Given the crawling and flying bugs, the incessant rains of the winter season, the mud, and the commitment to cold water showers, farming in the tropics is just not for the faint of heart–but, as they say, “what don’t kill you, makes you stronger…”
I recently had the amazing privilege of taking a sojourn to volunteer and learn some garden and harvest practices at two small organic farms–in Costa Rica. I wanted to get my hands dirty, literally in the activities associated with applying food sustainability in a household.
Some friends who’ve known me since college were beside themselves with my new-found “outdoorsy” streak. By any measure, I am not an outdoor adventure person. I’ll still pass on the bungee, the spelunking (i.e. crawling or falling through endless claustrophobic caves), rock climbing if there is real rock involved, white water rafting on actual rapids, ziplining, or any number of other outdoor activities conceived to make one feel uncomfortably close to suicide. Nor am I fond of the idea of sleeping outside in inhospitable weather, which includes rain and temperatures below 70 celcius. So I can imagine how befuddled my friends might have been when I ventured out for volunteer farming in Latin America–during the rainy season. Hey, things are cheaper in the off season.
There are plenty of organic or permaculture, volunteer farms in the US and around the world that host willing travelers for low- or no-cost lodging. You can find some through the international WWOOF networks (which charge a sign-up fee, but the farms listed with them charge you nothing). And, I found several other great resources through GrowFood.org, another farm networking site.
But ultimately, my search led me to a farm that was on neither site. Via a very specific internet search I was able to find a volunteer farm and learning site that offered worthwhile classes in Spanish, Natural/Herbal medicine, and Permaculture. Pretty amazing that I found a such a unique finca (farm) that incorporated all these learning endeavors–Finca Alba Nueva. In addition to their very affordable educational offerings, I was pleased that the farm was co-operated by a naturopathic doctor (from Pittsburgh, it turns out) and importantly, a Tica woman from Costa Rica (Jessica).
Jessica’s ownership–and her engaging Spanish lessons–took the edge off what I found to be a concerning trend among the volunteer farm sites: that most who promote their sites via the web are usually owned and operated by well-intentioned, but highly privileged ex-pat from the States or Europe. It left me wondering, how would even begin to connect with the true culture or people of the country hosting me? And what benefit are these farms extending to the people whose land they may have claimed?
I had recently read an article signifying a new land-grab taking place in Ethiopia. I can believe it–I had just heard from an Ethiopian alumna acquaintance that her brother was getting involved in a rice plantation spearheaded by some Europeans. Land-grabbing is not new, but I had never realized how evident it was until I visited Costa Rica and realized how many “gringos” (the Latin American term for western Whites) had relocated in order to start anew in “paradise”.
I’ll admit, it’s egregious to call land-grabbers the modest, post-hippy boomers I met in Costa Rica. Most of them worked their own land for sustenance, with the help from many willing volunteers; and they contributed to the community in which they settled, usually in positive ways. Ed, the naturopathic doctor, for instance, has helped neighbors through many dire health conditions with good advice, massage and local herbs. The organic medicinal products he and Jessica handcraft are offered at very reasonable prices set to
the local economy. They buy fresh food and trade plants with other locals and neighbors. Finca Alba Nueva, albeit austere in its accommodations, was a great place to see local economy and small-scale sustainability in dedicated practice.
In addition to visiting Finca Alba Nueva, I put in time at another farm in a tiny pueblo in the middle of nowhere… why? Because I WILL WORK FOR CHOCOLATE.
Finca La Iguana was an organic chocolate farm and family household dedicated to making artesanal chocolate treats. I participated in every aspect of chocolate making from the cacao fruit harvest to the bean roasting/grinding/shelling, to the prepping the little chocolate truffles ready to eat. It was a great way to round out my trip, exchanging hard work for all I can eat dark chocolate!
So, my note to all the urbanites skeptical of taking a leap of faith (and lack of comfort) by trying their hands at rural farming, if it doesn’t kill you, you might walk away with a healthy dose of inspiration and some majorly, yummy edibles!