Costa Rican organic farmer Guillermo
Campos could just as easily be a barefoot, underweight, machete-bearing,
straw hat-wearing campesino who still populates much of Latin
America and until recent decades was the norm in the Costa Rican
countryside. But Guillermo wears clean Levis and sport shoes,
his face is filled-out and exudes health, and his hair is clean
and combed. Ever since abolishing the military in 1948, Costa
Rica has made great strides in improving the well-being of its
people, and can now even boast, as the United States can’t,
universal health care.
While the economies of surrounding countries of Central America,
aggravated by a history U.S. intervention, have hemorrhaged billions
of dollars to their militaries, Costa Rica has invested in development
and in making Costa Rica the tropical world’s environmental
showcase. The growing Costa Rican organic movement is evidence that
a critical percentage of consumers are educated and well-off enough
to think about the quality of their food and then to act. Guillermo
and his family are part of this movement.
Not all is going well in Costa Rica, however. The drastic fall
in coffee prices three years ago, Costa Rica’s second most
important export after bananas, and the subsequent economic fiasco
has severely affected Costa Rica and Central America. Millions of
farmers have gone bankrupt or lost their farms, and millions of
farm workers have lost their livelihood.
Prevailing free market economic policies, reminiscent of the British
government policies of ‘economic Darwinism’ of the 19th
century Irish potato famine, have influenced the Costa Rican government
to refrain from providing help to distressed and newly impoverished
rural people who, before the crash, had been dependent on the coffee
economy. Costa Rica’s comprehensive protection program for
the poor was recently eliminated. Millions of people have fled to
the cities and crime rates and urban poverty have surged. The Campos
family, when confronted with the decision to abandon agriculture
and flee the countryside, decided to stay, go organic, diversify,
and sell their produce directly to consumers.
In Costa Rica going organic takes team work and
a little concoction they call ‘Bokashi’
Guillermo, his wife Norma and four sons from their five-child family
run a four hectare diversified
organic farm just outside of Turrialba, a pleasant city in the lush
Costa Rican interior highlands. Until the coffee crisis, the Campos
farm produced mainly coffee and sugar cane. They now produce tomatos,
lettuce, celery, cucumber, string beans, broccoli, beets, chayote,
and both sweet and cooking bananas, along with coffee, all organic.
The produce is grown on one hectare, the coffee on two. The Campos’
also have layer hens and plan to bring in dairy and rabbit production
in the near future.
The Campos’ and 180 other farmers around Turrialba have formed
an organic farmers association, 40 of which, along with the Campos
farm, are certified organic. Certification was done for all 40 farms
at the same time in order to lower the costs, which otherwise would
have been prohibitive. The ongoing certification process is done
via what is known as “internal control” protocols. This
ensures that farmers comply with organic certification guidelines
while at the same time reducing the expense of farm visits by certifier
Internal control protocols for organic certification are now becoming
the norm in the smallholder organic farming sector in Latin America.
They were initially developed for smallholder coffee growers in
the state of Chiapas Mexico with help of European NGOs (non-governmental
organizations). Each group of farmers elects an internal control
inspector who must take courses in certification and the basics
of organic farming, keep an account of each farm, make regular farm
visits, and meet with certification representatives regularly.
EcoLogica, one of three USDA National Organic Program approved
certifiers in Costa Rica, was the certifying agency. EcoLogica originally
got its start using Oregon Tilth guidelines, and currently has partnership
agreements with QAI and Oregon Tilth as well as Ecocert of France
to perform inspections that satisfy the requirements of those organizations.
The cost of certification was $1800 for the 40 producers.
Guillermo makes compost using effective microorganisms or EM, an
inoculant containing Lactobacilli and photosynthetic bacteria, plus
yeasts. (More on EM can be found at www.emtrading.com.)
EM has a much wider use in Latin America than in North America,
and most of the certified organic growers in Costa Rica, and many
in Guatemala, use EM.
