Posts Tagged With: Organic farming

The Improbable Campesino

a man on his farmShad 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. collen & shad

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

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.the farm

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.

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. Kiddies

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.seedlings

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.

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 chickensthe 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

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?

So pretty --( but their previous "house" was an 8' x 8' shed)

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's grows 5 varieties).

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.

Tree tomatoes

Tree tomatoes

Unlike any other form of “development,” there is no moral ambiguity to clean farming.

A pomegranate grows in Tzununa.

A pomegranate grows in Tzununa.

You plant a seed. You nurture your plants, trees, animals and soil. You feed other people good food.baby lamb

That’s what drives Shad Qudsi, International Farmer and owner of Atitlan Organics

sunflowerIt’s Farming for the Future (And p.s. that’s exactly what Heifer has been about for the past 69 years…)

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Environment, Farming, Guatemala, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Two Gorgeous Farms & One Heavenly Market

bee on blossomIn my last two days in my last country in this incredible year of travel with Heifer, (sob!) we visited Ambato, a market town south of Cotopaxi, about 2 hours from Quito, Ecuador. After the bone-dry forest of Vega Alta, it was like dipping my eyeballs into a green misty pool — how delicious! land

It made me remember why I’m going to miss these countries so achingly much – and introduced me to yet another awesome Heifer partner: PACAT, an agro-ecological association that’s been working with indigenous farmers here for over 12 years to help  them increase their production, income, and food sovereignty.

Gloria & Lizbeth Pomaquiasa on their land.

Gloria & Lizbeth Pomaquiasa on their land.

PACAT is boots on the ground – running 34 different community groups in 9 counties with 508 families to help them commercialize their agriculture, livestock, fish and cuy ventures. These are small farmers growing on plots of just 1 to 2 acres… but PACAT is no small-thinking organization. pacat market

With Heifer’s help (financial and advisory),PACAT has hired a doctoral student to analyze the market to determine what sells best (they’ve narrowed it to 70 items), what people want that they’re not getting, as well as consumer buying patterns and preferences. They encourage farmers to use their ancestral traditions and to farm organically – for the health of the producer and the consumer.

Yes, they're organic!

Yep, they’re organic!

And when you see agro-ecology in action, it’s simply fantastic. We visited Jorge and Sonja Chonato’s farm in the Low Sierra (at 2000 meters), where temperatures are moderate and lots of crops flourish –citrus

…and Gloria & Francisco Pomaquiasa’s farm in the Alta Sierra (at 4000 meters) where it’s cold, windy and challenging to grow much besides cabbage, potatoes and root crops.Patas

Jorge and Sonja’s farm, at a lower altitude, had about 80 products in full flourish – and because agro-ecological farmers are “very curious always trying new things, grafting, experimenting, seeing what works,” the creativity was amazing!

Jorge's growing 4 different varieties of babaco - and I'd never even heard of babaco!

Jorge’s growing 4 different varieties of babaco fruit – and I’ve never even heard of babaco!

I saw produce and trees I recognized, and dozens of fruits and vegetables I’d never seen before. Jorge just got 2 new milk cows from Heifer, and he was ecstatic… more manure to grow things! His children were healthy and engaged in their farming, his wife was unbelievably organized and capable, and their spirits were so buoyant, they couldn’t wait to show us all the success they’d had.

Jorge Chonato - one happy farmer!

Jorge Chonato – one talented, happy farmer!

By the time we got up to Gloria & Francisco’s farm, it was almost dusk but the family was still working in the fields, hurrying to harvest the crops they’d take to market the next day.

Francisco Pomaquiasa. 20- year PACAT member.

Francisco Pomaquiasa, a 20- year PACAT member.

Francisco has been part of the Atahulpa Association of PACAT farmers here for 20 years  (since he was 20) and like most farmers who’ve had Heifer trainings, his crops are now diversified and chemical-free.Gloria's farmDespite the biting wind, the heads of cabbage, peas, radishes and turnips were gorgeous – and the family was equally proud of the 100 cuy (guinea pigs) they’d raised from Heifer’s gift of 60 cuy last year (they’ve already sold 60 males at $10 each and passed along the original gift).

cuy

Almost too cute to eat … almost!

Five year-old Lizbeth was an expert packer of lettuce, carefully wedging the last head in the yellow market box, her little hands red with the cold, but her eyes dancing with excitement. Market Day was almost here!

What a good helper!!

What a good helper!!

We arrived at Ambato Market the next day at 5 am, in time to see the farmers come in with their wares (some live 2-3 hours away)…truck loaded

… and to watch the first shoppers trickle in at 6 am.

The frenzy begins..

The frenzy begins..

Heifer/PACAT farmers all work under the same banner and wear distinctive aqua jackets so people can recognize the farmers whose meat, produce and fruit are known to be chemical-free and luscious … the bee’s knees!

So beautiful! And GREEN.

carrots

Maize

radishes

Inkaberries

Last call for berries!

Last call for berries!

By 8:30 am, all the good stuff was all gone and the farmers were packing up their wares.But first, Lizbeth would get a sweet reward  – Lizbeth with treat

…and then her family would pocket their $80 of income and go back home and start farming again.family at work

That’s the way it goes all over the developing world — and at this time of year when we’re swimming in abundance & relaxing, it’s good to remember that for a billion people around the planet, it’s hard work just to eat every day. farmer's daughter

And they are so grateful for the little help they receive…Gloria

– so THANK YOU!

Categories: Agriculture, Ecuador, Farming, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

A hard rain’s gonna fall.

Bill has been unemployed for 2 years, sold his house in Florida at a loss, and now lives in tents with 5 family members.

