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
San Isidro del General
Aldea Maestra Reserva de Tierra y Arboles
Suzanne and Miguel came to this
farm 12 years ago, and macheted through just to
see the lay of the land. “We couldn’t
walk anywhere without a machete,” Suzanne
remembers. I picture the farm’s current
organization in my mind, its separate yet connected
parts of permaculture forest, pasture and garden.
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.
must be something
in the water:
Left: Susanna and her mother try to bring
life to Ohio's dying soil. Below: Susanna, today,
seems to have a destiny with the land.
November 7, 2003:
Just as early autumn
brings color to the trees of otherwise industrially gray Pittsburgh,
I find myself by myself, aisle seat in a small plane, its
roar and buzz drowning out my headphones. Grey-white light
seeps in the sides. I’m flying to Houston, then bustling,
exotic –and green -- San Jose, Costa Rica.
My mind wanders, wonders where this farming stuff all began.
Familiar stories surface. My grandparents, visionaries, bought
land in the ‘70s, in the country. Eastern Ohio land,
conflicted woodland, zones of un-reclaimed strip mine, and
a few acres of viable farmland with pasture and orchard, all
wedged together in the northern rolling hills of Appalachia.
My young and ambitious parents helped plant thousands of pines
in the strip-mined moonscape, resulting in scraggly bits of
green in the naked orange soil. They moved to this land --
the “farm” -- before I was born. They homesteaded,
rebuilt the barn, and started to grow their own food in the
gardens – plots of lush green in contrast to strip-mined
waste. The curved fields of corn, beans, squash and strawberries
hugged the hill below the old orchard. They planted a kitchen
garden in the rich black soil of an abandoned pig pen. My
dad picked arrowheads and grinding stones out of newly-tilled
ground. They raised cackling laying hens and pastured fat,
I was born, and grew in the midst of this discovery and connection
to the land. I learned to love early fall apples, their crisp
taste tart on my tongue, and the feel of spring earth between
my toes as I tamped down pea seeds behind my dad. I dug potatoes,
dirty brown treasure, and found my own worked-flint bits –
light and sharp in my small fingers. I saw, felt, and smelled
the difference in land -- thick dark woods, fresh green fields,
and the acrid barren gullies of the strip mine, where heat
waves rippled up from the shaley surface and even thrifty
pines grew a jaundiced yellow.
I learned the contours of the strip-mined land as the pines
grew. I towered above them, then walked beside and now weave
through their spiky branches, only my feet and the map in
my mind recognizing place. Just as that map ingrained itself
in sharp relief in my mind, so did the sensibilities of caring
for the earth – of treating the land as a living organism.
I learned careful taking, but also giving and receiving with
respect. I had experienced the destruction that occurs with
human disregard for the earth. Long before I could articulate
the specifics of sustainability or stewardship, I understood
the import of caring for all life.
Off the farm, but
still of the farm
My family moved to town when I was six, three hours away
from the farm. My siblings, dad, and I returned for summers
to garden and help my Grandma keep the place up. These summers
were freeing – we toughened our bare feet. Our skinny
arms and legs got tanned and scraped. Our minds filled with
the simple, inconsequential -- yet absorbing -- details of
summer. Absorbed deep into my child mind were the spring peepers’
and then cicadas’ song; thick, cold dew on our toes
after a clear night; hang-dog humid heat of mid-summer afternoons;
the prickle of hay in collars and pants after a sweaty hay-making;
and the vague sadness of early fall evenings, goldenrod and
purple ironweed springing out the edges of fields.
I loved this place,
this farm, these connections.
Years later, in college, these full, deep summers hung in
my distant memory, but I did not name them farming. When a
friend offered an internship at her family’s farm for
the summer, I was non-plussed. I had West Coast on the brain.
I wanted to work for the forest service in Oregon, camp in
those ancient rich forests – to go somewhere and do
something adventuresome. But the money didn’t work out,
and soon enough I found myself in the midst of Plan B: Village
Acres, an organic farm in central Pennsylvania.
