Jason’s Global Organic Odyssey: Living and learning one farm at a time

Indian farmer creates an organic oasis in a harsh land
On top of dust and floods, chemicals were killing Vijay Shah's soil ... and production was falling. He decided it was time, for a change, to farm WITH nature. On July 1, 1996, he stopped using chemicals all together.

By Jason Witmer

Farm at a Glance:
NuTech Farm

Location: The Kutch district on India's western coast. NuTech farm is located in the Rayan village 9km from the seacoast town of Mandvi.

Farm Type: Organic

Size: 42 acres

What 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."


























Delightfully sweet dates

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,” says Shah.

















Editor's Note:
Jason Witmer left the U.S., January 8, 2003, on a six-month-long odyssey, visiting farms across Asia and Europe.

See how the adventure began:

Jason's Organic Odyssey:
: Ohio traveler debuts “global grassroots” network of farmer-correspondents

BEGINNINGS::From pitching in on his Grandpa’s farm to an organic sojourn across two continents

EASTERN THAILAND: Meet Jon Jandai -- farmer, builder and man of leisure

LAOS: A chemical past convinced this farmer to prove organic is the future

THAILAND: Thailand's Buddhist "Asok" movement builds organic farms, sustainable communities



Acres of aloe: Some of Vijay Shah's 30 acres of aloe vera plants in southwestern India.
Posted April 22, 2003: In westernmost India, bordered by Pakistan and the Arabian Sea, lies the tortoise shell-shaped desert region of Kutch.

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 circumstances.

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
grandma's blessings

Hot dates : Shah uses boiling water in lieu of chemicals to keep harmful insect populations from ruining his fruit trees.
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.”

“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 blessings?”

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

Plants 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.

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."

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 harmful insects.

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

Convening 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 plants.

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 herbs.

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 said.

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 it.

“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 for…