By Kat Sunlove, M.A.
Few places on earth evoke the kind of romantic dreams and exotic imagery as the tropics. In Costa Rica, one of the more pristine examples of tropical lands, all those images come vividly to life – from white sand beaches to dense flora of the rain forest, from rumbling volcanoes to the incessant warbling of colorful birds.
But all is not perfect in these beautiful environs. The tropics also harbor more problematic visions as well, namely, insects. Bugs of every variety, shape, size and color find a comfortable home here in the warm and humid environment of Costa Rica. And while that same temperate climate helps plants grow, it also makes protecting agriculture from the ravages of insects a difficult task indeed. As visitors here for a three month sojourn, my husband and I saw first-hand how destructive just one species can be. One warm evening, sitting outside on our patio, we noticed what appeared to be a trail of small leaves moving unassisted along a dirt path in a narrow flowerbed. On closer inspection, we discovered a parade of leaf-cutter ants literally carrying away a Poinsettia, one piece of leaf at a time, the leaves often larger than the ant itself. Almost overnight the foliage was completely stripped from the plant!
Little wonder that so many pesticides are employed here in the battle against such voracious creatures. Toxic products such as Mirex, a chlorinated hydrocarbon banned by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 1976, are still widely used in Costa Rica to control creepy-crawlies like our hungry leaf-cutters. Growing produce organically in the tropics is undoubtedly a challenge but it is not impossible, as we found on a recent trip to Finca Luna Nueva Lodge (FLN), a verdant 200-acre certified organic biodynamic estate in the rain forest near the active Arenal Volcano. The dedicated folks at FLN have taken organic farming in the jungle to a whole new level, integrating the practices of biodynamics with organic techniques, combining detailed soil preparations, complex crop rotation and even celestial considerations into a magnificent working farm producing some of the most delicious and nutritious foods you will ever taste.
Our trip to FLN was planned as a vacation outing with friends visiting from the United States, a relaxing getaway that offered a resort atmosphere and gourmet food along with interesting tours to local attractions such as the Arenal Hanging Bridges hike over rain forest canopy. What we didn’t expect was that FLN’s free “farm tour,” would turn out to be so informative and inspiring.
When scheduling our outing, Joe, the smiling host in the reception booth, asked if we had any areas of particular interest and since Layne and I did some organic gardening at our home in Northern California and had seen the ravages of leaf-cutter ants first-hand here in Costa Rica, we said we wanted to learn how the farm maintains an organic approach in the face of such pests. That specialized interest rewarded us with a second tour guide; Harold, the Farm Director, joined us and offered a lecture and demonstration of the techniques they use to produce organic cash crops as well as some 90% of the foods they serve their guests, including salad greens, tomatoes, beets, carrots and yucca, among others, as well as lamb, chicken and pork from their free-range herds.
As we started up the trail, our guide Roy pointed to some of the plants along the way, encouraging us to pluck a leaf, rub it and take a sniff of the aromatic herbs nestled here and there among the flora. At one point, he stopped and pointed up a tall tree to a dark blob on a branch. “There’s a three-toed sloth!” he exclaimed, “the laziest animal in the jungle!” Near a shed where compost is developed, some workers called to Roy saying there was a “chicken of the tree” resting nearby. We all walked over to see what this was but saw no bird. Then Roy directed our eyes to a large Iguana sunning itself on a log and laughingly told us it’s called a “chicken” partly for the taste of the meat.
But it was Harold’s talk that captured the complexities of biodynamics in growing the crops, as well as the reasons they work to foster the spiritual energies of the farm by planting or harvesting in sync with celestial and astrological rhythms. He also explained to us how they manage the inevitable pests organically by, for example, digging down into the multi-chambered nest of the leaf-cutters to find and kill the queen, but never using poisons or insecticides.
As we huddled under the compost shed out of a light drizzle, Harold described the steps involved in creating a biodynamic spray they use for soil preparation, which entails the use of gender-specific parts of certain animals in a prescribed timeline that is intended to serve as a catalyst for compost development. For instance, they fill the horn of a female cow with manure from a female cow and bury that in the soil for six months fermentation; combined with water, this concoction is sprayed on the soil prior to sowing the crop. Similarly, they use powdered quartz crystal that has also been buried and fermented in a cow’s horn to create a spray for use on the growing plant.Then there is the use of certain animal organs, such as a male deer’s bladder, filled with specific herbs to enrich the compost. The vegetable garden is constructed in the shape of a Mandala, an expanding circular form intended to utilize the space effectively as well as to call on the magical energies inherent in that design. Further along, we observed aspects of their crop rotation system in practice. After harvesting, they let the land revive itself naturally with free-growing native plants, then they introduce goats to eat down that foliage; chickens are then put in to fertilize and stir up the soil and finally, they allow hogs to root and loosen the earth in preparation for the next planting.
You might think that such labor-intensive methods would hinder a profitable farming system but in fact, Finca Luna Nueva cultivates two lucrative crops, certified organic turmeric and ginger, which they produce for New Chapter, Inc., an organic manufacturer of vitamins and herbal supplements.
Established in 1994, FLN offers educational conferences and workshops to those who want to learn about biodynamic systems, sustainable organic agriculture and conservation. The Lodge and outlying cottages were built in 2003 using fallen timber from the farm. Since then they have added a solar heated Jacuzzi, an ozonated swimming pool and a handicapped accessible rain forest trail. The whole place is a model of efficient and sustainable use of local resources.
Whether you desire a relaxing holiday in the rain forest, pampered by gourmet meals, massage and facials or if you want to learn about biodynamic farming methods, you won’t find a more perfect place than Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, an eco-retreat par excellence!