The work was hard but surprisingly stimulating. I found its
simplicity and resourcefulness made sense to me. Even painfully
early mornings held benefits, like watching the upside-down
bowl of sun tilt into the bottomlands by the creek. I learned
to feel the ripeness of full tomatoes or berries by touch,
and once again I ate food straight from the field –
or in the field -- like warm strawberries in the afternoon,
their near-ripe sweetness making the hot sun’s rays
on my skin even more tangible.
I liked working with people, too, finding the solace that
simple common labor and good conversation provide. But I didn’t
want to farm, I remember stating specifically. Too much responsibility.
Not enough flexibility or freedom.
I look back now with an enlightened view of freedom. It is
a freedom – and privilege – to work with my hands
in the soil. To cultivate food, to work with the land, to
connect, watch, nurture, and participate in the processes
of growth and regeneration.
in concept and the soil
The spring before my senior year of college my dad convinced
me to accompany him to a farming conference at Dennison University,
near the farm where I had lived for my first formative years.
I decided to attend with vague interest. I left the conference
with the feeling that I held precious -- yet largely unusable
I mostly forgot about this experience with the bustle of
my senior year of college, but some ideas resurfaced, unexpectedly,
in an environmental history course my last semester. For an
assignment to write a degradation narrative, I found myself
pulling together information I had garnered through farm experiences
and the conference. My research convinced me further of the
destructiveness of corporate agriculture, and of the restorative
power -- for land and communities -- of small-scale organic
farms. My draw to work with the land, and an articulated justification
for this work, meshed together.
During 2003 I held internships with PASA (Pennsylvania Association
for Sustainable Agriculture) and Mildred’s Daughters
Urban Farm – the only remaining agricultural land in
Pittsburgh. Mildred’s Daughters is five acres of woodland
and cultivated land, sandwiched in the residential Stanton
Heights neighborhood. The acreage has been farmed for over
70 years, mainly by the Italian DiCaprio family.
Five years ago two women -- Randa Shannon and Barb Kline,
partners, dreamers, networkers, and peacemakers -- bought
the land. They offered it to a friend to farm while they fixed
the house, then began to work the acre and a half of arable
land themselves, selling their diverse vegetables, herbs,
and flowers at Pittsburgh farmers’ markets.
Barb and Randa hold a liberal ideal for the farm, seeing
themselves as caretakers of a community resource. They envision
educational programs, a straw bale retreat in the woods, and
a passive solar greenhouse to augment their small existing
greenhouse. During 2003 they formed a farm board with more
than 20 members to aid in decision-making with legal issues,
and to provide ideas and labor for the land.
I came to the farm as the previous years’ interns had,
through a volunteer service program entitled Mennonite Urban
Corps, located about a mile from the farm. Another woman intern
and I participated in many aspects of running the farm, from
seed-starting to planting, successions, integrated pest management,
processing, and marketing. We dealt with the unique benefits
and problems of a small-scale farm in the midst of an urban
area. And we became intrigued with the idea of reducing our
off-farm inputs to a minimum, through simple technology and
I began to think about our context; our farm situation is
isolated mainly due to its development-locked location. Farmers
all over the world have found ways of producing food –
enough for subsistence as well as sale, with limited resources,
transportation, fuel, space, and mechanization. Why reinvent
So, like Jason Witmer on his NewFarm.org Global Organic Odyssey
during 2003, I joined the World-Wide Opportunities on Organic
Farms (WWOOF) organization to visit farms, work, observe and
share information. I hope to return to the US and Mildred’s
Daughters Urban Farm with innovations that fit. Costa Rica,
with its history of environmental awareness and its 17 WWOOF
farms drew me as a logical destination.
NewFarm.org is giving me the chance to write so that the
web site’s community of readers can experience Central
American sustainable agriculture through the eyes of 20-something
gringa on the road and in the field.
So here I sit, alone, on a plane, heading through the sky
to new lands. The thick white clouds have long since broken
into blue. Farming has come to me as a gift and a responsibility,
not entirely asked for but not scorned. I look forward to
connecting with the farms and farmers in Costa Rica to learn
their stories, observe their skills, and hear their hope.
I’ll keep in
Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer, sustainable farming
advocate and recent college graduate.