I used to dream of a simpler life in which I might have a conversation like this:
What time is it? June.
What do we do in June?
We watch the crops grow.
For decades I was immersed in a fastpaced, professional career that required long hours and long commutes on congested, suburban expressways – renowned for having only two seasons, winter and under-construction. I dreamed of living somewhere warm, being unhurried and creating something of value with my hands.
Maybe I’ll raise sheep, I mused on the most difficult days, not really thinking that I would.
A few years ago I seized the opportunity to retire early and move from the United States to Costa Rica. I found myself on a small farm, chosen for its spectacular view, then noticed a kindling of my lifelong yearning to grow things.
As I learned to identify the strange, tropical plants around me, I recalled pleasant childhood summers at my grandparents’farm in New England. I could see the lush crops covering the gently sloping hills and my grandfather’s truck filled with bushels of produce ready for market. I remembered the flavors of simple meals in my grandmother’s kitchen with foods fresh from the fields and orchards.
My farm is in the mountainous, western part of the canton of Puriscal, in the central Pacific region. Although it had not been cultivated for several years, it continued to produce coffee and many kinds of fruit, which had been planted by the previous owner.
The name Puriscal comes from purisco, meaning “bean blossom” and a small bird of the same name that frequents the flower. In the mid-20th century, much of Puriscal was deforested to make pasture for beef cattle for the expanding U.S. market. The deforestation led to serious soil erosion and loss of natural water retention. Some efforts are under way to promote reforestation, but much good topsoil has been lost.
Although only 70 kilometers from San José, the distance seems farther, because in many ways it is like going back 80 years in time. Electricity arrived in this region only 10 to 15 years ago, the roads are challenging, cell phone reception is iffy and we are still waiting for telephone landlines. Pickup trucks are more common than cars, and horses are more common than trucks. Two nearby farms still operate the traditional sugar mills called trapiches. Most farm work is done with machetes, shovels and pickaxes, with only an occasional chainsaw or gas-powered weed cutter. A few folks still use oxen for heavy work.
Last year, as I planted a vegetable garden, a campesino neighbor told me of his bean crop, which had become ready for market at the same time as many other bean crops. As the supply increased, the price dropped, and his labor netted him very little income.
“Deciding what to plant is like playing the lottery,” he lamented.
“I plan to eat what I grow,” I said.
“You need to have a lot of money to grow your own food,” he said, a reply that puzzled me.
Even though my soil is very poor, I insisted on using no chemical pesticides or fertilizers. The yield was sparse.
Clearly I had a lot to learn, so I turned to the pioneers. I consulted Tico Times gardening columnist Ed Bernhardt’s classic, “The Costa Rican Organic Home Gardening Guide.” A friend who is a U.S. expat with nearly 30 years of organic farming experience in Costa Rica gave me a book on companion planting, “Carrots Love Tomatoes,” by Louise Riotte. I bought Patrick Whitefield’s “Permaculture in a Nutshell,” which describes energy-efficient agriculture design principles, modeled on sustainable forests and meadows. I joined my local organic coffee growers’ cooperative, and they gave me some California red worms, which are earthworms specially suited to rocky soil. I started making compost with vegetable scraps from the kitchen. When John Jeavons of the nonprofit environmental consultancy Ecology Action, based in northern California, came to Costa Rica to give a workshop on sustainable organic agriculture, I was ready.
Jeavons teaches the Grow Biointensive method, a system of mini-farming that produces high yields through the use of composting to build and maintain healthy soil, special digging and planting methods, and seed and water conservation (see separate story).
Soil-depleting monoculture is replaced with a sustainable variety of crops, selected for nutrition and income. Jeavons provides a vision of local communities growing most of their own food without relying on fossil fueldependent transportation or chemical fertilizers and insecticides.
Enrollment in the workshop included a copy of Jeavons’ book, “How to Grow More Vegetables,” plus supplementary materials addressing farming in the tropics. I enjoyed meeting people from Paraguay, Mexico, Chile, Ecuador, Denmark and New York’s Long IslandUniversity, as well as Ticos and North Americans living in Costa Rica.
Following the advice to start small and do it right, I planted some beds and started preparing compost. I have some beef cattle whose manure has nutrients to contribute. Some readers may be thinking that cattle are not sustainable. But my place has a lot of pasture, even though I am reforesting. Something has to eat it. Maybe I really will raise sheep someday.
I’m starting with the vegetables I like, plus some corn for the newly arrived chickens. I also planted amaranth, a type of grain native to Central America. Next year I plan to experiment with a variety of vegetables to see which can be grown well in my area and for which there is a local market or a market niche can be created. My approach is somewhat a la tica – easing into it slowly to see how it goes.
Growing healthy soil takes time. Isn’t there a way small, Tico farmers could earn a living now, while shifting toward sustainable methods? I wonder about the future. What will the world be like in 10 to 15 years? What effects will we see from climate change? If the world replaces petroleum with bio-fuels to meet demands for energy, will that change affect food production? If Costa Rican farmers started restoring their soil today, would the effort pay valuable dividends in the future?
I’m just beginning to learn about food production, but I hope to exchange produce and know-how with the people around me. If my mini-farm becomes successful, maybe others will try it too. Then someday we can have a conversation like this:
What time is it?
The 21st century.
How do we feed everyone in the 21st century? With a more healthful, locally grown diet, produced with sustainable practices that conserve water and genetic diversity; by feeding the soil and growing communities…
Over time, it may become even more apparent that countries that do not grow their own food will need to have a lot of money to feed their people.