Integrated, Sustainable Farm Management In Balance with the Rainforest

Posted: February 14, 2014

For our first field trip of the semester, we take students to the lush tropical forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park where we immerse the group in the astounding biodiversity of the tropics. We want students to be amazed by the richness and diversity of plant and animal species, the complexity of biological relationships, and the beauty of the rainforest. On the second day, we visit the integrated farm El Progreso, where students see the combination of agriculture and farm production with rainforest conservation accomplished by a very courageous and inventive family with limited economic resources. Students see an authentic case of sustainable development in action. Then, on the third day, we see the machinery of factory farms reflected in the production of conventional bananas.

It is a contrasting trip. There are many things that I like about this first field experience. I can justify it from the academic point of view using multiple arguments, especially because it makes a strong impact on the students and illustrates many of the most pressing issues that determine the survival of wildlife in our world: the constant struggle between producing healthy, sustainable crops, while coexisting with our native ecosystems and generating a rewarding way to make a living. It is a balancing act. Perhaps because of this, the itinerary has not changed much in the last few years.

El Progreso is run by the Alpízar family, Nuria and her husband, Carlos, and their four boys. They produce milk and cheese, dedicating a significant portion of their farm to cattle ranching. Manure goes into compost using earthworms, and the compost goes into the garden and different crops scattered throughout the farm. We helped out planting local varieties of yams and cassava. The farm also protects a large tract of forest, obtaining from it environmental services, such as water, biological control agents, and pollinators. This farm is carbon positive, and SFS students have been planting native trees since we started visiting El Progreso back in 2007.

From El Progreso we learned the technique to sequester efficient microorganisms from the forest floor, which are turned into a liquid mix that fertilizes degraded soils, stimulates plant growth, and serves as a disinfectant for farm animals.

The garden gets visited by tapirs, the largest herbivore still thriving in the new world tropics. Tapirs cause some damaged in the farm’s garden, eating tasty roots, such as cassava and malanga. In response, Nuria changes the arrangement of the crops, makes it more complex and harder for tapirs to find their favorite snacks. She can coexist with the local fauna, including the tapir.

Nuria’s final thoughts for the group (and for everyone) were summarized as follows: when you do something you love and believe in, your job becomes so satisfying that is not a job anymore. It is possible to produce your own food in harmony with nature. You can follow this link (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UsDOiMVqFU) to learn more about El Progreso, challenge your Spanish, and find hope and inspiration.