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True Self-Sufficiency: Closing the Loop at Rancho Margot

9/12/2011 11:17:36 AM

Tags: Rancho Margot, Juan Sostheim, self-sufficient farming, off the grid, compost, heat water from compost, biofuel, heat from methane, odorless compost, Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailMy kids and I were fortunate to spend two weeks at Rancho Margot in Costa Rica’s Arenal District last month. We ate well, played well and, perhaps most importantly, we saw sustainable agriculture and self-sufficient living at work. “Nothing is wasted on the ranch,” says Rancho Margot founder Juan Sostheim. “There is no such thing as waste; it´s all natural resources.”

Rancho Margot’s cows, pigs and hens eat high-protein plants grown on the ranch, and their manure is turned into rich compost for the vegetable and ornamental gardens. The cows’ barn is hosed down every day, and the manure is drawn away by gravity to the manure building, where it’s separated into solid and liquids. Red California worms break down 25 to 30 tons of animal manure every week in a special room attached to the dairy. “You are literally in a room full of shit,” Juan says, “but there’s no smell and no flies.” Workers use native microorganisms such as bacterias, actinomytes, fungus and yeast to decompose the organic material and compete with putrefatic bacteria before smells (and the flies they attract) can develop. 

Liquid waste is separated from the solids and sent via underground pipes to bio-digesters. Once separated from the solids, this liquid undergoes an anaerobic chemical reaction that produces methane, which is pumped through copper pipes to the kitchen for cooking and the laboratory for soapmaking. The treated liquid is sprayed in the fields after the cows and sheep have pastured.

Solid waste is mixed with vegetarian remains from the kitchen and gardens, then cooked in compost “ovens” where the aerobic chemical reaction heats it to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Tubes pump river water through both piles, heating the water for use in the resort’s bungalows, bunkhouse and kitchen. After six weeks, when the compost no longer produces heat, it is collected and used to feed the ornamental plants and vegetables.

 margot juan 

Rancho Margot founder Juan Sostheim is always looking for ways to close the loop. 

 Photo by Barbara Bourne 

Completely off the grid, Rancho Margot draws power from a Rio Cano Negro tributary that runs through the ranch. Two micro-hydro plants divert water from the stream and gravity feed it down steep inclines into turbines that produce electricity, then return the water to the stream. The hydro plants produce about 42 kilowatts per hour of electricity, and the system runs without batteries. “My battery is the storage capacity of the water,” Juan says. “If I need energy, I just let out water. We’ve been lucky with water availability, but I think that will change."

  margot sign 

Rancho Margot is off the grid and grows about half the food it needs to feed guests, volunteers and workers.  Photo by Barbara Bourne 

Rancho Margot’s engineers are also making biodiesel fuel for the farm’s vehicles by mixing methanol and NaOH with leftover cooking oil from the kitchen. Because the ranch doesn’t produce enough waste oil to make a substantial amount of biofuel, Juan is initiating partnerships to collect oil from local hotels. 

“Whatever we need, we make,” Juan says. “And we don’t buy things we can’t recycle. We’re constantly closing the circle, using every resource we can.”


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