October 14, 2004: December 15 dawns serene
and clear. The red sun pulls up from the horizon line, and San
José, Costa Rica’s capital city, appears. Neil
and I eat an early breakfast with friends, rich black coffee
and bread, then jump in a van for the airport.
Every scene, color and sound fills with meaning this morning.
The radio’s soft Spanish babble, newspaper vendors calling
in the street, familiar beeps in traffic suddenly catch my
attention, earn a spot in my memory. The sky’s a perfect
blue with a few wispy clouds. A warm breeze gusts in the windows
as we peer out at the rush of traffic and bright billboards.
Lush green mountains rise up behind the airport.
My mind races, overwhelmed with the impending transition
from tropical farms to the cold, barren Midwest. An hour later,
as the plane jolts and lifts over the airport, city, mountains,
I indulge in memory, recalling the land and people, the farmers
in Costa Rica I’ve come to know. I remember my goals,
when I flew alone into this country, expecting to bring back
a list of practical insights, tangible methods to increase
efficiency on our Pittsburgh farm.
I check my little yellow notebook, where I’ve recorded
ideas and dreams for the farm. TO PLANT: luffa, French oregano,
cinnamon basil, Malabar spinach, stevia, Mexican marigolds.
IDEAS: *Crush eggshells and spread around crops to deter slugs.
*Seed red clover for green mulch with mustards. *Add curly
lettuce to salad mix for volume. *Weed with screwdrivers and
hand trowels. *Make newspaper pots for transplants. *Sharpen
tools well. I’ve written down a few more thoughts
– it’s a list, but not a huge one.
I remember how I gradually became aware of the differences
between tropical agriculture and farming in Pittsburgh’s
temperate climate – the different crops, methods and
timing. Most of my farming challenges in Pittsburgh stem from
timing: predicting frost dates, planning successions and season
extensions and seed-saving. These aren’t the concerns
of Costa Rican farmers. They deal with issues like heavy rain
followed by a completely dry season, and insects that don’t
die off in winter.
But even with the differences between our worlds, we are
all farmers. We worry about pesticide use and work-related
health problems, issues of fair prices and wages. We feel
pressure from our countries’ government systems and
care deeply about our land and collective future. We spend
our days on the earth, work in the sun and rain, trouble-shoot,
plan, plant, nurture and harvest.
Recounting private lessons
I remember arriving at AMRTA,
the multi-crop organic farm in the southwest section of the
country, loaded with bags and questions and excitement. I
remember long talks with Suzanne and Miguel and other volunteers
in the sesame fields; sitting on the porch in the afternoon
– watching the imposing grey rain clouds roll in; and
lively conversation over candlelit dinners full of fresh food
from the farm.
Frank Thompson at Finca
la Puebla ]in Rivas caught me off guard with his admission
that he never intended to farm, “I imagined myself swinging
in a hammock,” he had said with a laugh. But the coffee
fields on his property couldn’t be ignored, and now
the farm work, he says, “keeps me physically and mentally
active, and fits with my values.”
I reached Pura
Suerte near La Florida during a break in the rainy season.
After months of living in the middle of a misty cloud, something
as simple as light in the sky and a couple hours of clear
weather made the farmers smile. We ventured into the fields,
and let our eyes rest on the distant coast, giddy with the
light on our faces and the view.
and Peg Schar’s sloping cafetals plucking
ripe coffee berries and dropping them into the woven basket
strapped tight against my stomach, I learned the details of
coffee harvesting. I remember keeping an eye out for vine
snakes and grusanos, stinging caterpillars on the
coffee plants. I dripped sweat and struggled to keep my footing
on the steep hill, engrossed in Mark and Elgar’s farmer
talk, which wove between Spanish and English.
I remember Gilberth Lobo, one of the twenty-four Costa Rican
farmers at Finca
la Bella in San Luis. His small, diverse farm thrives
even with his lack of resources and time. We toured the rolling,
interwoven farm with Gilberth and a young neighbor whose eyes
and ears were wide. The farm we saw that day was artful, productive,
and beautiful – it obviously feeds Gilberth’s
soul as well as his body.
