Working at an Organic Farm in Costa Rica

This past summer, I interned at an organic agro-ecological farm located near Higuito, Costa Rica. Finca El Tablazo was founded about seven years ago by a couple with a passion for sustainable agriculture. Although their farm is relatively small (about a hectare in size), they are able to run a multifaceted system that not only focuses on agriculture but also works on community engagement, minimalistic living, and education, to name a few.

My study abroad program placed me here with three other Northwestern students: Safal, Saya, and Alex (the realest homies). We lived and worked on the farm for about two months. That technically made the farm owners, Jemima and Gabriel, our host parents, even though they were only ten years older than me. And that also made the other students my “host siblings.” We all viewed each other as friends though and were able to work together efficiently. We were very lucky to have this because living with that many people in such tight quarters could have been disastrous but thankfully we all had a great group dynamic and enjoyed our time together.

Small plants growing in the greenhouse.

Finca El Tablazo

The organic farm, Finca El Tablazo, functions on the basis that agriculture does not need industrially-manufactured pesticides and fertilizers in order to be successful. Jemima and Gabriel aspire to live a sustainable life and minimize their environmental impact. I personally witnessed the different strategies they utilized in order to keep harmful pesticides and fertilizers from being used on the farm. For example, they would spray their crops with a liquid spicy chili pepper solution to keep bugs from eating their plants. It’s a natural alternative to pesticides that works efficiently and can be washed away by consumers. For their fertilizers, they would use their homemade compost or collect horse manure from a nearby farm. They also created a liquid fertilizer from scratch. When I asked them what was inside, they said that they added cow manure, carefully selected microorganisms, fermented fruit, molasses, and more. I think it’s incredible that they have managed to keep their farm productive with these natural alternatives. In fact, I believe their produce is even better than those from traditional farms because they are able to grow to immense sizes (for certain crops).

Safal and Saya working in the nursery.

Another impressive feat is that Jemima and Gabriel are in a partnership with other local organic farms and are in the process of establishing one of the first organic seed companies in Costa Rica. They harvest the seeds from their specialty crops and package them to be sold to consumers. All of the seeds they sell come from plants that originate from all over the world. One of their missions is to provide a diversified produce selection to their customers so that they aren’t only eating the same vegetables and fruits and can become more interested in expanding and cooking with all types of produce. I really love how they have a global mindset and are looking to share that with their clients.

On the farm itself, they have implemented various systems that work on minimizing their environmental impact. One of those is a grey water system where all of the water used on the farm from washing dishes, showers, and such gets transferred to a reservoir that hosts aquatic plants, which are used to absorb contaminants in the water. The water then gets filtered through stones with various pore sizes in order to capture whichever remaining contaminants are left. The last stage in this cycle is for the water to go to its final reservoir where it’s stored until they use it for cleaning around the farm.

Freshly peeled garlic before it was planted in the ground.

Another technique they have to reduce waste and water consumption is the use of ecological dry toilets. The toilets were designed and constructed by the two of them, and they have been using them for many years now. How they work is that there are separate toilets for urination and for feces. The urination ones are very simple since the urine gets transported through a tube to the grey water system and then you spray the urinal or toilet with a soapy cleansing solution to prevent any bad odors. All of this water gets cleansed and reused with their water purification system.

The toilets for #2 are a little more complicated. You begin the process by walking up a ramp onto this platform where the toilet is located. When you look into the toilet bowl, you will see that there is a huge box full of compost at the bottom where your feces and toilet paper will fall. You will also see that there is a small section located near the front of the toilet seat where urine is meant to go into before it gets sent to the grey water system. After you’re done doing your business, you have to cover your waste with dry compost that is stored in a barrel next to the toilet. Once you’ve covered all the organic material, then you use that same cleansing solution to clean the urine compartment. By making sure everything is rinsed and covered up with compost, you can guarantee that there will be no bad odors or any flies buzzing around. I found this system to be really easy to get used to and I’m glad that it’s able to minimize water consumption.

View of the mountain from Finca El Tablazo.

The farm also provides educational services to the greater community. People of all ages can bring their groups to the farm and learn about the sustainable practices the farm has implemented to lower their environmental impact. People on these tours can learn about how compost is made and how every system on the farm is interconnected and plays an important role. One of the main attractions for children is the chance to interact with the farm animals during the tour. I love how Finca El Tablazo is not only interested in making a profit, but also wants to educate others on sustainability and organic produce.

