking for a technical fix, it’s really about listening, learning, and trying to understand other peoples and other knowledge systems.”

Guerrieri admits that he’s always excited to see former students go out and do projects of this nature, particularly when they collaborate in a respectful and mutually beneficial way. “As teachers, we never know how much impact one class may or may not have on a particular student’s future, but it’s always great to see what our students do when they go out in the world.”

Listening to others and learning from them was what Eric seemed to do naturally as a student, says Andy Cross, a lecturer in the Visual Arts department who taught Ebner photography and new media and has kept in touch with him since. He remembers Eric as an old soul, sincere and genuinely interested in what his classmates had to say.

“He’s always wanted to have some sort of influence or shed light on difficulty,” Cross says. “He doesn’t force change on people; I think this medium of film is a way of getting people to absorb ideas visually without being dogmatic.”

And if that’s what his work actually achieves, then Ebner will have fulfilled at least two of his early goals as an undergraduate at USD. “I knew I wanted to be fluent in Spanish,” he says. “And at one point, when I was studying abroad in Buenos Aires, I realized that the only thing that really mattered in the long term was being able to create something of value, help others, and express myself at the same time.”

Today, Julio Hancco Mamani’s gorgeous potatoes are sought after by some of Peru’s most celebrated chefs. Virgilio
Martinez Veliz, co-owner of the internationally renowned Central Restaurante in Lima, uses them in his cutting-edge menu, which features and promotes indigenous Peruvian ingredients. A meal at Central costs hundreds of dollars and reservations are taken months in advance.

But despite his growing fame and success, Julio’s life in the Andes remains simple. You can almost smell the fresh earth and feel the rough skin as the camera catches him gripping handfuls of freshly picked potatoes, showing off their widely varying shapes, hues and shades.

“I want to work, but I’m getting old,” he says. I just don’t have the same strength I used to. If anyone can continue this work, I would love to help them.” Rosa, also featured in the film, adds wistfully, “No one wants to work the land. The youth say that if you work the land, you can’t buy a car or a house.”

The Ebner brothers are hoping their movie persuades at least some viewers that cars and houses are not what make us happy, and that cash is not what makes us rich.

“As I was in Peru, I really began to look at these people as role models,” Eric says. “They have everything they could ever want or need right at their fingertips. Friends, family and purpose. If we adopted more of their values and mindset, we would be a more well-rounded and happy culture ourselves.” It’s a message he believes will resonate with anyone who sees the film. And if it inspires audiences to make even small changes in their own lives, he’ll be pleased.

At USD, Eric’s former professors will be looking on with a mixture of pride and optimism. “I’m not surprised,” Andy Cross says. “I see him as very dedicated. I believe he’s going to keep pushing and looking for bigger platforms for the voices he’s trying to showcase.”

After spending months in the mountains, immersed in Julio Hancco Mamani’s family, community and existence, Eric Ebner is most eager to hear what the star of the film thinks of the finished product.

“He doesn’t necessarily trust outsiders. Especially foreigners because he’s been burned in the past,” he says. “But he really allowed us into his life. I think he’ll be very proud.”  — Karen Gross

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Photography courtesy of Eric and Aaron Ebner and the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development.

One Response
  1. Brandon Friedler Reply

    Nowadays it’s very rare to come across an article like this. And it’s even rarer that I read a full article without getting bored. I read this one beginning to end. Brilliant!

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