Susanna’s Costa Rican Sojourn
Saying goodbye to the land of plenty
Back in Pittsburgh, Susanna concedes that while not everything she has learned is applicable, some lessons travel well

By Susanna Meyer

*Toucan drawing © Kevin MacDonald 2003

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.

In Mark 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.

From Home 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 and family.

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.

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 worldwide.

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