Eliécer Rodríguez dug through a layer of dirt and manure. He wanted to show the students, parents and teachers clustered around the long, rectangular bin something special. He pulled out a dirt clod and picked out a lanky, squiggly worm.
The worm was one of thousands beneath the surface of a composting site Rodríguez keeps in his backyard. The California red earthworms are fragile – too much light or heat will kill them – and crucial for Rodríguez ever since he decided to convert his plantation into an organic farm 14 years ago.
“These are worms for cultivating,” Rodríguez said. “It is a very small worm compared to the worms found in the grass. But these worms eat organic material.”
In other words – horse manure. The worms digest it and transform the waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer. The fertilizer is transported throughout the farm in San Luis de Grecia, northwest of San José. Rodríguez has run Finca Orgánica San Luis for 42 years. Since 1996, the farm has produced only organic products.
In the 1990s, Japanese experts on organic farming came to Costa Rica to teach their techniques. Rodríguez said his soil was tested to see if it could maintain organic crops. Once he learned the land could sustain organic crops, he switched the 15-hectare property to an organic farm.
Rodríguez said Finca San Luis is one of about 100 organic farms in Costa Rica. Still, he laments the organic food trend hasn’t caught on with Costa Rican consumers. On market days, the farm cannot compete with competitors selling cheaper, chemically treated plants.
“A small group of people, one sector, likes the organic products a lot,” Rodríguez said. “Most do not prefer it. They prefer traditional crops.”
The first Sunday of every month, Finca San Luis hosts its own market. The event does a much better job of attracting those interested in organic products.
Walking around the farm, anyone can see the organic cycle. Large, sky-blue morpho butterflies hover around a greenhouse that houses young parsley, bean and oregano plants that can’t be planted directly in the ground. Because the farm doesn’t use pesticides, it’s important to guard seedlings from bugs, rodents and armadillos.
On a recent Wednesday, a group of kindergarten- age students from CarlosManuelRojasSchool in Grecia gathered around a tree. Rodríguez stood in the center.
“The farm is here to help protect the environment,” Rodríguez told the children. “It is organic because we are trying to protect nature.”
Near the greenhouse is a pen that holds animals such as hens and sheep. On the opposite side of the farm, rows and rows of plants, including thyme, lettuce, carrots, sunflower and cauliflower, grow chemical-free.
The students from Grecia explored the area on horseback. They helped Rodríguez plant seeds and picked sweet blackberries off of bushes. The kids dug through the muck in the worm compost. Neither the worms nor the horse manure fazed them.
Their teacher, Roxana Alfaro, enjoyed watching her two dozen students experience life on the organic farm.
“They breathe in air that is different from where they live in the city,” Alfaro said. “The children learn about what they buy – and not just the final product. Supermarkets do not do every part of the growing process. The people who work the land are important.”
Parents chaperoning the trip liked the inside look offered by the farm.
“Some things stores make, we never see the full picture of how it arrives there,” said Mariana Salas, who accompanied her daughter, Nicole.
If exploring leaves visitors famished, they can head to one of two places: the spa or the restaurant. This final step in the organic tour is the most interactive. Pampered guests can receive massages with aloe, or take a seat in the sauna and inhale fresh rosemary. Those too hungry to relax can sample homemade meals cooked up by Rodriguez’s wife, María Eugenia González.
Only the bravest of visitors should risk tasting the tiny red chili peppers that populate the bushes near the farm’s entrance.
González also makes the cosmetic goods sold at the spa and tends a vibrant flower garden adjacent to the restaurant. A group of women from the San Luis Agro-industrial Women’s Association gathers with her each week to turn aloe and other crops into soaps, shampoos and medicinal products.
All the products González makes bear the name Yasü, the surname of the Japanese agriculture expert who helped Finca San Luis start its farm.
“It’s artisan work,” González said. “It’s a little slow, but not very difficult.”
The worm compost, or another compost heap that lies just outside the worm habitat, receives leftover materials at the end of the process. And the circle starts over again.
Running the farm is a full-time job for Rodríguez. He works seven days a week, usually waking at dawn and finishing his work in the evening. While organic foods have not experienced the popularity they enjoy in North America, Europe or Japan, the farm does not struggle to stay afloat.
Organic farms spend little money outside of the plant because almost everything is recyclable. The only products Rodríguez needs from the market are seeds. The farm’s sustainability is why Rodríguez puts the effort he does into keeping his expansive land healthy. The worms, the cabbage plants, the cosmetic products – all play an important role in the cycle.
Nothing here is wasted.
“Use every little thing on the farm so you don’t have to go out and buy things to bring in here,” Rodríguez said. “Every animal, vegetable, every leaf.”
Visit the Farm
From San José, take theInter-American Highway
to Grecia. From there, take the road to Sarchí. Just before crossing the Río Sarchí, take the exit to San Luis. Finca Orgánica San Luis is 7 km from here; a dirt road on your left leads up to the farm.
Market day is the first Sunday of every month, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance is free. Visitors can explore the farm and take a tour on horseback. On weekdays, groups of 10 or more can pay ¢1,000 ($1.90) each to visit the farm; admission is free if you buy a meal at the farm’s cafeteria. Smaller groups can arrange appointments on weekends.
Sample prices for organic toiletries are ¢1,500 ($2.80) for soap, ¢2,000 ($3.80) for creams and ¢3,000 ($5.70) for shampoo. Flowers and other plants range from ¢1,000 to ¢7,000 ($1.90 to $13). Uncooked, organically raised rabbit and duck meat are also available; price varies by weight. The farm’s products can also be bought at the Grecia market, held Fridays from 3 to 9 p.m.
For information or to arrange a visit to the farm, call 2494-4523, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.organicretreatcr.com.