Shad Qudsi didn’t exactly set out on a career path to start an organic farm in rural Guatemala. He grew up in the farmlands of New Jersey (yeah, they do exist) and got a big scholarship to Johns Hopkins, majoring in math and business, the first person in his family to graduate from college. He spent a bit of time in the corporate world, working in emerging tech companies because his brain works in that wondrous way, but farming was in his heart.
Luckily, he chose a good partner in his wife Colleen, who went along with his agricultural dreams, and after two years running a hotel in Belize, they bought a farm in October 2009 in the steep, rocky highlands above Tzununa, a miniscule town on the lovely banks of Lake Atitlan.
Beautiful Lake Atitlan
To say Shad’s Atitlan Organics farm is difficult to access is an understatement. The journey requires a boat ride, followed by a truck ride, followed by a long walk up – but once you get to Shad’s place, it’s a lush green, oasis-y marvel to behold.
However, Shad’s first year of farming was hard – and the second was worse. Last year was his first profitable year, but clearly, Shad and Colleen measure success in a different way. My fab friend Bonnie O’Neill took us on a tour of the farm, and in one short hour, I was convinced I desperately need to start a compost pile, was seriously considering raising chickens, and wondered why the heck I’ve never bought chia and amaranth seeds to sprinkle on my oatmeal.
Chia… no pets.
Shad is a huge fan of chia and amaranth, two traditional grains grown by the Incas and native to Guatemala. These seeds are trendy and popular in the States (meaning they command a price 25 times higher than corn) but they also represent a great possibility for enhanced nutrition for Guatemala’s perennially undernourished indigenous population.
A one-ounce serving of chia seeds contains 9 grams of fat, 5 milligrams of sodium, 11 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein (and that’s not even counting how they stimulated sales of Chia Pets). Amaranth seeds contain 30% more protein than rice and are unusually rich in lysine, an essential amino acid missing in many other plants. Best of all, both chia and amaranth are easy to grow and easy to harvest, with flowers that produce millions of seeds for further cultivation.
It’s stuff like this that fascinates Shad – and he’s a walking fountain of agricultural knowledge, experimentation and irrepressible enthusiasm. He’s teaching Guatemalan farmers to throw down some chia seed when they mound up soil around their knee-high corn plants in August, so the fast-growing salvia will be ready to harvest with the corn in October. But this is just the tip of the trowel on Shad’s farm, because he’s a master of biodiversity, with at least 200 species of plants, animals, and fungi on his small acreage. In fact, his goal is to take a traditionally-sized plot of land (about one-sixth of an acre) and demonstrate to Guatemalan farmers how to make it both profitable and a source of good nutrition for their families – and to that end, he’ll try anything!
The tipico plot size in Guatemala… one-sixth of an acre.
Shad waxes rhapsodic about esoteric scientific facts and chemistry – the soil as the placenta of the earth; how wind, water, and sun act on soil’s abiding intention to make more of itself; the beautifully complex interaction of nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which is why he raises clean herbivore rabbits in the same house with dirty greens-eating chickens) – until my brain was swimming in farm facts. But the bottom line is this is a man with a passionate love for farming who believes that to plant a seed is a sacred deed and who is utterly devoted to working with local communities to share his knowledge. In addition to all the work he’s done on his own land, he’s also started 4 community gardens in neighboring Santa Cruz, with local women choosing a youth to organize and run their market (thus educating the next generation).
Papayas– a money crop!
Of course, my unspoken question was – how does your wife feel about living way up here, with no electricity (but a rocking sauna) and a 5-mile round-trip walk to her daily work as a teacher?
Such a pretty house( but their previous abode was an 8′ x 8′ shed).
Colleen wasn’t there to answer, but I suspect she’s just as dazzled by Shad’s incandescent energy as we were….and by the simple truth of his philosophy:
A quick lesson in grafting avocado trees (Shad grows 5 varieties that ripen at different times).
Growing and selling good food can heal people and heal the earth.
Unlike any other form of “development,” there is no moral ambiguity to clean farming.
A pomegranate grows in Tzununa.
You plant a seed. You nurture your plants, trees, animals and soil. You feed other people good food.
That’s what drives Shad Qudsi, International Farmer and owner of Atitlan Organics.
It’s Farming for the Future (And p.s. that’s exactly what Heifer has been about for the past 69 years…)