EM is produced at the Earth University about 70 miles from Turrialba,
which licensed the original Japanese EM culture techniques for use
in Costa Rica during the 90’s. Guillermo makes EM ‘Bokashi’,
a mash-like or compost-like product, by inoculating cooked grain
with EM and letting it ferment. This produces a microbe rich medium
which he then mixes with charcoal, molasses, milk, chicken manure,
forest soil, pig feed, and plant biomass. This mixture is moistened
and allowed to compost for eight days. Two handfuls of this compost
are put at the base of each transplant.
Turrialba is quite humid, receiving over two meters of rainfall
per year, and plant diseases are a problem, the worst being late
blight on tomatoes. Sanitary pruning of the tomato foliage is done
and lime is applied to the plant as defense against disease. White
fly (Bemisia tabaci) is the worst insect pest and it and other insect
pests are managed using homemade botanical sprays. Garlic, mint,
chamomile, and a local plant known as ruda (Ruta graveolens) are
blended and allowed to ferment in water for two days and then sprayed
on the crop. Traditional botanical insecticides are under investigation
by Dr. Reinholdt Muschler, director of the organic agriculture program
at the CATIE, the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and
Higher Education just outside of Turrialba.
Growing bananas socially sustatainably, ethically,
environmentally and sometimes even organically
Earth U. the students learn to give back to the soil
I visited one of Costa Rica’s environmental focal
points, Earth University, which inhabits a sprawling
3,000 hectare former rainforest in the humid eastern
part of the country (www.earth.ac.cr/ing/).
Earth University is a working farm as well as an accredited
agronomy program for 400 students from 22 countries.
In addition to their studies, students work the various
parts of the farm approximately 10 hours a week. Organic
and non-organic/sustainable bananas, chickens, pigs,
EM inoculant, and paper made from banana tree refuse
are the major products of the university farm.
Dr. Panfilo Tabora, professor at Earth University,
gave me a tour of the university’s production
areas. He has helped pioneer the cultivation of organic
bananas in shade, the preferred banana habitat, which
he calls “Jungle Bananas”. Organic banana’s
plant density is about half that of conventional bananas,
but Dr. Tabora says that yields will come to about 70%
of conventional production when the system is worked
out. Composts and tree leaf litter from the overstory
trees provide nutrients, and vigorous sanitation practices
help manage diseases.
The main banana crop from the university farm is conventional,
grown sustainably, which are sold commercially. Tabora
has found that when EM is added to the standard fungicides
used for controlling Black Sigatoka, the spray regime
can be cut in half to 25 times per year. Nematodes are
kept under control by keeping soil biodiversity and
microbial activity high with EM bokashi-based composts.
We toured the benign-smelling animal production facilities
– benign smelling because EM is sprayed daily
in the corrals and pens, which Tabora says has almost
completely eliminated odors and flies. The use of EM
for odor control in animal and wastewater facilities
is one area of EM use that I have seen verified in research.
The hog facility was almost odorless; and as most agriculture
people know, hog facilities generally stink to high
The vast bulk of organic production in Costa Rica is of export
crops like bananas, cocoa, coffee, blackberries, and vanilla. The
market for organic bananas in the US and EU has been growing at
over 50% per year. Black Sigatoka fungus disease, Mycosphaerella
fijiensis, and the toppling nematode, Radopholus similis, are the
biggest organic banana production problems. Often organic bananas
are grown in areas that have not had bananas before, in order to
evade Black Sigatoka and the toppling nematode. Standard sanitary
practices can be used against Black Sigatoka - cutting away dying
leaves, keeping the topsoil clean, removing the flowers from the
bunches at the right time, and covering the racemes with bags to
encourage growth and prevent damage from birds and surrounding leaves.
There is a significant movement toward certification of conventionally
grown bananas for environmental and social sustainability. The program
was formerly known as Eco-OK, and now goes under the name of Rainforest
Alliance Better Banana Program. The certification process involves
certifying banana plantations for best management practices that
protect water quality, worker health and safety, and wildlife habitat.
