We eat a lot of beans (frijoles) here at the farm; pretty much every day, in fact. The most common variations are boiled/stewed, refried (molidos), or with rice (pinto), and they accompany all sorts of dishes from burritos to soups.
On our second day here at the Rancho we got the chance to go help a local farmer, Chepo, with his bean harvest. We drove out due South-ish in the red truck that has been on the farm since the beginning.
Looking out towards Parque Nacional La Cangreja, Chepo’s field lay on a fairly steep, mostly treeless slope. It is and has been common practice to clear forests for annual agriculture or livestock.
He and a friend/colleague were laying out some of the beans to dry as we arrived.
With a bunch of sacks, our hands and feet and some much appreciated cloud cover we split into two groups; one scouring the hillside for bean plants to pull up (roots and all) to hand back to the lot of us to strip the beans and bag them.
Unfortunately, the practice of pulling out the whole plant without leaving any residues to decompose, or adding any additional material (such as compost), can leave hillsides such as this nutrient-depleted and eroded. Soil should never be left bare, and hillsides should usually either have trees (whose roots soak up and store water, preventing erosion), or be terraced if they are to be cultivated. This is definitely easier said then done, especially in as hilly a country as Costa Rica!
Later back at the Ranch, we de-hulled the seeds from their pods and they were set out to dry in the sun.
Currently I’m working on getting some perennial beans, the Winged Bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), planted. It’s obvious advantage as a perennial as opposed to an annual would be that in the ideal case it would yield for multiple years before having to be re-planted.
I’ve recently completed the bamboo trellis, and will be planting half the beans in the dry season and half just before the start of the wet season (around mid-April), as an experiment and due to a tip from one of the locals (supposedly they explode with growth with the coming of the rains).
I’ll write a follow-up post on the success of this project, from garden to kitchen, as well as expand on the differences between annual and perennial agricultures and why the latter may be beneficial for combating climate change (especially in the tropics where things can grow year round!).
So I’m here in Costa Rica at Rancho Mastatal, sitting in my little hut known as The Goat Barn/House, a.k.a. The Pink Palace (because the lime plaster turned out pinker than intended). It sits overlooking the “Banana Bowl”, a verdant little valley that is one of the agroforestry spaces. My roommate (Nadav) and I have our own little jackfruit tree that is starting to bear, with some ginormous clumping bamboo just beyond. It has rained a fair amount since we’ve been here, which is abnormal for the end of January, but the transition to the hot dry season is now well underway. Luckily, we spend much of our time in shade under shelter or forest canopy, so the heat is tolerable. Waterfall trips help, too. All of the buildings are open, and showers and loos are mostly separate structures, so life is very much outdoors here, sharing this lush green space with bugs, birds, spiders and deadly venomous snakes like the Fer-de-lance. The day starts at dawn, and typically starts to wind down after dinner (oftentimes with a cup of hooch). Meals are at 8am, 1pm and 6:30pm, and a lot of work goes into making delicious, nutritious meals for a big group of people (as well as cleaning up after them)!
These first two weeks have been our orientation phase, settling into life here in the jungle in this small community that pulses with the energies of visitors and residents alike. As apprentices, we have been getting up to speed with daily Life Skills and Food Skills, which rotate each month, of which I am responsible for Solar Star and Balm, respectively. The former involves a few chores around the main building, including filling up the lard bottle in the kitchen, putting the towels out to dry, making Tapa Dulce (cane sugar syrup), sharpening knives and grinding coffee – the last of which is definitely engendering an appreciation for the effort involved in preparing a drug on which 20+ people depend on each day! Balm involves making fermented sodas from water kefir, which we learnt how to do with Laura, one of the core team members, during our fermentation crash course. It’s similar to kombucha, but has a different colony of bacteria and yeast. Fermentation happens really quickly here – the sodas get fizzy in just a day, and the home-brew takes about 2-3 weeks! The other food skills are corn nixtamalization, pasteurising milk, feeding the dairy kefir, making dosas from beans and rice, making vinegar, and pickling vegetables. We’ve also learnt how to process jackfruit, cinnamon, and sacha inchi.
We’ve been spending time with core team members getting more familiar with the main focuses and projects here, which included tours of the wood shop, zone one garden, orchards, and a natural building primer. We’ve now got a real taste of what the year ahead holds, and opportunities abound – we will get to try everything and decide where we want to focus our efforts later on. Some projects include improving the composting system in zone one, building adobe bricks for a new outdoor shower, and plastering one or more of the structures (perhaps with the Japanese techniques we will learn in March). There are constantly things to get involved in here, and already Nic and Benito have rebuilt one of the main gates with a beautiful metal frame and Pilon wood, and two others have started rebuilding one of the rocket stoves.
On the agriculture side of things, there is plenty of work to be done in improving both production as well as the farm to table pipeline, understanding how “new” or unusual foods (like the Sacha Inchi nut or Jackfruit) may be incorporated into the system, from planting to harvesting to processing to cooking. Soil tests are being carried out, and there’s a microscope here which we plan to examine the soil microbiology with. As a Permaculture site and somewhere where teaching is a major priority, I would love to see more food, especially perennials, coming from the farm – we’re still quite dependent on rice and beans here, like many of the locals, both of which are annual crops that need the land to be cleared and can deplete the soil over time. There are some trees already planted, such as the Malabar Chestnut, that could offer solutions in this regard, and experimentation is very much a core component here. I will write a more thorough post about our bean day field trip soon, exploring these issues in more detail.
Tonight we have our first large group arriving for the Emergency Medical Training course, and it’ll be busy for the next few months. Next week we’re starting our Work Parties, where we’ll be getting sweaty doing things that need doing. I’m looking forward to sharing more of the happenings of jungle and Rancho Mastatal life with you, and discussing in much more depth what it means to (try to) live as sustainably as possible whilst navigating many of the compromises that arise.
This past year I’ve come to appreciate much more the benefits and importance of sharing. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be accepted as an Apprentice at Rancho Mastatal in Costa Rica for 2018, a premier impactcentre for sustainability education including topics such as Permaculture, agroforestry, natural building and fermentation; this blog is here to document and share this experience, as well as everything else I’ve learnt so far about climate change and what we can do about it.
Join me here and/or perhaps in person at one of the upcoming workshops!