Farm at a Glance
AMRTA (Aldea Maestra Reserva de Tierra
Pedregoso, Costa Rica
Location: Pedegoso is a small
town about 7 or 8 km west of San Isidro del General.
Size: 9 acres
Operation: Non-certified organic
What is grown (for income):
Flowers to a Mexican restuarant, coffee and vegetable
greens and hopefully one day, tropical woods.
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
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
Rivas, the foothills of Mt Chirripo
Finca la Puebla
For Frank Thompson and Sue Spencer, volunteering
at an Ontario CSA was one thing. Figuring out
how to transition a profitless Costa Rican coffee
plantation to organic sustainability is another.
A local organic-producer co-op – birthed
in protest but now internationally financed, for
a time – holds some hope for coffee profitability.
Finca Pura Suerte
Talamaca Mountain Range
Drennan farms alone on 30 acres of mountainside
virgin rainforest, pasture and permaculture plantings.
Thanks to some 50 volunteers over the past three
years – and a Quebecois family who has stayed
for a while – the farm is working. He’s
won trust with his farming neighbors through teaching
English, and now gardening, in a local school.
Profitability is next in his sites.
Siete Estrellas de Jicotea
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.
In the course of her background research Susanna's
has noted these sites a exceptional resources:
For more information about Miguel and
Suzanne and their farm, visitors and
volunteers welcome year-round.
Visit on the Internet at www.fincaamrta.com
or email to email@example.com
E xcellent Spanish-language websites on
sustainable agriculture in Latin America
“I found these webpages at an organic farm
information booth at the local farmers’
market in San Isidro del General."
and Suzanne, left, came to Costa Rica 12 years ago
each with their own ideas on how to give back.
December 1, 2003:
The little red taxi buzzes away, and I stand alone
on the side of the curved road. Fat raindops fall on my head,
and I push open my umbrella. I’ve entered the Costa
Rican rainy season – invierno (winter), which most often
means sunny mornings and deluges in the afternoon.
I turn to look around, and breathe deep. I’m on a ridge,
and behind me lies a panoramic view of lush green mountains,
dotted with light brown cows, wispy white clouds hanging low.
I look for a minute to take it all in, then cross the road
and wrestle through a tricky barbed wire gate, clutching my
bags and umbrella.
I begin a sloppy descent. Red mud squishes through green
matted growth and up the sides of my tennis shoes. Abundant
plant life surrounds me. Bright birds call and swoop by. Fat
black cows lie on their sides and regard me with wide, calm
eyes through the fence.
I weave my way downhill and enter a small clearing. Below
me, I see gardens of raised black earth, arranged around a
wooden, one-room house with a shiny metal roof. I’ve
arrived at AMRTA (pronounced am-RITA), the Aldea Maestra Reserva
de Tierra y Arboles, a nine-acre organic farm and nature reserve.
Miguel Wardell greets me first, understated and calm, with
a twinkle in his eye. His presence around the farm reminds
me of the animal lover, St. Francis of Assisi. A parrot perches
on his shoulder or head. His dogs surround him, but always
manage to arrive a minute before he does.
Then I meet Suzanne Leff, who effuses kindness. She tells
stories, laughs easily and explains processes and ideas clearly.
Her playfulness and long-swinging braids are childlike, balanced
by her experience and efficiency.
In the evening, Miguel and I don knee-high rubber boots --
ubiquitous and necessary in this rainy season -- and walk
back up the hill. In the afternoon I’d paid more attention
to keeping my shoes dry than to my surroundings. I’d
been walking through a carefully designed area of the farm
based on the permaculture concept of generational sustainability.
Shade-loving Ethiopian coffee plants send out spindly branches
and shiny dark leaves. They thrive many meters beneath a canopy
of eucalyptus, bananas, and too many tropical trees for me
to keep straight.
Weeds, trees and machetes
As we hike, I try to imagine the farm’s recent transformation.
Suzanne and Miguel, who own the land, came to this farm more
than 12 years ago. They hacked their way through just to feel
the lay of the land. “It was covered in grass and weeds
as tall as your head – they call them monte here,”
Suzanne remembers. “We couldn’t walk anywhere
without a machete – we macheted our way down to the
river,” she smiles. I picture the farm’s current
organization in my mind, its separate yet connected parts
of permaculture forest, pasture and garden.
