Rancho Margot: Lessons in Sustainability

We arrived here in Rancho Margot after a four hour public bus ride through the Costa Rican countryside, plus another hour by shuttle along a twisting and turning dirt road.  [Note: this trip was quite literally the country-SIDE of massive mountains with tiny roads and lots of big buses. Not everyone on our bus had a seat, so there was plenty of excitement! The entire trip cost about $8, compared to a fancier bus for $50, or private taxi for $100]. There is a lot to be said about the experience of travel itself, but for the sake of some semblance of brevity, I’ll keep this post anchored in our first few days living on a sustainable farm in the jungle (still not sick of saying that!).

The most salient, overarching theme that I see from macro to micro processes here would have to be Symbiosis. Every single aspect of life at Rancho Margot is sustaining something else. It’s difficult to even identify a beginning; the only trace of origin is in the owner, Don Juan’s, vision. Even there, I’m sure there is more (and I’m excited to find out!).

Let’s say things begin in the garden (you’ll soon see that they don’t, but for argument’s sake, we’ll make the assumption). When Rancho Margot was established in 2004, the land was pastured with little to no wild jungle. Over the past 10+ years, the land has been allowed to return to a more natural growth, with banana/papaya/cacao trees abound and countless shrubs, flowers, and herbs. As you will frequently hear, Nature is always Perfect, and they have allowed her to do her thang again! So, back to the garden. We consider this system to be Agrocology- much like permaculture, sustainable agriculture, etc- we are planting in harmony with the land, directing the natural water source in a way that does not destroy the land and enhances the soil. Different vegetables call for different beds, different orientation, and different partnerships. Let’s take the Bell Pepper as a micro-example. These beds are oriented more vertically because there are several horizontal beds above them, slowing the flow of water down the small slope. Normally, to plant beds in line with this slope would cause the water to rush too fast and overtake the beds and strip the soil of its nutrients. The bell peppers have big root systems, and are therefore planted in the center of the bed with a few feet between each one. Bryan, the head gardener, noticed that bugs were eating the leaves and causing damage to the peppers. Rather than spraying insecticide (never EVER permissible here, organic or not), Bryan simply plants arugula between the pepper plants. Arugula, like garlic and lemongrass (also good options) acts as an insecticide with its pungent smell and does not compete for resources due to its smaller root system. These plants work in concert to keep the bugs out, keep the nutrients rich, and create ….drumroll please….. fresh PRODUCE! This process is reproduced in endless variations to create enough fresh vegetables to feed a bustling restaurant, nearly 50 employees, and all of the animals (approximately 700 chickens, 70 pigs, and 15 cows).

Beyond the plants, we have the soil. We all remember the learning in school about the deforestation crisis and farmers clearing rainforest only to find that the soil is not conducive to production. So…how do we make a sustainable ranch in the middle of the jungle? Compost + Agroculture. After you establish the system for planting, which is basically to say after you have figured out how to work with your water source, your next step is to create a home for nutrients and microorganisms to blossom. Here, the cows and piggies are fed clean, good food (more details in future post about the livestock!).

Pig Feeding Area
All buildings have forest growth on top, lowering the heat and contributing to more naturaleza! This is where the pigs are fed and manure is collected.

The feeding areas are located on the second floor of a building, with iron grates in the floor so that their excrement collects underneath the building. This area is also on a slope, and when propelled with water from a hose, collects down in the compost building. It will then go through a system of filters to separate the solid from the liquid, where the liquids are diverted to a biodigester (to become the harvestable methane gas for the kitchen + hot water). The solids are shoveled into a system of piles where all they combine with the organic matter from the kitchen and farm (think your leftover food, scraps, etc) and microorganisms harvested from the mountain (think little fungis and mycelium that decompose the forest matter).

Each day the piles are churned and moved, creating lots of heat (enough to burn if you are not careful) and eventually breaking down all of the matter into a nutrient dense mulch, which is then used throughout the garden. This process is constant, producing approximately 10 tons of soil per month. In addition to this compost, we also work with Lombricompost- or worm compost. The separation process is the same, this time coming from the cow barn, the poo is washed down to another building where the solids and liquids are again manually separated. California Red Worms are then introduced to the solids, beginning the process of digesting all of the bad bacterias and leaving behind the richest soil we produce. To separate the worms from the finished product, we line a bed in strips alternating manure with compost and the worms naturally leave the soil (it has no more food for them!) and make a run for the manure. After a few days the worms are all in the manure and the soil is ready for the gardens. This stuff is so nutrient dense that it acts like a super fertilizer and is primarily used for germinating seedlings because it is both gentle and effective. With both types of compost, only a small amount is needed on top of the vegetable beds. Because the water is controlled and guided so as not to wash away all of this prime-time compost, a little bit goes a long way.

 

And that’s not all! Whew, it is a lot though, no? Okay…so more on the compost. As mentioned briefly above, the liquids that are separated from the solid manure find there way to a biodigester. This is essentially a massive stomach used to harvest methane gas to power the grills in the kitchen and, when needed, to warm the water. The liquid makes it way down the hill to another building where it is housed in a massive tank and given time to ferment. The fermentation process recreates the methane gas (like a big cow fart), which is piped directly to the kitchen. The liquid byproduct, which our teacher promises is clean enough to drink (not gonna try it), is then sprayed on the fields as a nutritive water/fertilizer. Again, every last bit has a purpose, and it’s all cyclical. The plants are cultivated with the help of compost and its derivatives, and are then fed to the animals so that they can then create more compost to support the plants and on and on and on.  If it were not for the clean food that the animals eat, this process would not be successful, but could in fact be harmful to the environment. Additives such as GMO’s, antibiotics, growth hormones, insecticides, and pesticides at any point in this process could potentially flourish and contaminate the compost, working against both the animals and the gardens and eventually making their way into our food and water sources.

 

In addition to the compost, there is another secret ingredient in the gardens at Rancho Margot. Yes, it’s love, but more tangibly, it’s patience. All of the seeds for future veggies are taken directly from each harvest. For example, if you have a row of tomatoes, the gardener will choose the best looking tomatoes, extract the seeds and allow them to dry on a piece of paper. When the time comes, he will use those specific seeds to plant his new tomatoes. These seeds have knowledge of the land already, because they were there before and therefore have a better likelihood of flourishing. For some vegetables, the replacement is even quicker. Goodies like turmeric, ginger, and taro can be replanted immediately, using just a portion of what is harvested. Simply trimming and replanting the root will suffice (you can even do this with roots you buy from the store!). Nothing is wasted.

There is so much to add, including a MAJOR piece of this puzzle- the hydroelectric system- but I’ll save that for another day. Every day on the ranch is a day of learning and growth for everyone. I consider myself very fortunate not just for being here, but for the opportunity to truly immerse myself in the process of day to day sustainability. “Easy” is not the word, but “Possible” is. This first hand experience in sustainability has opened my eyes to the world of possibility in just one week. The attitudes and visions of everyone here have helped me to see a future that human’s aren’t destroying- a future where we are actually living in harmony with nature. And that’s some powerful stuff y’all. More to come!

 

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