Lastly, this farm has established a delivery system to make fresh produce available to everyone in the area. People can preorder a basket of organic produce that get’s delivered straight to their door every week or two. Jemima and Gabriel harvest those vegetables either the day of the delivery or the day before and then drive directly to the homes of each customer. They go into San José – which is about an hour away – to deliver these goods and often spend the majority of the day driving just to get the deliveries done. Their goal is to make sure that everyone can have access to fresh produce even with their busy schedules, and this delivery system does a great job at making that a reality.

Day-to-Day Life

As volunteers, we would do whichever tasks were given to us that day. Every day was something different for us, but typically we woke up at 6 AM to feed the farm animals. Two of us would pick the crops or cut the grass to feed our goat, Blanquita. And the other two students would feed the chickens and collect their eggs. After we fed the animals, we would eat our breakfast together with our host parents. They always fed us incredibly delicious meals. Then, after cleaning up the kitchen, we would begin working again. In the early mornings, we would either pick weeds from the plots, plant seeds, water plants, apply homemade fertilizers to the crops, or harvest crops that were ready to be sold. Some days, we would help beautify the farm by making the forest trails look nicer and trimming the overgrown or diseased trees. This means that we spent a lot of time shoveling the dirt trails and making steps into the ground and picking up tree branches to put into the compost. We would also clean the farm living areas, which was just typical household chores that needed to be done. And we cleaned and organized their seed storage room. Clearly, we had plenty to do every day.

Saya placing seeds in the crop bed.

We usually had a break from 11 AM to 3 PM and then worked again for a couple of hours before we finished for the day at around 5 PM. Our host parents recognized that our work could be difficult so they did their best to ensure that we weren’t being constantly overworked. We had the weekends free so we could travel around Costa Rica, and they gave us Fridays off so that we could be out for longer. I think working four days and traveling for three was a good balance between work and play. We had enough time to explore the beauty the nation has to offer and were able to learn a lot about the farm while we were there.

Our Project

Part of our study abroad program included designing and executing a sustainable community project that could be carried on after we left. It was difficult for us to plan a project because we did not have much interaction with the community around us, so we weren’t sure what was the most effective project for the area. We discussed this issue with Jemima and Gabriel to decide which project would be most beneficial to the area.

For our project, we decided to raise awareness on environmental issues in the area by creating signs to be posted along the roads and establishing trash clean-up days. Our host parents contacted their neighbors and they organized two days while we were there to have clean-up days.

Saya and Alex painting signs to raise environmental awareness.

The mountain where the farm was located has been used as a dumping site for those who want to get rid of trash easily. Because of this, there are truckloads of garbage littering the natural areas along the roads. When we were collecting trash, we found entire televisions, refrigerator doors, couches, and various car parts! It was clear that raising environmental consciousness was important in maintaining a clean and healthy environment.

Trucks full of garbage we collected along the mountain’s road.

We all really enjoyed being able to interact with neighbors about environmental concerns. This was one of the first community events our host parents have hosted, and thankfully it was a success. They said that they would like to continue having trash clean-up days on a monthly basis (depending on the amount of trash present).

Our signs in the process of being created. Translation: (on top) “No! To the dumping of trash”; (on bottom) “Neighbors El Tablazo.”

While I don’t know if our work will have a long-lasting impact, I’m glad for the opportunity to get to learn a little bit more about community organizing and environmental activism.

Our work wasn’t glamorous. People assume every study abroad experience is like a vacation, but we did actual work here that was physically taxing. This is not me complaining, but a way to shed light on the reality of how difficult some study abroad programs can be. Even though the work could be difficult, I’m glad I went on this trip because I was able to learn a lot about where our food comes from and have a greater appreciation for organic produce.

If you’re interested in volunteering at Finca El Tablazo and learning more about agro-ecological farming, you can apply to work there in exchange for free housing at Work Away. You can find their Work Away profile here. It’s important to note that while you technically would be getting free housing, you do still need to pay for food costs for when you’re living there.

Lastly, this experience was made possible with the help from our wonderful study abroad program, Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI). To read more about GESI and their mission, check out their website. And, as always, thanks for reading!

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