Susanna’s Costa Rican Sojourn: Siete Estrellas de Jicotea
Making organic coffee (farms) strong enough to last takes support, creativity and time

Three-year organic transition period proves difficult for small farmers struggling to survive as they learn new management skills and build biological vitality.

By Susanna Meyer
*Toucan drawing © Kevin MacDonald 2003
 

Farm at a Glance

Siete Estrellas de Jicotea (Seven Stars of Jicotea)
Jicotea, Cartago

Location: Jicotea is near Turrialba, east of Cartago within Cartago province.

Size: 60 acres

Operation: Organic

What is grown: Mainly coffee and sugar cane.

 

 

Welcome a new global traveler to the pages of our web site
Pennsylvania resident Susanna Meyer is on the road, WWOOF-ing her way through Costa Rica.

World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – an organization that facilitates visits and volunteer labor on organic farms around the world – proved to be a good guide for Jason Witmer in his visits to Thailand, Laos, India, Nepal and Spain earlier this year. And Jason proved that overseas farms and farmers have rich stories to tell.

To revisit those farms, go to Jason’s first column, published back in February, 2003.We pried Susanna away from a cold, wet autumn in Pittsburgh to spend nearly three months on organic farms in the rainforests, coffee plantations and lush mountain pastures of Costa Rica. Actually, she decided to go on her own and offered to invite us – and you – along for the quest. She’s looking for agricultural principles that will work in her organic farming learning curve on an urban farm back home at the Three Rivers.

Her travel plans are somewhat tentative, as she juggles hitting the coffee harvest, finding the right bus, and contacting farmers who tend to be in the field more than by the phone.

But she’s already filed two reports that show the ingenuity of U.S. immigrants to Costa Rica who are learning all they can about their new micro-climates. They are combining their knowledge of organics with indigenous farming culture. In an economic climate of falling prices and diminished agricultural opportunity, they are helping to craft cooperative techniques of production and marketing to find profit in high-value products from sustainably produced crops.

As Susanna’s visits solidify and her reports come in, this list will grow

Next:

Finca la Bella
San Luis

Gilberth Lobo credits his wonderfully complex plantings of trees and crops to his father and grandfather. His access to land in Costa Rica's northeastern cloud forest, however, is thanks to a durable collaboration of local residents and a US non-profit. He's one of 24 formerly landless farmers who now have an opportunity to learn ecologically sound methods on their tracts, based on 25-year leases. Together, they develop their skills as producers, and seek markets that will reward their stewardship and common vision.

 

March 1 , 2004: On my journey out of Costa Rica’s San Isidro farming region, I bus over cloudy mountains and into the verdant central valley. The route winds through rich agricultural land – rippling hills of sugar cane, and dark green coffee plantations. It passes within view of the stately volcanoes Irazu and Turrialba, and into the hot bustling town below.

Forty minutes from this metropolis, sits the little village of Jicotea, at the end of the bus line, where the locals greet each other by name and a kiss, and where there’s always time to share a fresh cup of coffee.

Susanna's Scrapbook

It’s in this quiet barrio, or neighborhood, beside a river and between two ridges, that Mark and Peg Schar have settled into farm life with a cafetal (coffee plantation) and sugar cane fields. The soft-spoken and down-to-earth couple from Ashland, Ohio, bought the farm in 1999, just before coffee prices dropped significantly. They had wanted to make a living on the land in Costa Rica, with farming or tourism. When the opportunity arose for them to purchase the 60-acre conventional farm, they jumped at the chance.

Mark and Peg’s farm rises up the ridge behind their house. About 11 acres of the land is in coffee production, 15 in sugar cane, and there are 3 acres of primary rainforest. The remainder of the land is made up of secondary rainforest and pasture.

When I question them about the origin of their interest in farming, they talk about their families growing their own food. They also gardened organically in the states, and, Mark says with a side-long grin, “Peg likes to work a lot.” Organic farming certainly entails more physical labor in their setting than conventional methods. But, at least for now, profitability is also possible with organics.

Soon after they bought the farm, Mark began attending classes put on by the I-Café, the coffee institute run by the government. “At the time,” Mark tells me, “their stance was that it’s impossible to grow coffee organically. That was before the bottom dropped out of the coffee market.”

Eco-ministry launches co-op

Luckily, around the time that Mark and Peg started farming, a local organic group was forming. A priest from the Caribbean coastal city of Limón started the group as part of a “pastors of the earth” ministry, to encourage environmentally healthy practices. At the time, the group was five or six farmers meeting in a church basement. Today, 70-80 farmers attend.

The group is called APOT, Asociación de Productores Orgánicos de Turrialba (Association of Organic Producers of Turrialba). It’s funded by foreign grants from groups interested in rainforest protection, as well as by membership dues. APOT has a friendly and competent president, Gerardo. It offers its members free organic certification, which would other cost them $1,500/farm/year.

The organic group has a market connection through ALIANZA, the same group that’s helping the new Montaña Verde coffee cooperative in Rivas export its product.

The APOT office and the coffee-processing machine that the organic group uses are located in nearby Turrialba. Hosting the group is CATIE, the 1000-hectare Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center) are located in nearby Turrialba.

Because he doesn’t own a vehicle, Mark pays to ship his sacks of coffee fruits via truck to the processing beneficio. In time, he and other farmers around Jicotea hope to establish their own processing facility in the nearby town of Platanillo. This would cut down on shipping costs and energy, as the de-hulled and dried processed coffee would weigh less to truck to Turrialba.

