at a Glance:
The Kutch district on India's western coast. NuTech
farm is located in the Rayan village 9km from the seacoast
town of Mandvi.
is grown: Aloe vera, dates, amla, melons,
millet, castor beans, mungbean, pigeon pea, vegetables
and select medicinal plants.
The NuTech bodyguards:
Shah intermingles various crops, such as the castor beans shown
here, to keep disease and pests away from his aloe plants.
||"“I’m not the boss here...
maybe the conductor,” says Vijay Shah. “The different
players all contribute in their own peculiar way, from friendly
bacteria and mycorrhizae to termites, earthworms, bats, frogs,
lizards, birds, cattle, dogs and so on."
Vijay Shah thanks his father, who died 5 years ago,
for developing dates into a family specialty.
Able to do little else in his old age and ailing health,
his father traveled to the best date farms in their
district of southwestern India. He sampled date varieties
to bring home the best ones in large quantity. Shah's
mother and wife cut up the dates, planted the seeds,
and then distributed the sweet parts of the fruits to
the whole village. Through rigorous selection, NuTech
Farm now produces date varieties that are remarkably
sweet and delicious.
“These are actually my father's legacy,”
Posted April 22, 2003: In westernmost India, bordered
by Pakistan and the Arabian Sea, lies the tortoise shell-shaped desert
region of Kutch.
||Acres of aloe: Some
of Vijay Shah's 30 acres of aloe vera plants in southwestern
The sun beats down mercilessly on brittle scrub brush, cacti, and
salt flats. Rain comes only two or three times a year. It crashes
down in torrents, carving channels through the cracked, sun-dried
soil, racing to the sea before it has time to soak in.
Last year the region received rain only once – a 3-inch downpour
after two unusually dry years. Kutch sustained massive destruction
from a 2001 earthquake that scored a 7.9 on the Richter scale.
Despite these harsh conditions, farmers continue squeezing crops
out of the begrudging, sometimes forbidding land. A growing number
have decided to work organically precisely because of these difficult
One of these pioneers is Vijay Shah, 45, a bearded, man with a
quick smile. He owns the 42-acre “NuTech Farm,” specializing
in fresh dates and aloe vera. Though he used modern fertilizers
and pesticides for years, there is a commemorative piece of paper
taped to his desk with the penciled note, “1 July 1996: stopped
using chemicals completely.”
In the violent desert climate, Vijay Shah has created an oasis
of peace -- for himself, his extended family, and his land.
Many influences, from Gandhi to
Shah’s transition to organic farming was gradual and with many
influences. He compares his situation to the story of a fool who found
himself in a well rescuing a child who had earlier fallen in. When
they both were safely out, the fool was met with congratulations for
his bravery, but responded in irritation and confusion. “First
tell me who pushed me in.”
: Shah uses boiling water in lieu of chemicals
to keep harmful insect populations from ruining his fruit
“I’m still trying
to figure out who pushed me in,” Shah says with a laugh. “Was
it my readings of Schumacher's 'Small is Beautiful,' or Alwyn Toffler's
'Third Wave,' or Gandhi's 'Rural Independences,' or my Grandma's
After spending five years of his childhood with his grandmother
in the small village of Rayan, in southwestern Kutch, Shah spent
most of his early years in Bombay (now Mumbai). He graduated from
college with a degree in printing technology in 1977 and soon after
started a printing business with his brother. Within a few years
he began to feel restless. “I could see that I wasn’t
a good businessman,” Shah admitted. “Deep in my heart
I had the inkling that I must work with the soil, with Mother Nature.”
Looking for a more peaceful existence for him and his father --
who had recently suffered a heart attack – he and his wife
moved to 4 acres of ancestral land in Rayan village in 1986. They
lived with his father and mother, and began growing crops of sweet
corn, melons, pomegranates, figs and dates.
Vijay Shah started farming with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Production was exceptional. “In those days of fertile soil
and available water we had beautiful dates and shining red pomegranates.
We produced up to six times more than other farms.”
