Susanna’s Costa Rican Sojourn: San Isidro del General
A small-scale forest farm bucks the local trend to level forests and monocrop for quicker cash
On a nine-acre farm on the southeast quadrant of Costa Rica, two Hawaiian transplants gather local wisdom and traditional plant varieties from older farmers while modeling the benefits of biodiversity for a younger generation
By Susanna Meyer

*Toucan drawing © Kevin MacDonald 2003

 

Farm 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, 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 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:
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.

Coming Soon:
Finca Pura Suerte
La Florida
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
Turrialba, 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.



 

Susanna's Notes:

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 amrtasa@yahoo.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."

www.cedeco.or.cr
www.agriculturaorganica.org

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 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.

Pasture perfect: It takes grazing livestock and faithful machete work to keep pastures in grass and fencerows visible..
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.

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 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 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.

Outdoor 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 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.