Members survive on diverse crops

Every little bit of money counts to the farmers in the organic group. Most of their farms are smaller than Mark and Peg’s, and many have switched to organic methods to survive. Peg tells me, “Most farmers that make money here are real diversified.” Because the cost of living in Costa Rica is high compared to wages, those that can supplement their family’s diet with vegetables and fruit, poultry, beef, or pork raised on the farm, have a chance at making a decent living on their cash crops.

Mark and Peg hope to eventually grow vegetables, fruit, and legumes, along with their sugar cane and coffee. “We’re not doing as much as we could as far as being self-sufficient with food,” Peg says.

They’d also like to put in a fishpond to raise native guapote. “But we always run out of time,” Mark says, voicing the universal farmer’s mantra. “We’ve got too much to do.” So for now, Mark returns to the U.S. for several months each year to make enough money to put toward farm payments.

The farm bustles with projects. Early one misty morning, with clouds hanging across the valley, we load cedar saplings onto the tractor. Elgar -- Mark and Peg’s Costa Rican employee and friend -- is at the wheel. Ethan, their energetic 10-year-old son, and I cling to the sides. We jounce our way to the upper fields as Elgar spins the steering wheel, jumping down to break rocks or fill holes. We’re off-roading on a tractor, I realize.

The electric company cooperates with the government to offer free tree seedlings. Mark and Peg received 1,000 this year, and are planting the native variety throughout the farm. The wood will be ready to harvest in about 20 years.

Reforesting steep inclines

The planting process includes chopping jungle undergrowth with machetes, digging holes in the rich soil, planting marking sticks, and finally the delicate cedar shoots. We plant first on a jungle slope, climbing out often on all fours to tote more trees.

About mid-morning, we move to a brushy area. The “weeds” could just as easily be classified as “trees” – I try to make a joke to Elgar about it. “Monte como árboles” (weeds like trees), and he agrees, expertly whacking them down with his razor-sharp machete. I see that the trick to chopping weeds all day is lots of practice – and a meticulously sharpened tool.

Ahead of me is Zach, Mark and Peg’s 21-year-old son. He swings his machete as I dig holes. He tells me that this gently sloping hill was a cornfield four years ago. I raise my eyebrows and struggle to chop a tree-sized hole through thick roots laced through the topsoil. Things really grow in the tropics.

As another continuing farm project, Mark uses worms to compost cow manure and coffee hulls. He covers the long mounds with a loosely woven plastic screen. Daily watering deters ants from taking up residence and keeps the soil moist. This rich organic fertilizer enlivens the soil around the coffee trees in the cafetal.

The leguminous and ubiquitous poro trees in the cafetal provide nitrogen and limit unwanted vegetation. We pick coffee in the shady grove and the weeds – bright pink impatiens, like in my mom’s flower box at home -- brush our shins. It’s hard to think of these cheery flowers as pests. But without the control of shade, machetes, and the weed-whacker, these plants and tangled grasses would overtake the cafetal.

Breaking chemical dependence hard to do

A conventional farmer once told Mark that it’s not possible to farm coffee without chemicals. His coffee plantation across the gorge looks striped from a distance – brown earth sandwiched between ruffled green. “But he doesn’t consider shade,” Mark tells me. Without plants growing between and around the coffee, this farmer loses valuable topsoil. “The land is stripped [of its fertility] on conventional farms,” Mark says, “Eventually farmers can’t grow anything without chemicals.”

It’s hard to explain this cyclical dependence to farmers that are caught in its grips. Mark’s expression shows me that he’s tried. “It’s a matter of education. Especially with some of the older people, it’s hard to change their ideas.”

It’s difficult even for farmers who are interested in changing to more sustainable systems. They face sometimes insurmountable obstacles. For low-income farmers in Costa Rican coffee country, the three-year transition phase is a period of decreased production, increased work, and even lower profits.

It takes creativity, innovation and community links to build sustainable organic farms in the region since the collapse of coffee prices.

The organic marketing group has grown rapidly in the past few years, filling with desperate farmers who need the increased profits organic products can provide. But if their only motivation is immediate monetary return, they quickly become disillusioned. Many drop out of APOT. Because of the difficult economics of organic farming – even with the substantial help of the organic group -- people need dedication, support and vision beyond finances to stick with chemical-free farming until it becomes profitable.

Once source of information and technical support is the work at CATIE in Turriabla. Under new directorship in recent years, CATIE has increased its organic projects and loosened its visiting policies to allow the public more access.

In the back of a book he got from the CATIE teachers, Mark learned about Oscar, one of the pioneers of organic farming in Costa Rica. Mark tells me how Oscar (now 70) in his younger years bought a dump outside of San Jose. “Everyone thought he was crazy,” Mark says. Until Oscar worm-composted most of the contents of the dump into fertilizer. He’s since done similar projects with biodegradable byproducts from large corporations.

Mark is one year into a four-year set of on-farm experiments for CATIE in his cafetal. He is testing organic fertilizers and disease-control products, watching to see if he can see results independent of weather variations.

Back at the house after tree planting, we process some of the farm’s coffee for home use. It seems there’s perpetually a hot pot on the counter. Peg explains to me, over a steaming cup, the unusual relationships that develop at Siete Estrellas. “Social equity happens on this farm, more than in the rest of the community. Here no one can say ‘I’m not going to do that job.’ Everyone has to be willing to work on everything in order to make a go of it.”

Sure she works hard, and plans the business details and strategizes the farm’s future viability. Peg has another motivation for farming organically, but seems almost shy about revealing it. “When I’m not here anymore,” she tells me quietly, “I want to leave this place a little better than I found it.”

To connect with Mark and Peg, email them at fincanatural@racsa.co.cr
You can reach APOT at apot_gerardo@hotmail.com, and CATIE at www.catie.ac.cr.

Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer and urban farmer in Pittsburgh, PA.