Susanna’s Costa Rican Sojourn: Finca Pura Suerte
Searching for sustainability on a 30-acre mountain farm
With the help of dedicated volunteers, a young American builds permaculture, community, and friendships in small Costa Rican village
By Susanna Meyer
*Toucan drawing © Kevin MacDonald 2003

 

Farm at a Glance

Finca Pura Suerte
La Florida, Costa Rica

Location: La Florida is located about 40 minutes northeast of the Pacific Ocean in the Talamanca Mountains

Size: 30 acres

Operation: Non-certified bio-dynamic

What is grown: oranges, pineapples, papayas and other tree fruits; mixed vegetables and herbs; bamboo (for building)

 

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:
Rivas, the foothills of Mt Chirripo

Finca la Puebla

For Frank Thompson and Sue Spencer, volunteering at an Ontario CSA was one thing. Figuring out how to transition a profitless Costa Rican coffee plantation to organic sustainability is another. A local organic-producer co-op – birthed in protest but now internationally financed, for a time – holds some hope for coffee profitability.

Siete Estrellas de Jicotea
Turrialba, Jicotea

An Ohio couple found them with 60 acres of land and a conventional coffee plantation – just when the world coffee prices began to plummet. They joined a farmers’ co-op – started by a priest committed to earth-friendly practices -- that now has up to 80 people attending its meetings. Going organic – and raising most of their own food – keeps farmers in this area hoping for a future.

Finca la Bella
San Luis

Finca la Bella, made up of 24, 1-ha farms, rests in Costa Rica´s north-eastern cloud forest region, adjacent to the village of San Luis.

 

January 12, 2003: Finca Pura Suerte (Pure Luck Farm) rests on the sloping side of the Talamanca Mountain Range. Below, thick pasture and rainforest interweave softly. They fan down the valley, and up a parallel ridge, behind which glimmers the ocean.

But when Dre, the friendly 24-year-old farmer, picks me up from the main road, Pura Suerte is enveloped in a cloud. Dre expertly maneuvers his little pick-up truck along the 11 kilometers of dirt road to his farm. He’s originally from Denver, Colorado, and has owned this Costa Rican property for three years. He tells me it’s been raining for two weeks. The view through the white mist barely includes the back of my hand, let alone the distant ocean.

In a couple of days, however, the farm's signature good luck has parted the thick clouds long enough to let through a hearty amount of tropical sun. We’re nearing the end of the rainy season, and spirits around the farm rise with each moment of blue sky and hot sun.

Pura Suerte encompasses 30 acres of land – around 10 acres of virgin rainforest and the remainder in pasture and permaculture. The eventual goal for the site is an ecotourism center with cabins, a restaurant, and horseback riding to the nearby waterfalls. The farm will supply most of the food for the enterprise, and support the local community with jobs. But for now, Dre is concentrating on building – the gardens as well as bamboo structures for housing.

Volunteers help manage weeds, tortuza

Volunteers from the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms organization have been integral to the process. Over 50 volunteers gave their time and energy last year. And for the past five months, a young and energetic Quebecois family has lived on the farm. Louis, longhaired and quick to smile, is overhauling the gardens. Julie, resourceful and full of spirit, decorates and works in the gardens. And 3-year-old Lilo is ever-present, helping and learning. He shows me, blue eyes wide and intelligent, which fennel seeds are good to eat. “Semillas,” he explains, in Spanish. He points out flor de jamica, a purple hibiscus whose leaves we put in salads, and identifies which oranges we’ve picked are madura – ripe for squeezing.

When the weather cooperates we work outside. “Yuca is our tiller,” Louis tells me, straightening from weeding. We´re standing on the terraces in mid-morning sun. In the distance white wave caps outline the shore. He explains how the long, pointed tubers of the crop – a carbohydrate-rich Costa Rican staple -- loosens the ground and draws minerals from deep within the earth to the topsoil. “We pull out the tuber to eat,” he says, “and have a little bed to plant – sweet potatoes love it.”

The area where we’re working is full of newly-planted yuca, papayas, sweet potatoes, and herbs like marjoram and stevia as ground cover. In the rainy season, the paths need to be weed-whacked once a month. Not an easy job, with the steep slope and small crops interspersed. Louis has been planting herbs below the papaya trees. “I’m all about connecting our weed-free areas,” he says, enthusiastically.

Another pest on the farm, besides “tenacious weeds,” as Louis calls them, is a burrowing rodent, the tortuza. It digs under plants and destroys their root systems. So far no one’s found a good solution. The group of neighbors have a bounty on tortuzas, and “hunt tortuza” is perpetually scrawled on the farm’s to-do board. But not much changes on the tortuza front while I’m around.

