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– 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 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

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19 thoughts on “The Improbable Campesino

  1. Barb Oakes

    WooHoo, Betty….. are you traveling a new? So great to get one of your dazzling pictorial stories about our beloved Heifer and all the good people associated with it. Hope they keep coming. Barb

    Barb Oakes, Area Volunteer Coordinator for Heifer (in Illinois, where I’m dying to get out in the dirt. Just had 17 inches of snow Palm Sunday, and it was 62 degrees on Easter!)

    On Mon, Apr 1, 2013 at 1:57 PM, Heifer 12 x 12

    • Yes, Barb — I AM traveling again! Went to Guatemala two weeks ago with kids from Oglethorpe U on an alternative spring break trip. It was amazing!! (And so Heifer-ish!) Happy spring!!

  2. Anonymous

    Fabulous story about a remarkable young farmer whose passion for good sustainabnle farming is totally inspiring! Go Shad and Yeah Betty for sharing this. Bonnie

  3. Thanks, Allesandro — Shad was pretty inspiring!!

  4. Anonymous

    Go Shad and Colleen!!!
    What a beautiful article.
    Your organic farm is INSPIRATIONAL!
    Thanks for reaching out and making a difference!!!
    Sending cyber-hugs to Guatemala…

    Lynn, Tavit and Sophie (purr…)

  5. We’ve visited Shad’s farm. He is a wealth of information!! So impressive what he is doing. Thanks for this great article.

    • Well, if you’ve been there — you must be a fan, right??! Thanks for your enthusiastic comment … and I agree, he’s SO packed with information, I had to take notes in my stupid address book because I didn’t bring my notebook and I just HAD to get down all the wisdom he was imparting!!

  6. On Mon, Apr 1, 2013 at 1:57 PM, Heifer 12 x 12


    lol I remember him from Vineland and I just want you to know he wasn’t a farmer when he lived there. He was a normal suburban living kid who also lived on the sidelines of actual farms( and i didn’t mean farmers aren’t normal). I just thought that the opening statement was misleading because it makes you think all of Vineland families are farmers. Vineland is the biggest city in NJ and its slowly but surely being overcome by suburban neighborhoods farms are on their way out. Even when he was living there. Anyway that’s all i was going to say. also freehold NJ is covered with farms but horse farms and agricultural farms…..farms are efing everywhere its efin called the garden stat for a reason everyone thinks new jersey is just Elizabeth county and Bergen county…..all overpopulated north jersey cities that think thy are new york.

    • Oh I love this comment! I do know that Vineland NJ is not exactly Kansas — I grew up in Delaware and it’s the same thing… pretty constant development in the north but still a lot of farms in the south. I agree that New Jersey IS the Garden State in so many ways and I still think NJ peaches and tomatoes are the BEST. Actually, I think that Shad becoming such a successful farmer is a great testament to his attachment to the land, which I do think started in New Jersey — so how cool is that?!!

  8. Great post muchas gracias amiga. If not for you Betty how would we ever learn about young passionate Americans who go live off the grid on remote hillsides to practice organic farming. I’m so glad to know that your husband’s college students met Shad and his farm.

  9. Thank you Betty for giving Shad’s farm some over-due kudos and exposure. The charity that I founded (Miracles in Action) in conjunction with a partner charity working at Lake Atitlan (Amigos de Santa Cruz) adopted Shad about 2 years ago, and we support his work educating villagers on how to grow community and home gardens, plus with seeds, information, and training from ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization), and hopefully, soon with a pick up truck. Anyone who wants to support Shad’s work and make a tax deductible donation can do so at, where 100% of your donation will go directly to his project, none for our operational expenses. Gracias, Penny Rambacher

  10. arb65912

    Excellent job, I am really impressed by what you guys doing.
    I would like to visit one day.
    Too bad, I do not have your email address, I had some time ago.

    Good luck and all the best.

    Cheers, Andrzej

    • Hi Andrzej! You can get my email contact from my blog — just click on the Contact tab! I am so happy that you like the blog .. and maybe I’ll get to go back and revisit these families and REALLY get a Remix going!!

  11. You’ve imreesspd us all with that posting!

  12. Pingback: The Improbable Campesino | LarryDePalma's Blog

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