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.
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com
You can reach APOT at firstname.lastname@example.org,
and CATIE at www.catie.ac.cr.
Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer and urban farmer
in Pittsburgh, PA.