Suzanne and Miguel had lived in Hawaii for many years. They
farmed “every square inch” of their one-acre plot,
Suzanne says. They were attentive to the quality of the food
they ate, attempting to avoid pesticide contamination and harming
the environment. They decided to become more self-sufficient,
but needed more land, and a second honeymoon to Costa Rica ended
up presenting them with the farm.
perfect: It takes grazing livestock and
faithful machete work to keep pastures in grass
and fencerows visible..
The climates of Hawaii and Costa Rica are ostensibly similar,
and land prices in Costa Rica were low enough to make farming
a viable occupation, so they decided to give it a shot. “But
it’s completely different,” Suzanne says, with
a wry look. “It’s a struggle to grow some things
in the tropics – but a lot grows really well, and that’s
what we concentrate on.”
Some plants grow a little too well. Farm management at AMRTA
includes a couple of cows and a single white horse, to help
control teeming vegetation. A weed-whacker, or chopeadora,
as Costa Ricans call it, helps as well. Suzanne says, “We
still do a lot of chopping – that’s the word they
use here – ’cause it’s not mowing...”
When I ask her how she discovered farming, Suzanne tells
me of her life-long passion for nature. “Ever since
I was a little girl, I wanted to be on the earth. When I was
5 years old someone pulled a radish out of the ground –
I couldn’t believe it. I ate it...and that was it,”
she shrugs and opens her hands. A surprising burst of early-afternoon
sunshine plays across the cement floor of the open-air kitchen,
and her eyes gaze past me to the gardens and sesame fields.
Passing on a love for plants
me shelter: Greenhouses take some of the
climatic pressure off plants. In the winter, plastic
diverts the rain, in the summer dark cloths shade
She tells me she’s always had a penchant for growing
her own food. When she was in her 20s, a woman mentor invited
Suzanne to live in her home. There she learned how to grow
and process food and medicinal herbs. Suzanne tells me that
she loves her work, that it’s like play, and living
this lifestyle and teaching others is repayment to her first
mentor. “Not many women farm in this culture,”
she admits, “I get some strange looks when I’m
out in the field working hard.”
Suzanne shows me the vegetable beds, prepared in the French-intensive
method of double-digging. She explains the process –
shoveling down the depth of two shovel blades, adding a substantial
pile of green manure, hilling up the bed again, and later
dressing the transplants with compost. This compost lies in
tarp-covered mounds around the farm, is turned occasionally,
and serves as a biological foundation for the farm’s
crops. Ideally, the vegetable beds are re-dug once a year.
I help with the maintenance; we weed, then wield machetes
and trowels to chop back the viny grass that threatens to
overtake bare soil.
Miguel attributes the health of the farm’s crops to
the integrity of the soil. The farm’s tropical soil
is a rich black, but leaches nutrients easily in the rainy
season. “It’s possible with work, over time, to
develop very good soil,” he says. “It takes perseverance.
Our farm had been over-farmed, but we’re getting better
results every year.” Beans interplanted with corn help
add organic matter and fix nitrogen at the same time.
One noticeable effect of good soil quality has been a decrease
in insect damage. However, there are still a few struggles.
Jabotos (June bugs) in their larval stage eat the roots of
plants with devastating efficiency. Suzanne and Miguel set
water traps for the adult bugs to lessen larvae numbers the
following year. Miguel, the animal lover, asserts that they’d
have less insect damage if they’d use pesticides, but,
he notes, “We’re willing to share a bit with the
bugs. We figure they belong here, too.”
Suzanne lists a couple of fruits that can’t be grown
on the farm: sandwich-sized tomatoes and papayas, which can’t
stand up to the fruit flies. Other plants just can’t
handle the rain. She plants heirloom varieties whenever possible—they
adapt better to the challenges of climate than hybrids. She
selects seed from the biggest and best, in order to propagate
the plants most fit for survival in the farm’s microclimate.
The greenhouses on the farm protect crops from rain during
the winter season. They are open-air wood structures, with
clear plastic tops; in the summer shade cloths over the plastic
protect the plants from intense sun. The crops thrive with
a controlled amount of sun and water.
Miguel teaches me to save the best seed from ears of the
heirloom corn. It grew on the farm and has been hanging, its
husks knotted together, to dry from the rafters under the
metal porch roof. We shell corn from the center of the biggest
ears, leaving the small rounded seeds on the ends for corn
meal or chicken feed. He learned this technique from low-income
Mexicans, with whom he lived during 1970s. The experience
taught him, “what it takes to produce a pot of beans
or a batch of tortillas.” He learned to value food in
a deeper way.
