Out of the ashes of the coffee crash, Costa Rican organic is born
Costa Rica is home to a growing number of organic farmers who are selling both locally and internationally ... and it’s home to first-rate institutions investigating solutions to pest, disease and nutrient problems in organic tropical systems. Don Lotter takes you on a tour of organic farming coops and research institutions.

By Don Lotter

Costa Rica's organic future: Coffee and cacao plantations in the distance, at the Center for Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education (CATIE).

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.

"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. "

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.

One field, two fields: Guillermo Campos and his wife Norma stand among their tomato fields. The Campos farm three hectares, one of produce, two of coffee.

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 personnel.

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.

"In order to be able to offer a diversity of produce, [Turrialba organic growers] 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. "
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

At 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 heaven.

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 “Guatemalan 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, and diseases.

Now that the product is grown the challenge lies in finding a market, preferably one with a price premium

A market all their own: Norma Campos sells the family produce at the local organic market. Organic growers decided to stand apart, literally, from convention growers they set up their market in a vacant lot of the Catholic church.

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.