Last month my kids and I were fortunate to spend two weeks at Rancho Margot, a self-sufficient farm, resort and education center in Costa Rica’s Arenal District. Once a barren wasteland destroyed (like much of this tiny nation’s land) by decades of cattle ranching, Rancho Margot is now a verdant and productive paradise.
Founder Juan Sostheim and his sons began restoring the 400-acre property seven years ago by planting thousands of trees. “My goal is to one day have somebody fly over here and say the ranch has disappeared—there are no roofs,” Juan says. “I’d like to see the forest take over the whole thing.”
Juan stops and asks for cuttings or seeds whenever he comes upon an interesting plant or tree. Rancho Margot’s hills are alive with bamboo orchids, red ginger and emperor’s torch. It took two years for the first hummingbird to arrive, but now the ranch is home to a dozen different hummingbird species as well as Costa Rica’s national bird, the clay-coloured yiguirro; the striking black and red sangretoro and the beautiful green quetzal. Twice a year, flowering water apples bring wall-to-wall toucans. Night-blooming angel’s trumpets fragrance the air, and “sexy pink” helconias spill lobster claw blooms over shady walking paths. Banana, coconut and citrus trees are interspersed with fast-growing balsa trees and higuerillas, which produce poisonous castor oil that keeps groundhogs at bay. Cecropias, which grow a phenomenal 4 meters per year, bring in three-toed sloths and monkeys. “When you walk here it looks like a mixture of everything,” Juan says. “We have a hell of a lot of fruit trees.”
Juan is returning the land to its natural abundance while employing local farmworkers, cooks and craftsmen. A pig pen, chicken coop and dairy are tucked among the hills. Workers from nearby El Castillo used river stones and wood salvaged from the previous ranch to build a restaurant and stables, bungalows and a bunkhouse, a yoga platform and a healing center. Carpenters make furniture using teak and laurel from nearby La Tigra and giant cane from the ranch; soapmakers turn the kitchen’s spent cooking oil into soap and laundry products; and cheesemakers roll out wheels of farm and goat, cheddar and mozzarella. Beyond the farm’s 10 acres, which are protected from wildlife by a living fence of madero negro trees, endangered agouti pacas and their predators, pumas and jaguars, are returning to reforested hills.
Ten acres are set aside to grow crops for the kitchen, which serves about 200 meals a day to guests, volunteers and workers. An herb garden includes aloe vera, bergamot, mint, cardamom, ginger and many others. Vetiver, with deep roots that prevent erosion, is sprinkled throughout. Juan grows guavas, papayas and avocadoes as well as coffee and pineapple--two crops that the locals said wouldn’t grow--especially without chemicals--in Rancho Margot’s ashy soil. It took three years to harvest the first pineapple, but today the farm has 4,000 pineapple and 30 coffee plants. Rancho Margot’s workers plant aromatic herbs such as basil and lemongrass among the vegetable beds to attract insects away from the other plants, and crops are rotated regularly so the soil can retain proteins and minerals and a healthy chemistry.
“I love wine. I tried everything to get grapes to grow,” Juan says, but acid rain from the volcano killed his vines. Instead, the family has planted blackberries--which grow like weeds--in different areas to see where they thrive, and they’re filling the hillside with mulberries.
Understanding that rainforest restoration is a community-wide undertaking, Juan donates trees every year to areas surrounding the ranch. Last year Rancho Margot donated 10,000 almond trees, which are habitat for the green macaw, and this year it gave zotacaballo, which provides erosion control and protects watersheds.
I talked at length with Rancho Margot founder Juan Sostheim about land rehabilitation and sustainable agriculture. Photo by Barbara Bourne.