The Better Banana Program is mostly used by corporate banana producers
like Chiquita. Two thirds of Chiquita bananas sold in the U.S. come
from plantations certified under the Better Banana Program, and
all of their plantations in Latin America are certified. The Rainforest
Alliance works with Social Accountability International (www.cepaa.org)
on standards for social accountability, such as worker benefits,
housing and protection from pesticide exposure. (This program has
the same kinds of guidelines as Guatemala’s coffee certification
program for more details on the coffee certification process read
Coffee” by Don Lotter.)
Promising new markets: one right here at home
and one that may be a little farther away
Costa Rica’s second most important organic
export crop is cacao (Theobroma cacao), the fruit from which chocolate
is made. Currently world stocks of organic cacao are low, prices
high, and the prospects for increased production good. Like much
of the Central American coffee crop, cacao is a shade-grown crop,
and organic cacao has potential to be an environmental asset, relative
to other types of agriculture, providing bird habitat, biodiversity
and protection from erosion.
Organic cacao production techniques are under-developed and yields
average only about 200-400 kg per hectare, about half of conventional
cacao. Serious yield reductions result from three main fungal diseases:
Monilia (Moniliophthora roreri), witches’ broom (Crinipellis
perniciosa) and black pod (Phytophthora palmivora). Weekly removal
of diseased pods reduces these diseases significantly. Adjacent
abandoned or mismanaged cacao plantations as sources of inoculum
are a serious problem. Antagonist microorganisms isolated and developed
by CATIE scientists have shown promise for biocontrol of cacao diseases.
Organic soil fertility strategies need to be developed, as well
as disease resistant cacao varieties, according to Walter Rodriguez,
who works for a small farmer association in southern Costa Rica,
whose main cash crop is cacao. Quality control is another area that
needs to be developed for cacao, which takes farmer training and
a developed extension service or cooperative outreach.
Efforts are being made to focus more on the production of organic
produce for local Costa Rican consumption. A recent conference that
took place at CATIE focused on organic agriculture as a tool for
sustainable rural development and reduction of poverty. Dozens of
representatives of rural groups from around Central America discussed
their experiences with organic farming and gardening. Currently
the level of consumption is low, less than 1% of food sales. On
the demand end, consumer awareness of food quality and of the health
and environmental benefits of organic foods is lacking. Production
problems focus on obtaining adequate nitrogen for crops, weed management,
Now that the product is grown the challenge lies
in finding a market, preferably one with a price premium
Turrialba, as with most Latin American towns and cities, has a
traditional street market two or three days a week, where local
farmers, like the Campos, and produce sellers sell their goods.
The Turrialba organic growers chose to sell their produce in a separate
location, a vacant lot of the local Catholic church. In order to
be able to offer a diversity of produce, they trade with organic
producers in other parts of the country for bananas, hearts of palm,
cabbage, carrots, pineapples, potatoes, cassava root, yams, and
honey, plus anything else that is available. Organic price premiums
average 30% for the Turrialba growers produce, according to Guillermo.
Other crops, such as, bananas, cocoa and coffee have found a place
in the international market. Coffee from the Campos farm is sold
via a national association of organic coffee growers, known as La
Allianza, for $125 for a one hundred pound bag, about twice the
price that local conventional coffee sells for. La Allianza is made
up of six regional organic coffee associations and currently markets
their organic coffee to a buyer in Britain.
Costa Rican organic growers are continually pushing for the next
level of awareness in the marketplace. Costa Rica’s first
community support agriculture (CSA) effort was started in the capitol,
San Jose, by a British expatriate, Noel Payne. The 50 or so subscribers
are mostly expatriates. Noel also owns an organic produce store
in San Jose, which sells mostly to the affluent community. However,
real progress in growing food organically and sustainably will be
made in Costa Rica only when farmers are shown that organic methods
are less costly and generate better returns. Farmers here are still
on the agrichemical treadmill, but it is just a matter of time before
they see the light and step off, and farmers like Guillermo Campos
are leading the way.