I just got back from spending six rain-soaked days in Appalachia and the Arkansas Delta, viewing some of Heifer’s newest projects to reduce hunger and poverty here in America.It was a damp and eye-opening trip in which I got to meet some remarkable people, experience despair at the entrenched poverty I saw, and feel beams of hope in the creativity and passion of farmers, cheese-makers, biker pastors, entrepreneurs and dreamers in both regions.

Charles Church, organic farmer.

American poverty is the great silent shame of our time. At $15 trillion dollars a year, the American economy is the largest in the world, producing ¼ of the planet’s entire gross domestic product. Yet one in seven people in America live below the poverty line of $22, 113 for a family of four. A person working full-time at the minimum wage earns about $14,500 a year – and 80% of single mothers heading a household work at least one job and still can’t provide the basic necessities for their children.

The largest demographic of poor people are children – with 44% of American children living in low-income working families. About half of all American children will receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps) before the age of 20; for African-American children, that number is 90%. And the majority of all Americans will live in poverty at some point before reaching the age of 65.

Now that you’re in a coma of statistics and depression … let me tell you how beautiful Appalachia is. (I’ll get to the beautiful Delta later..)

I spent my first four days in Boone, North Carolina and the surrounding towns in far western North Carolina. Even in the relentless rain, the green of the fields and mountains, the tidy gardens of the small households, and the sweeping vistas you knew were huddled behind the dark clouds were glorious. But you can’t eat beauty. In Appalachia, the problem is not a lack of land but the lack of production of local food, organic produce, and provisions that are sought after and becoming ever more valuable in these tourist-driven communities. In the Delta, amidst huge agribusiness farms on endless swaths of land, the people have no acres to call their own, their local economy has dried up like the drought-stricken earth, and they are literally stranded in towns buffeted by crop dusters and blown past by anyone with wheels.

Poison raining down from above.

Somehow the land’s beauty in both places makes the hardscrabble lives of so many residents even harder to accept– along with the mining and manufacturing jobs that won’t be coming back, and the traditional ways of life evaporating like fog on the mountain. But Heifer and a bunch of other folks in these mountain and Delta communities are determined to draw a line in the sand and simply not allow that to happen.

Mast General provisions .. yummm!

I’ll be telling you their stories over the next two weeks. In the meantime, here’s Bob Dylan to take you back to those days when we swore we’d never let something like this happen here.

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Farming, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Animal magnetism in Happy Valley.

After the dust and dryness of Ixcan, it was pure pleasure to arrive in Cunen, a verdant valley in El Quiche, Guatemala where Heifer International has had a project since 2006. (Not only because Cunen is beautiful, but also because it meant we could get out of the car we’d been bouncing around in for 4 hours).

The inimitable, devoted Maria Cruz.

The Cunen project is the work of 3 local organizations with Heifer, and there to greet us was Maria Cruz, a lovely 36-year old Mayan woman who has been the Heifer technician, animal-whisperer, and trainer in this area for 10 years. Although the Cunen project has been “weaned” and is on a maintenance schedule, Maria still travels here once a month by bus to check on the animals, answer questions, and visit the homes of Heifer’s beneficiaries – of which there are 36 in this town (and over 500 in the project). In fact, she is so devoted to her work that when she was temporarily laid off due to a cutback in Heifer donations, as a result of our economic downturn (hint, hint), she still took day and night calls about animal fevers and diarrhea from the four villages she works in. Apparently, having animals is about as time-consuming and worrying as having children (except they’re more grateful and don’t talk back).

Don Serbando

Don Manuel

In Cunen, even after the Heifer project has ended, the gift still keeps on giving. The cow above was received by Don Serbando Vasquez, director of the local association, and had a female baby that was passed on to Don Manuel Vasquez (whose 7 children grew up drinking its milk), and that female just gave birth to the cutie-pie new baby above. Cows live for 15-18 years and will have 5-7 offspring in their 13 years of fertility, so Cunen will see several more new generations of Heifer heifers—each of which will benefit a new family. As we walked from farm to farm, we jumped over creeks bubbling down from the surrounding mountains, bringing plentiful water to the fields that were everywhere springing to life with alfalfa, beans, snow peas, onions, oats, snap peas, corn, and napia grass. Lemon, orange, papaya, avocado and lime trees grew in orchards, and sheep and goats happily munched on forage crops in the tidy Heifer sheds Maria had taught the farmers to build.

Under-goat sheds' poop & urine collector -- how clever!

These sheds allow the farmers to efficiently collect the animals’ manure and urine – so they can make rich compost for their fields. Heifer trainings promote organic farming to liberate farmers from having to buy expensive, often dangerous chemicals and to protect the environment. Basic composting is enhanced with the help of some crazy California red worms that eat through the manure like Pac-Men, reproduce like rabbits, and are also passed along with the gift of an animal to a new family.

Speaking of rabbits, the Cunen families we visited also had plentiful pens of rabbits. These bunnies, like all the animals from Heifer, were bigger, better breeds that are chosen to improve the local stock, generation after generation. And because rabbits have 5-7 babies each litter and can have 7 pregnancies a year (yep, that’s 50 babies annually!) … that’s a lot of improvement really fast.

I'm fertile.. are you?

Andrea Canto-Camaha, Cunen farmer.

The people of Cunen were so likeable, friendly and eager to share their stories with us, it was hard to leave. Don Serbando gave us a parting speech, which he asked me to share with you:

We are very grateful to the Heifer donors. We know how much we have been helped and we don’t take it for granted. Because of the gifts you have given us, our children will grow up healthy and smart. We are living the Heifer dream.

It’s a dream that involves never-ending work and a boatload of struggle, but they have water. And animals. And hope.

It’s a happy valley.

Categories: Animals, Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

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