Posted by: Chip Small | January 19, 2016

Producing food and protecting nature in Costa Rica: a balancing act

Sitting on the patio eating breakfast at La Selva Biological Station, in a lowland tropical rainforest on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica, we are surrounded by colorful tanagers, hummingbirds, and manakins. We hear the calls of parrots, laughing falcons, and howler monkeys. Walking across the narrow bridge suspended across the Rio Puerto Viejo, we see iguanas sunning on top of giant Ficus trees, toucans tussling for fruit among the branches, and schools of fruit-eating fish in the water below. We hear loud squawks and look up to see a pair of scarlet macaws flying in the distance. This is a magical place, and it is easy to imagine that we are deep within a pristine jungle.

And yet, human impacts are all around. La Selva is surrounded on three sides by agricultural land.  Banana, pineapple, and palm plantations have carved up the landscape in recent decades. We can hear trucks on the nearby road, and some days the drone of crop-dusters is incessant as they apply pesticides to fields. Agriculture and ecotourism are the two pillars of the economy here in the Caribbean lowlands, one dedicated to the production of food and the other to the preservation of nature.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 9.06.48 AM

Google map image of the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica.  San Jose is visible in the top left.  The dark green is rain forest, mostly protected in national parks.  The light green is agricultural land, mostly large-scale banana and pineapple plantations run by multi-national companies.

On Saturday we visited a different type of farm—Finca Sura—a small-scale operation with a diverse array of crops. Don Rodolpho led us around his 9-acre estate, teaching us about different fruit trees, and the important roles that insects, hummingbirds, and bats play in pollinating his fruit. We picked pineapples, which Don Rodolpho effortlessly diced with several machete chops. He explained how no pesticides or nutrients are used on his farm, which results in smaller fruits that could not be exported, but, we all agreed that this was the best pineapple we’ve have ever eaten. He told us how many people who are allergic to pineapple are able to eat his fruits with no problems, indicating that it is often the chemical residue that people are sensitive to. He explained that frogs breed in the tiny pools of water in the tops of his pineapples, something that would never happen in a chemical-intensive operation. He showed us his pond full of tilapia, where visitors can catch their lunch. When I asked him whether birds eat his fish, he replied that of course herons and kingfishers hunt in his pond, but there is plenty to go around.

We’ve been thinking about Don Rodolpho’s farm as a model of sustainable agro-tourism, where food can be produced in a way that benefits nature and supports the local economy. Below are student reflections on this innovative concept and on the charismatic man behind it.

It was another normal early morning down here in Costa Rica. Filled with wonder and uncertainty about what is to come from the day. A normal day has been filled with hiking and research. Today we took a break from the hiking and drove a couple miles outside of La Selva (a huge biological station where we are staying) to Sura Farm. This is a family owned farm and we were greeted by the owner, Rudy. He was one of the most lively and passionate people I have met. He began to show us around his farm, and with each new turn, there was a new type of crop that they were growing. From pineapples, to rubber trees, to yucca, to cacao, to peppers and even some tomato-looking fruit that tasted like a warhead (those extremely sour hard candies that my mother hates). After touring much of the farms and even having the chance to plant our own pineapples we sat down in their recently renovated dining area. We were served fresh juice from multiple different fruits and some bread made from pineapples. I was told we were “going to a pineapple farm” with no knowledge of what to expect. I was surprised at each new plant and with the continual excitement by our new friend Rudy. So what did I learn/gain from this outing? I learned about the viability of true organic farming. I learned that sugar cane and ginger smashed together into a juice tastes delicious. I learned how to cut down and drink a coconut with ease. But most importantly, I learned that even in the most remote of places that people like Rudy do exist and are full of knowledge I could not have learned in a classroom. I’m learning in the most authentic way possible- straight from the source.

-Evan Kiel

Sura Farm

Upon arrival at Finca Sura, we had no idea what to expect. We stepped out of the bus onto the trail as we were greeted by Rudy, our personal tour guide who just happened to be a local that only spoke Spanish. This presented a language barrier, but this barrier was quickly brought down by Emma, our own group member and personal translator. As the tour began Rudy showed us all the flora and fauna that his organic pineapple plantation had to offer, and we were all in awe of his knowledge. Rudy also let us do many activities such as planting pineapples, but he also took the time to interact with us on a personal level. His personality was one that brought smiles to our faces, and his hospitality is something that will not be soon forgotten.

-Nick Hable

Nick in pineapples.jpg

The Sura estate is an all organic farm that grows a wide variety of produce such as ginger, sugarcane, bananas and its main crop being the pineapple. This small farm uses tourism to help raise awareness about eco-friendly farming practices and is a perfect example of the push towards sustainable agriculture here in Costa Rica. Our small UST group was given the privilege to tour the grounds and go behind the scenes of what it takes to grow all natural vegetation and the tasteful rewards as a result of the non-chemical practices. Upon our arrival we were given a warm welcome by the owner, Rodolpho, who was also our tour guide. He began the tour by giving us a brief history of the grounds and the common vegetation seen. One example is the pink banana palm which is a useful plant to help attract wildlife to its sweet fruits and distract them from the temptation of eating the valuable crops held deeper in the midst of the estate. Rodolpho would explain the types of vegetation grown, the methods used to grow them and what popular foods and uses each crop possesses. One such crop includes the farm’s main harvest, pineapple. To help prevent the spread of any potential diseases or large losses of crop yields due to wildlife infestation, Rodolpho separates his crops into different patches all around his fields. His plots have a maximum growing limit of 3 years and a break of harvest for 1 year per plot, allowing the soil to recuperate to be grown on again for another 3 years; and so on and so forth. Our group not only got to taste the sweet flavor of the freshly cut pineapple but we also had the opportunity to help Rodolpho plant more pineapple sprouts.  Signs throughout the farm show future visitors which groups planted each row of pineapples and participated in his sustainable farming practices. The tour comprised of eating fresh ginger, coconut milk and coconut meat, cinnamon bark, interacting with his livestock and ending with a tasteful snack of pineapple bread and handmade sugarcane and ginger juice. This event was not only academically enjoyable but was also a unique experience to participate in environmentally friendly methods to care for the land while gaining tasteful rewards and making new friends in the process.

-Emma Squires-Sperling

Don Rodolpho.jpg

Visiting the Sura Farm was such a unique and rewarding experience. Growing up on a farm myself, it was very interesting to compare and contrasts the differences and similarities between a conventional farm in the Midwest and an organic farm in the tropics. As many people know, monoculture is becoming more and more popular in the U.S.; on my farm at home we only raise corn and soybeans. On the contrary, the organic Sura Farm had more tropical fruits and spices than I could count on one hand: pineapple, coconut, tomatoes, cacao, sugar cane, yucca, pepper, and ginger filled hectare after hectare of farmland. Not only did we get to see the different fields and trees with this produce, but we got to try it all (that is right after we watched them hand-pick it fresh of the plant). Not only did we get to try these amazing tropical foods, we also got to help them continue on their sustainable practices by planting the crown of the pineapple that we had just eaten. Taking what we had just eaten and putting it back into the ground for it to grow a new fruit was very different from my experience of agriculture, where the seeds planted are delivered to our farm in large, fifty pound bags. Being able to see first-hand how other cultures produce food was an experience that has broadened both my understanding and appreciation of the many agricultural practices that allow me to eat the large variety of fruits and vegetables I consume on a daily basis.

-Sara Osborne


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