Farm at a Glance
San Gerardo, Alajuela
Location: San Gerado is located
at the base of Mt. Chirripo about five miles south
of San Isidro.
Size: 8 acres
Operation: Sells organic bagged
lettuce through the San Isidro Farmers's Market.
What is grown: Mixed greens,
peppers, other vegetables; brokering for other
"I’m novel, you
know. I’m the only gringo.This is my social event.
I’m busy, I’m hopping. It’s in my
--Robert Ayers on his weekly
trip to the San Isdro Farmer's Market
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
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.
14, 2004: I first meet Robert Ayers—a
sprightly middle-aged man known for his bagged lettuce mix
and specialty breads—in the bustling San Isidro Farmers’
Market. The rumor passed from traveler to traveler is that
San Isidro is Central America’s fastest growing city.
Judging by the number of vendors and shoppers at the weekly
farmers' market, I wouldn’t be surprised. People bus
into the city from a wide radius on Thursday mornings and
afternoons to peruse the never-ending rows of booths that
merge together, piled high with tropical fruits and bright
Robert is the only gringo selling at the huge market, and his
booth is at the far end, in the short row of organically-farmed
produce. He’s surfer-cool and friendly, though he has
a reputation for being a hard worker and expecting the same
from his volunteers. After a short conversation, my friend Neil
and I agree to visit Robert's farm – to spend a week working
and getting to know the operation.
We bus up from Rivas, the town near Finca Puebla, one afternoon,
unknowingly choosing a festival day to travel, complete with
parades and a tope, or rodeo. The one refurbished
school bus that heads up toward the mountain is packed with
worn-out festival goers, and we mash into the back, sweating.
As the bus climbs, bouncing on the dirt road, the air feels
cooler. The vegetation out the window changes. People make
their way off the bus, little by little, until Neil and I
have seats, then room to spread out. We get off near the end
of the line – near San Gerardo, the last town at the
base of Costa Rica’s highest mountain, Mt. Chirripo,
which peaks around 12,500 feet.
Robert’s farm, called “Home Farm,” sits
at 4200 ft. The evenings are cool enough for a sweatshirt
or two, and the variety of vegetables that Robert can grow
is more extensive than that on most Costa Rican farms. The
soil on Home Farm is rich, naturally fertile, and amended
with a variety of additives. Robert pays a tico (Costa
Rican) to collect cabbage and corn scraps from market and
then layers them in compost piles. We build a couple more
bins, lacing wooden pallets together with wire to form open-topped
containers. We fill them with a mix of green compost; manure
from a neighbor’s dairy farm; and the corn cobs and
stalks, which allow air to circulate. Robert also tosses in
some biodynamic preparations – he’s been dabbling
in biodynamics (BD), using local dandelions and other BD-significant
additives in his compost. Eventually, he tells me, he’d
like to involve biodynamics more comprehensively on the farm,
and “get the community more opened up to the idea.”
Building on Costa Rica's organic potential
Robert feels that Costa Rica, in general, is wide open to
new farming ideas, and ready for change. He doesn’t
feel alone. “Ticos are receptive to organic growing,”
he says, with a quick raise of his shoulders. “The environment
is polluted, their family members are getting sick –
you especially see a lot of stomach cancer, from the chemicals
used in the coffee fields. Also using chemical fertilizers
costs more money than farming organically.” Robert’s
neighbor and friend, Luis, is an organic pillar in the community.
He grows coffee, raises cattle, and produces bio-gas.
“At the same time,” Robert says, “[growing
the organic community] can be very difficult.” He would
like to start a local co-op, but most Costa Rican farmers
grow for export rather than the local markets where Robert
sells produce. “Many farmers already have their niche.”
Robert’s niche is salad greens. In addition to the San
Isidro market, he sells to a few up-scale restaurants in the
coastal areas. He also serves as a middleman for other farmers,
buying their lettuce and marketing it to restaurants. He has
agreements with several farmers by which they grow his lettuce
mix and sell it to him wholesale, so that he can then put
it on his table at the market.
