Susanna’s Costa Rican Sojourn: Home Farm
Filling a niche
Growing at 4200 feet, Home Farm specializes in mixed salad greens and specialty breads for the bustling San Isidro Farmers' Market

By Susanna Meyer

*Toucan drawing © Kevin MacDonald 2003
 

Farm at a Glance

Home Farm
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 farmers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"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."

--Robert Ayers on his weekly trip to the San Isdro Farmer's Market

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:

Final Thoughts

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.

 

September 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 vegetables.

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 Isidro Valley.

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.