This photo is a drone shot of the forest farm at Finca Luna Nueva in Costa Rica.

Learning to See

by Ann Armbrecht, SHP Director

Much of my journey following herbs to the source has been a process of learning to see. In most cases, this means seeing details about the conditions that do and do not matter in sourcing botanicals in global supply networks. This past July, my husband and videographer partner, Terry and I and our two children traveled to Costa Rica to document regenerative practices on farms growing spices and medicinal plants in the tropics. This involved a different experience of learning to see, in this case to see the relative order in what appeared to be an eye-opening chaos of species.

Regenerative Farming in Costa Rica

Regenerative Farms in Costa Rica

We visited five different farms. Cinco Ramas, a 27 hectare (67 acres) organic spice forest farm in northern Costa Rica. Coopecuna, a coop providing essential oil to the skincare company, Thrive Care located near the Caribbean coast. Blacksheep, a 46 hectare (114 acres) forest farm in the hills west of San Jose, that is beginning to market its turmeric through their partner company, Rewild Organics. CR Botanicals, a new farm started by Ric Scalzo, founder of the Ric Scalzo Institute for Botanical Research at the Southwest College for Naturopathic Medicine, also founder and former long-time CEO of Gaia Herbs, growing twelve botanicals for the international market. Finally, we had a wonderful stay at Finca Luna Nueva, which previously grew turmeric for New Chapter and is now focusing on becoming the premier farm to table ecolodge in Costa Rica.

We also interviewed Rafael Ocompo and Milo Benkins, two men who have been practicing regenerative farming long before it was popular and who directly or indirectly influenced almost everyone else we met.

Regenerative Practices on the Ground

Regenerative farming and regenerative businesses are all the rage these days. On this trip, I wanted to understand what these terms meant on the ground.

What does it really mean for a business to not just extract resources for an end product, but to grow and produce the plants so that all of the human and ecological communities involved can thrive, beginning with the health of the soil itself?

Regenerative Farming in Costa Rica

Rob Brown speaking in their shade grown vanilla fields.

Many companies increasingly claim they are doing this, but what are the day-to-day decisions that determine whether, in fact, those claims are true?

Each farm we visited in Costa Rica was deeply committed to caring for the soil. Each produces some combination of medicinal herbs and/or spices, some of which they sell on the international market, a filter we applied in selecting which farms to visit. Costa Rica also has a thriving national market for an incredible diversity of farms and produce that fell outside our scope of interest for this trip. Each of the farms we visited had a different ownership structure and different marketing plans, though the success of each depends on ecologically conscious consumers willing to pay premium prices for products grown in ways that are good for the soil, the plants, and the workers.

Begin with Paying Attention

Permaculture, the foundation for each farm, though with variations depending on whether they aligned themselves with analog forestry, syntropic forestry, or regenerative farming, begins by listening to the land. It starts with paying attention: understanding where water flows, how the light moves over the course of a day, what the wind is like, how the soil changes. And then working with and enhancing what is there by moving water, building berms, planting different species that draw out different fungi and bacteria in the soil.

Regenerative Farming in Costa Rica

Each farm manager we spoke with expressed a similar quality of attention to detail. They also expressed a remarkable sense of vision, an ability to see possibilities, to see, as in the case of Blacksheep say, a thriving integrated farming system on what was recently a deforested hillside. And everyone we spoke with also expressed the patience and perseverance needed to manifest that vision.

Taking the Edge Off

Each farm also tries to pay their farmers a decent wage, one that is above what is found on farms in the region. They do other things as well. Geri and Rob Brown at Cinco Ramas give gift baskets at Christmas with staples, food, towels, things a family might need but can’t afford. “Of course, these don’t solve a family’s economic problems,” Geri said. “We offer them to help take the edge off.”

Steven Ganister, the farm manager at BlackSheep, does the work he asks his employees to do so he can see how physically hard it really is. If it was too hard for him, he wouldn’t ask them to do it. For example, digging and harvesting turmeric by hand was time consuming and hard. They decided the investment wasn’t worth it and so they found a rototiller that doesn’t disturb the deeper soil structure while being much more efficient and less physically demanding.

Multiple Products for Multiple Uses

Driving between farms, we passed plantations of conventionally grown pineapple and banana, the monocrop species such a contrast to the raucous mix in the agroforestry farms where we spent most of our time.

Growing one product for export, where the focus of the entire enterprise is getting that product, a clump of bananas, a single pineapple, into crates as quickly as possible to keep the prices down, is based on a fundamentally different approach than the farms we visited.

That laser focus on output contrasted with the integrated visions at each farm which focus not on a particular product but on the conditions that produce that product, multiple products for multiple uses, growing in ways that work for everyone, the soil, other species, the workers, the owners.

Investing in the Soil

At Blacksheep they have a plan for three different zones: the first zone is to grow turmeric as an immediate cash crop; the second to grow trees to use as income in 20 years; the third, setting aside land as conservation. At Cinco Ramas, Rob said they are growing soil, not crops. If they do that well, the crops will follow, if not right away, then in a number of years.

“Investing in the soil is a longer bet,” he said, “but it’s a more durable solution. If you can get the soil to be healthy, then you can be diverse and stable economically.”

Regenerative Farming in Costa Rica

Again, echoing what we heard at every farm we visited, Rob said that their employees, all coming from work on conventional farms that freely used fertilizers and pesticides – according to a 2015 study from the Regional Institute for Studies in Toxic Substances (IRET) Costa Rica consumes more agrochemicals per hectare than any country in the world – were skeptical. But now they see the difference.

Juan, his farm manager, described the bloody noses he had had when working on previous farms that sent him to the hospital for two days. Carlos, one of the farmers working with Blacksheep, said that early on he wasn’t convinced that growing turmeric organically would work. After several years, they realize that it does work. Now, his stomach hurts when he smells the pesticides from the farms where he previously worked.

Supporting Rural Livelihoods

Conversations about living income focus on wages earned. And that is part of it. But it isn’t all. Stability matters. Quality of work matters. As I listening to the workers at Blacksheep, especially about how this project formed, I realized that its genesis was not unlike how all the farm managers came up with a vision for what and where to grow on the land. Joshua Hughes lived in that valley and got to know his neighbors. He listened to their stories, how people were moving to San Juan not because they wanted to but because there were no jobs and no stability.

Joshua then began thinking of ways to provide those jobs and some stability. He brought in people with different kinds of expertise and they looked for products to grow that were most likely to generate a stable enough profit to provide the farmers with the livelihood to stay in the region. So far, it is working. It’s a different model than what we drove by on the highway, this one focusing on generating a profit to provide a livelihood. Not the other way around.

None of the farms we visited had it all worked out. Each faces challenges, mostly around finding markets willing to purchase their products at prices that will allow them to continue to invest in their soils, their employees, and their farms.

Diversity as a Source of Hope

When I asked Geri Brown about her vision for the work they are doing and what gives her hope, she said that there need to be more people doing what they can to care for the soil where they live. “There is no model about how to do that,” she said. “But if everyone started doing more, that would build a movement. And then things would begin to shift.”

Regenerative Farming in Costa Rica

The answer, in other words, is in the diversity of approaches, similar to the diversity of species growing on these farms.

To me, that diversity offers the most hope. In a time when the argument about everything is so loud, it is a relief to realize there is not a single answer or way. What matters is how we begin – listening carefully, paying attention, and taking care. And then to act on what we observe.