By Scott Cooney | January 26th, 2010
When the area around Lake Arenal, Costa Rica, was deforested to make room for “McCattle”, little planning was done for the sustainable use of the land. It’s the same old story, and one that has played itself out for decades in central America–demand for cheap beef in the United States has driven the destruction of much of the isthmus’ rainforests, and with typically thin soils, steep topography, and slow growing forests, the land does not recover after a few years of cattle grazing, but rather more resembles desert grasslands that are bereft of the area’s historic biological diversity.
Thanks to ecotourism and perhaps to carbon credits and offsets purchased elsewhere, many efforts are underway to reforest much of this land lost to cattle ranching. Costa Rica’s Institute of Tourism (ICT–Instituto Costaricense de Torismo) provides guidelines for a Certificate of Sustainable Tourism. One of the facets of this certification is that a company or organization wishing to participate can earn points toward their certification by reforesting their land and surrounding hillsides.
6 years ago, the Sostheim family saw a piece of land, roughly 400 acres, that sat on the bank of Lake Arenal near El Castillo, and thought they could make some terrific things happen. Rancho Margot was born: a self-sufficient ranch, organic farm, and ecotourism destination. It is completely off-grid, both in terms of water and electricity, and produces about 85 percent of the food that is eaten by the workers, family, and customers served in the farm’s restaurant. It’s as close to completely self-sufficient as anything I’d heard of, so I recently paid a visit to Rancho Margot to see firsthand the nexus of ecotourism and permaculture.
The ranch is blessed, as is much of Costa Rica, with amazing natural resources, even despite the historical destruction by cattle. Perhaps most importantly, the ranch has a perennial, fast flowing tributary of the Rio Cano which provides it with fresh water and hydroelectric power. Two micro-scale hydroelectric plants divert some water from the stream, and with a gravity feed, pipe the diverted water into a turbine that produces electricity and immediately dispenses the water back into the stream. A fish swimming upstream might barely notice that half the water volume is diverted for a short length. Each of these two stations must have its filters cleaned every 3-4 days to remove a significant amount of organic debris, mostly consisting of leaves, twigs, branches, and decomposing soil matter.
The staff at Rancho Margot has worked hard to plant trees throughout the property. Many of these are fruit trees: bread fruit, banana, plantain, papaya, mango, avocado, and the like pepper the grounds of the ranch. In addition, there are many plants that provide benefits, such as the Cat Tail plant, which produces nectar all day, which is good for attracting a variety of pollinators, like birds, bees, bats, and many other kinds of insect.
The ranch has dairy cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, a vegetable garden, and a medicinal herb garden, all of which are organic and beyond. Great care is taken to use every “resource” produced by these livestock. Solid manure from the cows and pigs is brought to a segmented holding area, where worms have their way with it, and in 2 months it is akin to soil in terms of texture, feel and smell (yes, I mushed it around in my hand to make sure…that’s how dedicated your Triple Pundit writers are). After 2 months here, it is moved to another area where it is added to the organic waste, such as coffee grinds, hay, and vegetable clippings. In this area, it is deposited over 2 kilometers of piping, where water from the stream flows through the decomposing material. It’s fundamentally a cogeneration plant, where the water gets heated for the ranch’s showers, heated swimming pool, and other uses, but also keeps the compost from getting too hot, which would destroy beneficial bacteria and fungi. This creates a lot of work, where workers have to be careful not to damage the pipes as they remove an incredible pile of terrific soil from the 2 km of circuitous piping by hand and shovel. Liquid waste from the animals is taken to the biodigestor, where off-gassing methane is gathered and used as cooking gas.
Soap is processed from a variety of resources on the farm, including byproducts of meat production, and pumice from the nearby hills and used coffee grinds as exfoliants.
Two species of pigs, the traditional white pigs, plus the native black pigs of Costa Rica, provide food for workers and ranch guests, as do the 300+ chickens on site, also of two species. The organic vegetable garden, which contains beets, carrots, celery, lettuce, green beans, cabbage, and a variety of other crops, and the medicinal herb garden, which contained three species of mint, basil, rosemary, cilantro, thyme, and quite a few more, also require immense amounts of work and upkeep.
To ward off insects, the ranch creates its own insect repellents. As the guide so accurately described, pests adapt quickly to pesticides, requiring newer and harsher pesticides to be developed all the time. The ranch simply creates these repellents (the guide, also very accurately, described them straightforwardly as nothing that kills bugs, it is simply a deterrent) from flowers and herbs grown on site that have natural insect repellent characteristics. They make 6-8 types of repellent and rotate them around the ranch. The guide said these do a remarkable job of keeping pest damage to a minimum.
Ranch staff harvest humus from the surrounding hillsides and breed microorganisms from it, adding water and molasses as microbe food, and apply this liquid around the animal pens to help keep ticks and odors to a minimum.
Not everything produced on site is so Spartanly utilitarian. Ranch staff enjoy carving masks from the balsa trees on site. In keeping with the concepts of permaculture, which provide guidelines for sustainable living for the entire ecosystem, including human animals, ranch staff have access to a playground for their children and a soccer field in addition to the hiking trails, river, yoga platform, and heated pool.
In keeping with the ICT’s guidelines for sustainable tourism, the ranch also has an animal rescue center and a native tree nursery with which its staff endeavors to reforest the surrounding hillsides. As a committed Triple Pundit, I was extremely impressed with the sustainability of the ranch and the social aspects. The ranch employs 35 full time Costa Rican workers as well as a variety of contract workers, all of whom seem happily engaged, well paid, and ecologically savvy. Multiple generations of the Sostheim family also live on site.
There is, of course, the third bottom line: is Rancho Margot profitable? While I didn’t ask directly, it appeared that ecotourism was bringing in more money than any other of the ranch’s extremely diverse and sustainable operations. As co-founder of a green business incubator, I couldn’t help but see the Ranch as an incubator of its own: the natural soaps, the natural insect repellents, the microbe mosh that reduced ticks, the organic beef, dairy, pork, chicken, eggs, and crops….it seemed that everything could be a green business of its own, let alone lending to the profitability of the farm.
All of these things appear possible for Rancho Margot as it continues to scale its operations, but external markets for products are simply not the focus at this juncture. The Ranch accepts volunteers who have skills that match the needs of the Ranch. I met several young American volunteers: farm workers, a bartender, an architect, ranch hands, and others. Perhaps Rancho Margot needs a green business consultant to help them set up markets for external products. Interested parties, apply here.
Scott Cooney is co-founder of Green Business Village, a sustainable business incubator, and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill).