A Vital Part of the SFS Costa Rica Learning Experience and Sustainable Agricultural System

The two pigs run up to greet us as I walk down to the lower farm at the SFS Center For Sustainable Development Studies in Atenas, Costa Rica with students on the morning Pandilla. Seeing a pig running is wonderful; it is pure joy, better than anything from the movie Babe. I give Trygve and Karlyn (the pigs are named after our Student Affairs Managers) each a scratch behind the ears and a pat on the head as we continue on our way to the chicken coop to fill water containers and top off feeders. We say hello to our mama cow, Clover, and her three-day old calf, Ferdinand, water and weed plants, and collect some fresh mangos as we head up to breakfast.

Our farm here at the Center is an integral part of the students’ experience. The field station has been here, in Atenas, since 1993 and since then our farm has grown to about 2.5 hectares. In 2011, the farm was recognized as a Rainforest Alliance Certified sustainable farm. With cows, pigs, chickens, a greenhouse, mango and orange groves, bananas, raised beds, and forested areas with trails, it is a lot of work to keep it all running.

So, why do we even have a farm here at the Center? There are many reasons! First, it’s a great way to supplement our food — we are able to produce our own fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, eggs, milk, and even meat. Agriculture also plays a large role in sustainable development, especially in Costa Rica where agriculture accounts for about 6.5% of the GDP, and 14% of the labor force by occupation. In addition, small-scale, sustainable agriculture methods can help Costa Rica achieve its goal of becoming the first carbon-neutral country by 2021.

For most students, coming to SFS is their first exposure to agricultural practices and life on a farm. Additionally, the farm is an important teaching tool and resource for our professors; it is often a setting for applied field exercises or real-world examples of integrated pest management.

At the Center, students are organized into small work crews called “Pandillas” (which, literally translated, means gangs). Each Pandilla helps with cooking, washing dishes, cleaning, and farm-work on a weekly, rotating schedule. As part of the farm Pandilla, students participate in the daily tasks of running the farm and, in the process, are able to understand what a sustainable, small-scale farm is all about. It often seems that in the U.S. we have lost our connection to the land and the food that sustain us each day. Through SFS Costa Rica, students not only learn about agriculture through academic courses, but also with their hands in the soil and boots in the mud.

Some people may wonder why we have animals on the farm. All too often we hear horror stories of animal agriculture: factory farms where chickens’ beaks are snipped off, fertilizer runoff causing algae blooms, and E. coli outbreaks; however, on the other end of the spectrum are the happy pigs at our farm, work horses that help us conserve fossil fuels, and nutrient-rich compost made from cow manure. Animals are a fundamental part of a sustainable agricultural system that focuses on diversity, harmony with nature, holistic management, and efficiency that will sustain us over the long term. Animals also provide manure, work as ruminants that can transform grass to protein, and are a source of power. They help work the soil, move equipment, and more — all without fossil fuels, which is quite satisfying from the closed-systems perspective. Livestock provide ecological, nutritional, economic, and cultural contributions, as long as animal welfare is not overlooked. The key to our consumption of animal meat is moderation, as well as transparency in the supply chain. We need a sustainable agricultural system where the BBQ chicken wings on your plate are produced in a way that considers the welfare of the animals, the workers, and the planet.

After the early morning Pandilla, with our arms full of fresh mangoes, we head to the kitchen for a well-deserved, big breakfast. A student picks up a mango that is slightly bruised on one side, with some black spots on the very bottom, and asks me if it is okay to eat. I tell the student to go ahead, and lo and behold, its absolutely perfect on the inside, golden and buttery smooth. There is nothing better than devouring a fresh mango straight from the tree, even if there are a few imperfections due to the fact that our orchard is managed organically.

During the semester, students visit other farms including El Progreso, another diversified animal and vegetable farm, El Toledo, a local organic coffee farm, and the gigantic Dole banana plantation. These visits allow them to compare various farming methods and to put our farm work into perspective. Ultimately, the world needs a system that provides adequate, healthy, and sustainable food by means that respect the rights and intrinsic worth of all participants in the food production system; however, people must care in order to begin making a change to our food system.

Here at SFS, we use education as a tool for change, and encourage students to think about how we can improve our systems. Students learn about the three pillars of a sustainable agricultural system — ecological, social, and economic. They also learn about food justice and the importance of considering local communities and traditions in the sustainability discussion. On a field trip to El Sur they get to experience Costa Rican agricultural traditions by milking the cows each morning and learning about sugar cane processing. Our hope for our students is that they will leave SFS with the means and motivation to be the agents of change in our agricultural systems and, as global citizens, make positive contributions to environmental sustainability.

After all, as Wendell Berry said, “Eating is an agricultural act.”