After seven years of synthetic inputs, however, Shah realized what
other farmers in the region are now beginning to understand -- that
chemical farming in their harsh conditions cannot last. Because
the chemical fertilizers he used provided nutrients only for the
plant, his soil structure was weakened. He saw he had killed many
of the beneficial organisms that make the soil porous and fertile
so it can absorb moisture. The soil lost its finer particles, becoming
dead and hardening when it rained.
During the dry season, wind blew the cracked, dusty topsoil off
his land. When the torrential rains came, they washed loose soil
into flash-flood rivers.
To make matters worse, Shah’s neighbors began growing cotton.
Their reckless pesticides use drove insect pests to seek refuge
at NuTech Farm. He was at a crossroads. “I had to make a decision
– whether to continue the vicious cycle of using more and
more chemicals, or change my whole way of farming,” he said.
Seeking peace, changing paths
Soon after, Shah entered a Vipassana meditation course that proved
to be a turning point in his life. (Vipassana means “seeing
things as they really are.”) A guru gave him counsel that gave
him new insight: “If you’re really looking for peace,
then your livelihood should be peaceful."
of the sea feed under-nourished soil
The brown black seaweed (saragassam wighti) is harvested
about 1 km off the coast of the Gulf of Kutch and brought
back to the farm for processing. The harvested crop
is dried in the hot Indian sun then run through a thresher
which separates sand and other unwanted stuff and grinds
the seaweed into coarse powder grade. The powder is
then packed in poly bags (30kg each) and stored. The
powder provides additional nutrients to the dry soil.
It can be used as a soak or as a spray. In a year, NuTech
uses 2 tons of seaweed for 30 acres irrigated land;
an additional 6 tons is sold to other farmers.
Shah realized that
instead of the relaxing existence he had sought in the country,
he was experiencing constant anxiety about his farming life. He
was always trying to kill what he saw as harmful insects -–
especially the pesky, resilient termites. He worried continually
about marketing and his steadily decreasing production.
“I was very stressed. I had to keep using chemicals but the
response was declining,“ he said. “I was scared and
asked myself, ‘What will happen if I stop?’”
As he continued with meditation, Shah began to decrease the amount
of chemicals he applied. “For three years it was very tough.
I didn’t have any information on what to do in the transition
period,“ he said. “They said to stop using chemicals...
but what are the alternatives? It took me a long time to understand
the phrase, ‘healthy soil for healthy plants’.”
Throughout production declines during this period, Shah gradually
began to figure things out. He built up the soil, eventually developing
a set of eco-friendly inputs. The products he uses and markets to
others to maintain soil and plant health include the plant-based
products neem kernalia, calotropis, euphorbia and whole aloe. From
the Gulf of Kutch he harvests brown seaweed and green algae. He
uses nutrient-rich cattle urine through his drip irrigation system.
Shah took other steps to protect his soil and shelter plant life.
He mulched more and began leaving low-lying weeds around plants
as living mulch. He planted more trees to lower soil temperature
so it would be more conducive to micro-organic activity. He planted
mixed varieties of specialty trees, such as neem, sesbania, drumstick
trees (Moringa oleifera) and five-leaved chaste tree (Vitex Negundo)
as wind breaks for his soil. He abandoned use of poisonous fumigants
to kill pests that attacked trunks of his date trees. Now he pours
boiling water in crevices of trunks in affected trees, killing only
Shah’s new attitude changed the way he looked at termites.
Once he stopped trying to kill them all, he saw they were benefiting
him by breaking down dead matter and providing good aeration to
tree roots. “They don’t eat anything green,” he
said, admiring their work in the trunk of a date tree. “Now
termites are my best friends.”
Shah’s efforts produced results after several years. Plants
grew stronger and gave more fruit. Improved soil held more moisture.
Shah estimated that during one 3-inch downpour his smaller tract
of land retained twice the water of his neighbor’s chemically
farmed land, judging from the reservoirs that receive the run-off
from the ditch system on each farm.
Booker T. and aloe vera
with the natives: Thriving in hot dry climates,
the aloe vera plant has found a natural habitat on Shay's
farm. Pictured here: author Jason Witmer.
