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
Coming November 14, 2003:
San Isidro del General
Aldea Maestra Reserva de Tierra y Arboles (AMRTA)
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.
Coming November 21, 2003:
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
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, spotted
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
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.
Rediscovering farming 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 -- information.
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
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’
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 creativity.
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 the wheel?
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 touch.
Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer, sustainable farming advocate
and recent college graduate.