Farm at a Glance
Finca la Puebla
Rivas, San Isidro de el Generale
Location: Rivas is located in
the foothills of Mt. Chirripo, near San Isidro.
Size: 12 acres
What is grown: Coffee, bananas,
and a small vegetable garden.
Cooperative creates farmers’
farmer-in-the-school organic education
Though the coffee cooperative is its largest
project, Montaña Verde has changed the
face of farming in Rivas in other ways as well.
Every third week the organization sponsors an
organic farmers’ market in the town. Omar
Hernandez stands at one of half a dozen booths
to sell his greens, plantains, and oranges. He’s
eager to tell me his farming story.
Omar produces coffee for the co-op as well, so
Frank and I visit his mountain-side cafetal.
On the trail, pines tower above our heads, their
fallen needles soft and fresh-smelling beneath
our feet. We pause to pull naranjas (oranges)
from trees interspersed between coffee trees,
and Omar tells the story of his conversion to
About 10 years ago, the Swiss couple Andre and
Pascal Kohle arrived in Rivas to help stop development
plans for nearby Mt. Chirripo. They founded Montaña
Verde, and after the protest succeeded they moved
on to other environmental projects, including
organic agriculture. Omar got involved with Montaña
Verde and converted to organic farming.
He now runs his farm in a sustainable manner,
recycling goat droppings through a worm composting
system, and adding the compost to his garden.
Omar also works for Montaña Verde once
a week, teaching environmental awareness to children
in schools. He travels to several one-room schoolhouses
which encompass grades kindergarten to sixth,
and teaches outdoors. Sometimes it’s hard
to make appropriate lesson plans for all the children.
“I teach about the harm of agro-chemicals,
and the older children understand, but the little
tiny ones don’t.” He looks away and
pauses, then his dark eyes crinkle around the
edges as he looks back. “But it’s
beautiful work.” -- SM
a new global traveler to the pages of our web
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
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
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
Siete Estrellas de Jicotéa
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
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.
1 , 2004: I arrive on Frank Thompson and Sue
Spencer’s farm just as the firm, oval coffee fruits
begin to turn from greenish-pink to deep rose. A week later
the harvest begins.
While pickers on conventional coffee farms would strip all
the coffee berries from the branches when the first ones turn
ripe, we drop only the ripest, deep-red fruits into the baskets
strapped to our bellies. This selection process takes more
time but yields the best beans and a better flavor for the
premium coffee market.
Frank is not your typical Costa Rican coffee farmer. He hails
from Ottawa, Canada, and came to this country to escape Canadian
winters and the rigors of his geology career. Frank’s
curly, graying hair escapes his head in every direction. He
has a jolly, ready laugh and mannerisms like an absentminded
one on: A WWOOF volunteer with belly basket
“I imagined myself swinging in a hammock,” Frank
laughs, and admits that operating a coffee farm was more than
he had in mind when he started. “But this work keeps
me physically and mentally active. It fits with my values.”
The 12-acre section of land that Frank and Sue chose nestles
into the foothills of Mt. Chirripo. The farm has the rich
black soil of the river it sits beside, and came with a 3.5-acre
cafetal, or coffee plantation, which had been conventionally
At first, locals maintained Frank’s cafetal
for a percentage of the harvest, under the condition that
they not use pesticides. However, the price of coffee dropped
so dramatically that the cafetal’s harvest
didn’t pay for the work. After 3 years, Frank decided
to make a go of managing the land himself. “I hoped
to make a little money off of the land,” Frank says,
“and I was not going to do that chemically.”
Frank and Sue are no strangers to sustainable farming. In
Canada, they were a part of a 100-family Community Supported
Agriculture (CSA) program, volunteering on organic farms as
well as supporting local farmers by purchasing their produce.
When they came to Costa Rica eight years ago they envisioned
sustaining themselves on their land – growing enough
food for themselves and friends.
However, between constructing houses and gardens, caring
for the cafetal, and adapting to the tropical conditions,
there has not been time to adequately maintain the gardens.
Frank and Sue operate just three plastic-roofed garden structures,
planted in tomatoes and herbs, greens and peppers. These are
mainly Sue’s responsibility. Because she’s been
out of the country for several weeks, the other volunteers
and I help keep successions going.
Our garden work starts with picking some of the fat little
ripe tomatoes. We split them for their seeds. We cook soil
from old compost heaps to kill nematodes and fungus, add rice
hulls for aeration, then bury the seeds in the soil. In just
a few days the little tomato plants curl up toward the sun.
We also shovel rich, pungent composted manure from the horse’s
pen onto a new section of garden. We work it into the beds
and plant cabbage, radish, carrot, and cucumber seeds.
This farm has just begun accepting volunteers through the
World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms organization (WWOOF),
and Frank is eager to start more vegetables. “As we
get volunteers,” he notes, “we need more food
on the land. But finally we have enough help to keep up with
Managing coffee lands for diversity
The cafetal will supply food, too. In traditional
cafetals, tall leafy bananas and the fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing
poro tree provide only marginal shade for the coffee
plants. High levels of sunlight force high coffee production,
but also more weed growth. Herbicides kill the thick weeks
that spring up on the cafetal’s floor.
of a nutrious breakfast: Banana trees provide
shade for the coffee and potassium for the workers.