Shah gleaned some agricultural wisdom indirectly from African-American
educator Booker T. Washington, an idol of his. Washington tells the
story of a ship that was caught in a hurricane off the coast of South
America. When all the ship’s water was gone the distraught captain
radioed in for help from shore. He received the simple SOS: “Drop
your pail where you are.” At first disbelieving, the captain
eventually discovered that the seawater there was sweet because it
comes from the mighty Amazon River, which pours freshwater into the
sea for miles at its mouth.
The story made Shah think about his own life. “There I was
bringing pomegranate plants from 2,000 kilometers away,” Shah
realized. “I was buying sweet corn and melon seeds from U.S.
and Taiwan – everything from such distances. I wasn’t
dropping my pail where I was.“
The day after reading that story, Shah stopped at the gate in front
of his farm and noticed a small patch of aloe vera plants, growing
happily with no human management. Though he had little knowledge
of the potential market, and still less about how to process the
aloe products, he decided to "drop his pail there." Shah
had heard of its uses in ayurvedic healing and saw advantages in
raising a crop that seemed be able to take care of itself.
He found little information existed for on-farm processing of the
long succulent aloe vera leaves. He and his wife began experimenting
in their kitchen to learn how to extract the valued gel.
As he expanded production he experienced new challenges. To counter
plant-rot in low areas after the monsoon, Shah turned to a bed-and-furrow
system that he extended to nearly his entire farm. He planted medicinal
Malabar nut (A. Vasica) trees as a natural irrigation indicator.
These help him restrict water to the minimum that keeps the gel
value highest. He controlled weeds by letting the cattle graze rotationally.
He controls diseases and pests by intercropping the aloe vera with
plants such as dates, amla (Indian gooseberry), melons, millet,
castor, mungbean, pigeon pea, vegetables and selected medicinal
After four years of trial and error the couple perfected a suitable
extraction and stabilization process. Shah’s brothers converted
a small building into an aloe vera processing plant. They began
marketing aloe vera to cosmetic companies and continued to improve
the quality of their aloe gel.
Manish, Vijay's younger brother, worked to develop a health drink
from their aloe gel. Manish joined 40 scientists from 26 countries
in China to interact on aloe use. He returned with the confidence
to prepare six specialty health beverages with selected medicinal
Mahendra, their elder brother, is using his marketing genius to
expand production to the European Union next year. At times, all
17 members of Vijay’s family work together at times to keep
the aloe activities going.
Shah has expanded to 30 acres of aloe vera. He continues to fine-tune
production skills to maintain production even in dry years such
as 2003, where plant color will be diminished but production remained
constant. The date trees, which usually decline after a few years
under chemical fertilizers, are producing so well that he has named
many of them. “They’re like family members,“ he
Shah is helping to develop an organic certification system for
small farmers of India. Right now Shah can only market his products
to people who know him well. With an organic certification system
both he and smaller farmers with fewer connections could market
to anyone. He is on of 35 Indian organic farmers who hope to draft
guidelines for a certification system by the end of this month.
Regenerative agriculture has given Shah new hope for his rural life.
He is grateful to still be in business. “Many farmers are
tired,” he said. “They’re feeling like they can’t
do this anymore. They’re thinking about doing something else
-– maybe opening a stand and selling cigarettes or something
like that. But I am still farming.“
Shah appreciates most, however, the contentment that he finds by
co-operating with his environment rather than ceaselessly fighting
“I’m not the boss here... maybe the conductor,”
Shah figures. “The different players all contribute in their
own peculiar way, from friendly bacteria and mycorrhizae to termites,
earthworms, bats, frogs, lizards, birds, cattle, dogs and so on.
When that kind of harmony develops there is a reverence for each
other. Initially, I was always tense, worrying, killing –
but now I have peace."
Coming next: Meet a doctor with the organic medicine
to keep his farm cool and irrigated even in the Indian desert. Doctor
Haria, an alternative agricultural physician and Mr. Shah's mentor,
also has a cure for acne that American teenagers may not be ready