Sustainable Farming Practices From Alajuela, Costa Rica

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Linda and Niko Panszczyk share their story of how they came to live sustainably in Alajuela, Costa Rica.

Five years…already! It seems like just yesterday that Niko (my husband) and I decided to get “back to the land.”

We bought our homestead — an abandoned 18 acre farm in the mountains of Costa Rica — in 1971. Having never farmed or built a house before, we were — at that time — full of all the usual dreams and misconceptions about country life that city folks normally have. Nonetheless, we were resolved to prove to ourselves that we could make it on the land (that is, become self-sufficient). We gave ourselves five years to achieve that goal.

Reaching the Goal of Sustainable Farming

Our most immediate concerns–upon moving to the farm — were, of course, food and shelter. Thus, while Niko was busy building the house, I put in our first garden. What a disaster! Our total yield was three potatoes…rather puny ones, at that! Thank goodness the house went much better.

When Niko had finished our new dwelling, he started on a barn (which ended up being much larger than the house). While he was at it, he also built a pigpen, chicken-house, rabbit cages (with a worm pit underneath), a small greenhouse, and a woodshed with a carport.

Next came the planting of our fruit trees: 125 peach, 100 banana, 25 apple, 12 avocado, 12 lime, 12 fig, 6 plum, 6 orange, and 4 nectarine, along with some local varieties. (Ever heard of a tomato tree?)

From the day we put the orchard in, our mouths watered as we daydreamed about scrumptious fruit salads and jams and jellies and pies. We knew, however, that many of our trees would not begin to bear for years…so — to tide us over — we put in about a half acre of strawberries. (In the past six years we’ve probably eaten — and bartered with — strawberries in just about every way you can imagine, and then some!)

For a couple of years, my two teenage daughters and I tried our hands at dairy goat management. Caring for the animals was a chore, but we sure learned a lot…and laughed a lot. (Eventually, we switched to cows.)

Before long, our gardening abilities improved and we found ourselves canning and freezing bushel after bushel of fresh edibles…much to the surprise of our neighbors, who had — at first — laughed at our “organic” gardening methods. (A few of these skeptics told us we wouldn’t get enough vegetables out of our chemical-free pea patch to make our efforts worthwhile. Naturally, we took great delight when we were soon able to give these same people big, gorgeous bunches of carrots, green beans, broccoli, etc. Oddly enough, it wasn’t long before some of them were putting in their own “organic” gardens!) The vegetables we couldn’t can, freeze, or eat found a ready market in nearby Alajuela.

Another of our small successes has turned out to be a pond, which now boasts crawfish, trout, and a LOT of frogs. We plan to use the reservoir to irrigate our truck garden during the dry season.

Our farm came with a couple acres of coffee…so — when coffee-picking season rolled around — we all grabbed baskets, picked the red berries, and prepared to process them into kitchen-ready java ourselves. Well, little did we know how much work — and waiting — was involved in picking, cleaning, drying, roasting, and grinding coffee beans! (All you java-lovers out there: appreciate each cup you drink…a lot of work went into it. Believe me!) We now send our beans to the coffee factory down the road to be processed.

Eventually, we took out some of our older coffee trees and replaced them — in one section — with 250 black walnuts. In a few years, I expect we’ll have quite a nice (and valuable) stand of woods there.

In another area, we planted new cane (for a total — including the small amount of cane that was growing when we bought the farm — of 10 acres’ worth). While the “sugar plants” were still young, we sowed corn in and around them…then — when the corn was waist high — we planted beans to grow up the stalks.

We’ve also had good luck with other grains, such as wheat and oats.

When we first bought Rainbow Mountain Farm (which is what we call our homestead), my father sent us a book on herbs. That guide — plus my interest in cooking with herbs — was enough to convince us to put in what will, in a couple of years, be an honest-to-gosh herb garden. (In addition, we’ve planted more than 30 varieties of herbs all over the farm, using companion planting methods. Thus, we now have commercial quantities of thyme, oregano, basil, rosemary, sweet marjoram, and lemon grass…all of which are in great demand here.)

Somewhere along the way, too, Niko found the time and energy to build two more cabins that we now rent for extra income. (We could rent two or three more, easily, but Niko doesn’t have the time to build them.)

At any rate, we currently have a daily income from our milk…a weekly income from the vegetables, fruits, and herbs…a monthly income from the two cabins…and a yearly income from our cane and coffee. (In addition, of course, we’ve got lots of items to barter with.) So — after almost six years — I guess you could say that we’ve attained our goal: We are “self-sufficient”.

Sometimes — while we sit warming our feet in front of the fire, watching the lights of the city twinkle down in the valley — we daydream about putting up a roadside produce stand, or maybe even a little restaurant. (One corner of our farm touches a well-traveled highway that leads to a national park 12 miles away.)

Other times, however — as we listen to the pitter-patter of rain on the roof and look out the window at the rainbow that seems to be an eternal part of the scenery — we’re content with our farm just as it is…and hope that it never changes.