Butterflies like salad plates

During a conversation on the porch I note that Louis probably has seen a lot of change in the months he and his family have been here. “Yeah,” he agrees, “I’ve brought a lot of change. I understand the tropical ecology – I’ve been farming in the tropics since I was 17…” he flashes me his 25-year-old grin, and points out a butterfly as big as a salad plate flapping noiselessly past. It´s a morpho, and its wings transform from a brilliant blue in the early morning to black and white at night, when it imitates an owl. The area around the house is a haven for these butterflies and others – a part of the farm's permaculture plan. Eventually, Dre hopes, the farm will form part of a proposed wildlife corridor across the nation.

The view from the wooden deck is a mesh of banana, mango, orange, and momonchino trees. Below the canopy are bright flowers and vines, a sprouting area for fruit seeds, benches, and a swing. But the clear ocean view is from the vivero, or greenhouse, and the gardens above.

The plastic-roofed greenhouse covers about a third of the gardens. Greens, carrots, and delicate herbs grow here, protected from deluges. Even with the heavy rains, though, tomatoes, beans, ginger, turmeric, and other edible and medicinal plants thrive without a roof, in the terraces above the vivero.

Controlling erosion, building soil

These outdoor crops require thick mulch to prevent nutrient leaching and to protect their root systems. We use old banana leaves as well as guarumo tree leaves – the mulch of choice. These umbrella-like leaves drop all over the farm. We collect bags of them with a stick shaped like an L (a traditional Costa Rican tool for raking grasses and leaves) and crumple them on top of the beds. They disintegrate, in time, into a rich black soil amendment, a contrast to the red clay soil below.

Vetiver grass lines terraces in the gardens, to trap valuable topsoil in the beds. Dre points out this same grass along the roadside, where he’s planted it to stop erosion. Its roots can push down through an impressive 30 ft of earth. Bamboo grows around the property for erosion control as well. Dre enjoys constructing with bamboo. Two kitchen walls in the house are fashioned from local bamboo poles, and the bamboo on the farm will eventually be used to build other structures. Dre explains that long-lasting, construction-quality bamboo is grown with chemical fertilizers. But “it’s not how long it lasts,” he says – “what’s important in a self-sustaining operation is that once it disintegrates you can re-supply. That’s sustainability.”

Dre admits that the financial aspect of sustainability is the “ugliest,” in this farm’s situation. Marketing organic products, which requires more labor and results in a more expensive end product, doesn’t fly in the local rural village of La Florida. Costa Ricans here don’t have disposable income. They have food to eat, clean water, education, and work, and they have valuable land, but not extra money. So Dre hopes to become financially viable with the eco-tourism enterprise. He may also eventually export dried or distilled herbs.

Forging links with the local community

Dre has formed good relationships within La Florida. When he first arrived, however, he was very cautious. He put up “no trespassing” signs around his property. “I was being careful,” he tells me. “I had just spent my life savings, you know. But it didn’t look good to the community.”

Bit by bit, they’ve built mutual trust. Dre started talking to his neighbors. He tore out old coffee plants and they were interested. He shared his vegetables and they invited him to dinner. Then Dre began teaching English at the local school. “My Spanish wasn’t good when I got here,” he says. “One of the reasons that I started the English classes was that the community had already been really patient with me, and I wanted to give something back.”

A year ago he switched to teaching an organic gardening class once a week. As we drive up to the school on a misty morning, Dre is negotiating the road’s slippery red clay and potholes. We keep an eye out for the local sloth in the guarumo trees above our heads. “I started thinking about what was more important for these kids to learn – English or how to garden,” he says with a shrug. Gardening won.

The next generation

The kids are raring to go. They dig sweet potatoes that they planted out of the soggy hilled earth. They separate out the potatoes and take them to the school kitchen, then divide the vines to replant at the school and at home. I love their focused energy. It´s inspiring, as is the prospect of these young children carrying organic gardening knowledge into the next generation.

Back on the farm, I feel like I’m learning as much as the kids at school. I pick up farming tips – like sprinkling crushed eggshells around the base of plants to deter slugs – and I learn new plant varieties. Malibar, or wild spinach. French oregano. Mexican marigold.

Julie, efficient and knowledgeable, her long hair tied back with a scarf, explains how they plant the hijos – baby plants – of the pineapples, rather than the tops, like most tropical farmers. She gestures to the bed of spiky pineapples that we just weeded, and raises her eyebrows, “This way we get four or five piñas from a plant, rather than one.”

Dre emphasizes the information exchange that happens between the farm and the Costa Rican neighbors. “We trade new ideas – between us we can come up with things that work.” Two Costa Rican friends and hired helpers join us for dinner one night. French Canadians, Americans, and Costa Ricans, together we happily eat our farm salad of mustard greens, lettuce, hibiscus leaves and sprouts.

Pura Suerte connects travelers, farmers, neighbors, and ideas. It functions under the guidelines of permaculture, the biodynamic calendar, and “a good set of ideals,” which keeps Dre grounded. “I need to remember what’s really important,” he tells me. Quite an appropriate goal, for a sustainable farm and lifestyle.

Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer, sustainable farming advocate and recent college graduate.

For more information about Pura Suerte visit their website at www.purasuerte.com.