Susanna’s Costa Rican Sojourn: Part 1, Beginnings
How strip mine spoils and organic soils shaped
a young woman’s resolve to farm in nature’s image
Through a slow odyssey from joyful childhood years on a family farm to an intellectual understanding, in college, of the environmental and social value of small-scale farming, Susanna Meyer has unexpectedly found herself to be… a farmer.
By Susanna Meyer

*Toucan drawing © Kevin MacDonald 2003
 

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

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 profitability.

There 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:
J
ust 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 steers.

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.

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 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 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.