Woodworker to tropical forester
His connection to the Costa Rican forest came through his
earlier vocation, practiced far away. He worked for many years
with wood, both as a carpenter and doing fine wood-working.
Miguel loves to use high-quality wood, including some tropical
species. He saw owning acreage in Costa Rica as an opportunity
to cultivate tropical wood species in a sustainable way. “I
felt personally indebted, responsible to repay the earth for
some of what had helped me to make a living,” he says.
eatery: James, a WWOOF volunteer from Oklahoma
at the open-air kitchen of AMRTA.
Some of the tropical trees Miguel plants at AMRTA will eventually
produce wood, but they also serve as seed-bearers for the
future, for propagation and distribution. Miguel hopes to
be a model for his Costa Rican neighbors (or ticos, as Costa
Ricans affectionately call themselves). The AMRTA permaculture
forest is a unique haven, surrounded by cleared areas which
are covered in coffee or used for pasture. The neighbors notice
The locals are watching the woodlot grow. Miguel hopes to
communicate the necessity of wooded areas, and to inspire
others to devote at least part of their farms to woodlots.
He wants to show the ways that trees benefit wildlife, hold
moisture and stop erosion. Trees planted on steep areas provide
these ecological contributions until they produce firewood,
food, or building materials.
Miguel worries about the short-term mentality of most tico
farmers he’s met. “When we first came here the
neighbors advised us to cut down everything and monocrop in
order to make money with cattle, sugar cane, or coffee. They
thought we should cut every tree on the farm, that it wasn’t
viable to plant trees. It’s not a quick enough yield.”
Miguel smiles. “But I was raised with the saying, ‘Don’t
put all your eggs in one basket.’ We decided that even
though we’re a small farm, we could multicrop. We planted
many different species, including endangered ones, to serve
as an alternative model.”
Cultivating local wisdom
While the younger generation of their neighbors is focused
on cashcrops for the bottom line, Susanne and Miguel seek
out the wisdom of old-timers. These farmers often know native
species that grow well without chemicals, or have valuable
Suzanne points out a grandiose okra plant, its wide leaves
lush and red-veined. An old tico gave her seeds for the variety,
and told her to roast the plant’s seeds and grind them
for a caffeine-free coffee substitute. Ticos call this beverage
cafe chiricano, referring to the native Chiricano tribes who
evidently discovered its use. Papas chiricano grow on the
farm as well, producing abundant potatoes.
Both Suzanne and Miguel remark on the experience and efficiency
of traditional tico farmers. Ticos taught them to plant ash-loving
squash in burn piles, and to plant pole beans to climb up
corn stalks. With perpetually sharpened knives and shovels,
ticos accomplish amazing amounts of work. However, “the
generation of young men who can swing a knife for 6 hours
is dying,” Suzanne says. Chemicals have made farming
in Costa Rica less physically intensive, though more expensive
and dependent on other countries.
Miguel feels optimistic, however, about the direction the
country is heading, in terms of organic farming. Market and
consumer consciousness is growing, and the government offers
tax incentives for organic growing. It benefits the country
economically to keep resources here rather than importing
and paying US chemical companies for fertilizers and pesticides.
Suzanne notes that up until a year ago only one booth at the
local feria (fair – farmers’ market) was organic.
Now there are six.
Suzanne and Miguel support the movement as they can. They
are becoming increasingly sustainable as the farm’s
biological and agricultural systems develop. They keep good
records and use intuition, build up their soil with compost
and green matter, and time field operations by moon and rain
The innovative farmers also takes advantage of the nematicidal
properties of sesame hulls, adding them to their soil used
for seedlings and transplants. Sesame and peanuts provide
protein foods (tahini and peanut butter) for their table,
supplemented by other vegetables and fruits. Table crops include
sweet peppers, tomatillos, ground cherries, cilantro, different
kales, mustard, tat soi and collards.
They buy organic feed for their chickens, supporting a local
farmer and at the same time encouraging him to continue growing
in a sustainable way. For income they sell the flower of the
roselle bush -- used to make a citrusy pink tea -- to a local
Mexican restaurant, and also sell their coffee and vegetable
They have an intern program that supports their farm with
their money and labor (“we couldn’t do this alone,”
Suzanne emphasizes), and the organic farming movement by teaching
new people about growing healthy food.
Both Suzanne and Miguel feel that the most important and
satisfying aspect of their farm is educating and connecting
with people who have never had a chance to see food travel
from field to table. “This is a grass-roots way to connect
people with the land and show that there are alternatives,”
Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer, sustainable farming
advocate and recent college graduate.