But in an organic system, shade trees protect the coffee,
keep weeds down, recycle nutrients, and allow for more biodiversity.
Frank leads me to the diverse species of fruit and nut trees
he’s planted between the glossy coffee bushes. Managing
this cafetal, “was a bloody accident,”
Frank grins, “but now it’s an important focus
– a potential cash crop. If the coffee starts to pay,
great. If it doesn’t, we’ll still have the fruit
Frank also uses livestock wastes to increase usable nutrients
in the soil. He ferments a mixture of locally produced milk,
cow manure, ashes, and molasses. “Making my own fertilizer
from locally sourced materials is an important way to reduce
costs and minimize dependency on corporations.” The
bacteria that resides in the gut of the cow multiplies in
the fermentation process, and Frank sprays this innoculant
on the ground under coffee bushes. The bacteria allow the
plants to more readily access soil nutrients.
Coffee prices have been dropping for several years as cheaper
coffee from new Asian producers floods the market. In Costa
Rica, farmers often make less than the cost of production.
Small conventional coffee farms, especially, are being forced
out of business at present.
Growing coffee organically, however, can be financially viable
thanks to substantially higher prices enjoyed during 2003.
But farmers need to have market connections for their organic
product, become educated about organic growing methods, and
front a yearly inspection fee to a private certifying agency.
Even if farmers are interested in transitioning, they face
years of reduced coffee yield.
Frank’s reality has been a 75 percent drop in production
since cutting out chemical fertilizers. “It’s
sort-of irrelevant to focus only on high yields, when conventional
coffee is paying such that you don’t make any profit.”
Frank raises his hands, “four times zero is still zero.”
Luckily, for Frank and about 10 native Costa Rican farmers
in the Rivas area, an organic coffee cooperative is digging
in its heels. Under the umbrella organization Montaña
Verde, the Grupo de Productores de Café is helping
organic farmers to successfully grow, process, and market
their coffee. It was jump-started by a variety of European
and Costa Rican organizations, along with a grant from the
United Nations Development Fund. Funding will decrease yearly,
as the co-op becomes more self-sustaining.
Co-op helps farmers scale up to hang
The co-op has enabled the purchase of an environmentally
sensitive, low water-use coffee processor, provided a market
connection, and subsidized inspection fees. The co-op is also
a forum where farmers connect with one another and trade information.
This combination of outside support and farmer cooperation
is critical for these farmers’ survival. Most coffee
farms in this area of Costa Rica are a few acres or less –
it’s simply not possible for a farm of this size to
pay for certification, as well as to process and market its
power: The new chancadora will
replace hand-pulpers for co-op members. Note:
The process produces miel, a liquid waste.
The excavation, below, accommodates a holding tank,
transition pipes then perforated drain pipes in
a leach field, all up-slope from a "living
machine" wetlands carefully designed to consume
all the discharge through beneficial biological
I sit in on a co-op meeting. We share black coffee and sweet
bread, then sit around wooden tables. Carlos, an employee
of Montaña Verde, leads the group. My ears perk up
and my mind scrambles to follow the campesinos’
(farmers’) quick Spanish. They talk of loans and group
organization. I fade in and out of the conversation, watching
their quick black eyes and sun-weathered faces, feeling the
anticipation growing in the air.
Before the meeting I toured the new coffee machine and drying
buildings. The unit arrived too late last year for the harvest,
so this will be its inagural season. The farmers are anxious.
With good organization and cooperation, the group will successfully
process and market their high-quality, rainy season coffee
to Europe and the US, where it will be roasted and sold.
The group will roast their own seconds and dry-season coffee
with a tostadora, yet to be purchased. They’ll
market this coffee in Costa Rica. “This group,”
Frank says, “serves as an alternative for people here
who aren’t making any money farming. That’s the
beauty of it – conventional farmers can see the niche.”
Frank is proud to be a founding member of the co-op. “Maybe
my presence will be one little piece of making it viable.
I couldn’t and wouldn’t be doing coffee without
With the start of the coffee season and the new processing
machine, coffee is the buzz around town, at least among farmers.
I witness some of the first coffee to pass through the processor,
or chancadora – including some that we picked
that morning in Frank’s cafetal. The machine
grinds off the coffee beans’ outer hull, and separates
the miel into a giant basin. Farmers will return both of these
by-products to the soil. The coffee beans will soak in water
overnight, then be spread to dry for at least a week.
We truck several bags of the gooey sweet hulls back to the
farm, with grins on our faces and the receipt for five and
a quarter cajuelas (one cajuela equals 17
liters) tucked in Frank’s wallet. This is just more
than 1 percent of Frank’s harvest for the year.
Frank grips the steering wheel with both hands as we jostle
our way home on the river-rock studded road. His eyes shine.
“This is really exciting,” he admits.
Indeed. The promising beginning of this Costa Rican coffee
cooperative offers a glimmer of hope for small farmers everywhere
who can join forces and link up with collaborators interested
in their sustainable future.
Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer, sustainable farming
advocate and recent college graduate.
Frank can be contacted at email@example.com.
Montaña Verde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.