at a Glance
AMRTA (Aldea Maestra Reserva de Tierra y Arboles)
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
from the roselle bush to a Mexican restuarant, coffee
and vegetable greens locally and hopefully one day,
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
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
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
Visit on the Internet at www.fincaamrta.com
or email to firstname.lastname@example.org
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
|Miguel, right, 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
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
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...” she laughs.
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
|Give me shelter:
Greenhouses take some of the climatic pressure off plants.
In the winter, plastic diverts the rain, in the summer
dark cloths shade the sun.
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
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 than 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.
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 difference.
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 attributes.
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 cycles.
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 greens locally.
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,” says Miguel.
Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer, sustainable farming advocate
and recent college graduate.