Posts Tagged With: Sustainable 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

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

Head in the clouds.

My first day visiting Heifer projects in Guatemala, we got high. Specifically, we drove up, up and up to the highlands of Alta Verapaz and into the cloud forest– which is the last refuge of Guatemala’s national bird, the resplendent quetzal, as well as hundreds of other bird species that are quickly disappearing from the earth.

Quetzal photo by Knut Eisermann.

Unfortunately, we didn’t quite get high enough to go to the 50+ villages past the end of the road that are served by Proeval Raxmu, Heifer’s partner project in Alta Verapaz, because, before I came, the folks were told, “A woman is coming from the North and she can’t walk.”

Hmmm – for the record, I can walk and love to – but I suspect the Heifer folks weren’t sure I was up for a 5-hour jaunt into the cloud forest. (I totally was.) But what I saw in Chicoj Village was more than enough to make me wish I could have spent days there.

Once it's gone, it's gone.

Despite the breathtaking beauty of the area, Alta Verapaz has a poverty rate of about 79%, and chronic malnutrition that affects about 52% of the poor farmers who live here. Deforestation of the cloud forest is happening at one of the highest rates in Latin America and is directly related to poverty. Trying to eke out a living on incredibly steep slopes at high altitude, farmers desperate for rich forest soil and firewood cut down the trees, burn off the rich forest mulch, and plant corn which further depletes the soil. What’s at risk is not just bird populations (Guatemala is home to about 700 bird species and millions of migratory birds from North America), but also life-giving water, since cutting down the trees also reduces rainfall. And that leads to fewer crops and less food.In response, this Heifer-supported program works to educate and motivate local farmers to farm more productively, grow more nutritious food, and protect their own forest. It’s a big, daunting job, but Proeval is totally up for it. Six years ago, they began working with 3 families in 1 village– and today they have passed along to more than 450 families the gift of turkeys, rabbits and sheep; red worms (for composting); fruit trees; forage crops (to feed the animals) and most importantly – campesino to campesino trainings in how to farm abundantly without damaging the cloud forest.

Going to a Proeval community meeting in Chicoj Village to see the project first-hand was like attending a big, wordy love-in. We met in Pedro’s simple, beautiful home where everybody–and I mean everybody–  had the chance to talk about what the project means to him or her.

Pedro's home, site of our community meeting.

Rudy, the veritable Johnny Appleseed of Raxmu, has been helping local farmers to plant some 800 plum, nectarine, peach and apple orchards for a dozen years and is a tireless promoter of the nutritional and income-producing capacity of fruit trees. He’s carried the stakes of trees on his back for 5 hours to give to farmers in the remote villages, taught them how to graft, compost and use bees to pollinate the trees, and never stopped singing the praises of fruit.

Efraim, a biological monitor whose job entails getting up at 4:30 a.m. to hear, see and count birds in the cloud forest, lives a two-hour walk high up in the mountains with his beautiful wife Rosaria and 3 little girls. He  told us how happy he was to be chosen as one of 3 trained monitors out of 30 applicants — while his wife explained he was gifted because he gave his heart to the forest. Efraim has trained intensively, can identify over 250 birds by sight, and has worked with some of the world’s foremost ornithologists who come to Guatemala and rely on his research. Because I come from a family of birdwatchers (and am singularly oblivious when it comes to finding a single bird in a tree) I was in awe of his cool, calm demeanor and obvious talent for the work.

Robert & Tara, tireless principals of Proeval (she is from Holland and he is American), spoke in Q’eqchi’, Spanish and English of the methods they’re passing on: using living and dead barriers to prevent erosion on the steep hillsides; combining animal manure & red worms to build a beautiful compost instead of using expensive, damaging chemicals; conserving water and soil; keeping animals healthy, hygienic and fertile; and growing a nutritious blend of crops that will better feed both the children and animals of Chicoj Village.

Flowers grown in living barriers to erosion can also be sold for income.

Together with Heifer International and the project participants, Proeval Raxmu’s mission is to use a double passing-on-of-gifts (each beneficiary family gives at least twice what they have received in animals, forage crops, and trainings to 2 other families) to restore ecological, environmental and human harmony to the people of this region. In fact, the Q’eqchi’ word “Raxmu” means fresh and cloudy weather, indicating a change to come. I felt the distinct winds of change in that room, in the palpable community solidarity and dignity of the families that surrounded me — and I felt their hope for the future. It was nothing short of intoxicating.

In the next two years, Heifer will give 800 Atla Verapaz families 6,700 rabbits, 4,364 turkeys and 360 super-cute sheep.

(And next post, I’ll get to the amazing Alta Verapaz WOMEN involved!)

Categories: Animals, Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 178 Comments

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