Pacayas de Alvarado, Cartago —Compared to the neatly trimmed rows of neighboring farms, Ricardo Montero’s one-hectare property looks, from a distance, like overgrown chaos.
The farmer produces specialty organic cheese, rare species of organic beans, organic disinfectant and medicinal plants to treat his animals should they become sick.
“We have all of these plants together, and not one threatens or damages each other. Some grow better together,” Montero says, gesturing at his property diverse with tomato and avocado trees and yellow amor en bolsita berry plants.
“These people next door, they just grow potatoes, and a bug got into them and took their whole crop,” Montero said. “When they lose, they lose everything.”
The Costa Rican graphic-artist-turned-farmer added that two families survive off his one hectare, while some producers in the region struggle to survive off of 20 hectares.
Montero’s neighbors, who have not strayed from conventional agriculture watch him closely to monitor his successes.
“When I planted fruit trees, they all waited to see what would happen. Now that they are seeing the results, they lament they didn’t do the same, when I did.”
Coordinators of the Reventazón Model Forest and the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) hope Montero is serving as an example to his neighbors.
Protecting the watershed of the Reventazón River was Montero’s goal in starting the farm, which also boasts two biodigesters that daily convert pig waste to 20 hours of electricity to power his cheese pasteurizer.
Although Montero is considered a model now, and is visited by tourists and experts alike to see his methods, the past four years have been a real struggle, he says.
Prices fetched on the organic market are not enough to sustain the market, he says. Organic farmer’s markets are far away, and prices paid aren’t worth the trip. Large organic distributors pay low prices because they buy in bulk.
Potential organic growers are further limited by the fact that it takes three years to start producing organic. Until then, they have nothing to survive on. Loans for small producers are usually limited to organized groups, he adds.
Montero has grown to take on a niche market. He sells to people who know and like his products and their origins.
“But for us here, we grow like this because first we eat,” he said. “And what is left over we sell. For this it is sustainable. And this is the most important.”