Robert has been farming for 30-plus years, he proudly tells
us, and he’s been in Costa Rica for seven. Six of those
years he spent managing Finca Ipe, a well-established vegetable
and herb farm that accepts WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities
on Organic Farms) volunteers. For the past year he’s
been farming his own land.
Raised beds of dark soil rest on either side of the quaint
turquoise home he shares with his partner Emily and their
twin babies. The yard-farm seems anything but incongruous
– growing food and savoring it is obviously a natural
and comfortable lifestyle for Emily and Robert.
Emily, with draping long blond hair and a soft British accent,
serves us several gourmet meals, including home-made pizza
with arugula leaves arranged in a delicate outward spiral
and a salad straight from the day’s harvest. We appreciate
the flavorful food, recognizing in the candlelight the small,
spicy leaves we snipped from a sea of greens that bright morning.
Around the house, Robert grows his arugula in small beds.
A ten-minute walk up the road, however, leads to spreading
gardens and a couple of typical Costa Rican greenhouses, open-aired
structures with thin white plastic roofs. The beds are high,
black and obviously fertile, and inter-planted. Fiery orange
nasturtiums, their leaves like thin lily-pads, twine around
lettuce and mustard. Huge pepper plants grow in one greenhouse,
their bright red, sweet fruits decorating the branches like
a tropical Christmas tree. Robert doesn’t know the name
of the pepper variety, but explains that a Costa Rican friend
gave him the seeds of the locally-common vegetable.
This seven-acre plot belongs to a relative, and it's here
that Robert does most of his farming. We water transplants,
sprout herb cuttings, build compost piles, harvest salad greens
and kale and peppers, and watch the sun set over the hazy
valley below. On clear days we catch glimpses of Mt. Chirripo,
which looms behind us as we work.
Robert is intense, and demanding, but not unreasonable, we
discover. He has years of experience growing and marketing
produce, and plenty of tested theories. “Stack it high,”
he bellows, about everything from produce at market to organic
matter in the beds. Neil and I add compost and fertilizer
to the beds, spreading it thick where new lettuce transplants
will be planted. Robert starts transplants in his own mix
of screened compost, fertilizer, rock dust, peat moss, and
sand. He fertilizes with fish emulsion as much as possible
without burning, and sets out plants as soon as they’re
gaining momentum, before they get root-bound.
Robert adds an incredible amount of organic matter to his beds,
which translates into quick-growing, low-pest, bright, healthy
lettuce. He cuts once a week, and says that a stand of lettuce
usually lasts five or six cuttings, depending on the variety.
One wide bed of mesclun mix is inter-planted with short red
clover. Robert mixed the seed at planting as an experiment –
the clover shades out weeds and fixes nitrogen. We cut the baby
greens from the lush growth. Robert seems pleased with the results
of this trial bed.
Even with his extensive farming know-how, Robert continues
to learn. His ultimate goals are to produce most of his family’s
food on the farm; to incorporate animals like goats, cows,
chickens, turkeys, and rabbits, growing their feed on the
farm and using the manure for composting. He’d also
like to start aquaculture, fruit trees and learn more about
biodynamic management practices.
Robert has a lot of energy. Even as we bounce our way to
the San Isidro Farmer’s Market on a cold rainy morning,
he’s hyped. Robert, Emily, Neil and I are crammed into
the steamy cab of a little pick-up truck. I ask Robert if
he enjoys the farmers’ market – all the work picking
lettuce and baking his bread the night before, the set-up,
tear-down, and all the bustle at the market itself. “Yeah.”
He nods emphatically. “I’m novel, you know. I’m
the only gringo. This is my social event. I’m busy,
I’m hopping. It’s in my blood.”
The familiar market-farmer’s anticipation I feel in
Pittsburgh is here, too, in a pick-up on a back road in Costa
Rica. I smile and crane my head to peer beyond wildly flapping
windshield wipers to the road ahead, leading into the San
Anyone with serious interest in working with Robert on Home
Farm should meet him in the organic section of the San Isidro
Farmers’ Market, which runs every Thursday from 9 to
4 p.m. Robert’s interest is in willing workers and learners,
and possibly a farm manager. Couples and families with children
are especially welcomed.
Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer and urban farmer
in Pittsburgh, PA.