In late November Neil joined me just as the rainy season
was beginning on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. I remember
our amazement the afternoon we skimmed across a calm, turquoise
ocean to reach Punta
Mona – the farm by the sea. The feel of community
was strong here, evidenced by large group meals, star-gazing
expeditions, and swim-breaks in salt water. Colorful hand-painted
signs guided visitors through the fruit trees and living spaces;
ample gardens and locally sourced structures provided for
a real crowd.
Farm in San Gerardo I will take the grounded look in Robert’s
eyes as he held one of the babies, Moses, in the arugula patch
by the house. He talked about farming and biodynamics while
shifting the baby from arm to arm and inspecting our baskets
of small green leaves. He was perfectly at home meshing farm
These memories, warm as the Costa Rican midday sun, turn
slowly through my mind as the plane whips over entire countries.
Hours later we land in big, brown, flat Houston. The temperature
is in the forties and the crowd in its subdued hued clothing
seems to reflect its environment, quiet and a little cold.
We transfer to a flight to Pittsburgh and arrive at night.
At the airport we meet friends. I step outside and crunch
on snow, breathe fresh sharp air. We’re home.
With me now, and forever
Now, two months later, I sit at the bright yellow kitchen table
in my apartment. It’s a grey day in Pittsburgh, and there’s
a patterned cityscape of roofs out my window, a shade darker
than the sky. The wind blows clattering treetops. Wet snow layers
the ground. In winter’s stark beauty, it is hard to imagine
green growth. I miss Costa Rica’s lush excesses of noise,
color, vegetation. I think of the Costa Rican farmers who work
day by day, sharpening their machetes, re-hilling beds, breaking
for coffee in the afternoon, setting out crops to dry in the
sun. Every Thursday of the year there’s a market in San
Isidro – and one every day in San José.
||"It was exciting to visit Costa
Rica, and a privilege to meet even a fraction of these
Costa Rican people who work the earth."
A few scenes have etched into my mind: Victoria and Daniel
at Finca la Bella, elderly and stooped and pointing out herbs
and vegetables in their backyard; Louis on the terrace at
Pura Suerte waxing on about weeds, using yuca as a tiller
and interplanting herbs with vegetables. The farmers in Rivas
meeting about their coffee cooperative, a mixture of excitement
and a flicker of doubt as they try out the coffee processor
for the first season. The vast variety of volunteers I met
from Sweden, Japan, Australia and Germany, as well as from
Canada and the United States, whose names are scrawled in
my address book. I have learned from these people –
these farmers – about perseverance, motivation and energy,
about creative problem solving and resilience.
It was exciting to visit Costa Rica, and a privilege to meet
even a fraction of these Costa Rican people who work the earth.
They have broadened my ideas of what it means to be farmer,
what we do and where we live. I am humbled and grateful to have
been invited into these farmers’ lives for a short time,
to experience their world and record what I see.
I also remember and miss writing on the beach—sand
on my sarong and between my toes, sun on my skin and in my
eyes, the ocean tossing little white waves at the beach. Most
often I would be munching on a “Bioland” organic
granola bar, amazingly available in grocery stores, no matter
how large or small, in every nook and cranny of the country.
It’s been weeks since I’ve bared skin to the
sun. But the days are lengthening, and I just sent in the
seed order for this season. My new farming network of friends
and mentors is in the back of my mind, their attitudes, quirks
and style. Rather than the long list of tips I expected to
bring back, I’ve returned with renewed energy for farming.
When I plan for the season, network with other farmers or
finally step into the field this spring, I’m supporting
the hope and vision of an internationally connected group.
I’ve brought back a list of ideas, a host of memories
and the realization that the sustainable farming network is
Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer and urban farmer
in Pittsburgh, PA.