Our experience in coffee production began in the 1930s. Since then, we have been constantly learning about how to improve efficiency in the production of coffee, while reducing the environmental impact. The major coffee production practices in Life Monteverde include:
– Use of organic fertilizers produced in the farm
– Crop disease control using a combination of natural and chemical pesticides
– Construction of terraces on slopes to reduce erosion
– Tree planting as windbreaks
– Keep small areas planted with coffee surrounded by natural forest or planted tree strips
Although these are not organic plantations, the environment is protected by applying soil conservation practices and using a combination of organic and chemical fertilizers. Native plant species are protected in and around the coffee plantations and exotic tree species are being replaced with native species.
In Costa Rica, the cost of fertilization for conventional coffee crops (using chemical fertilizer), represents at least 10% of the producer’s gross income. This cost increases with the rise of the price of petroleum, which is something the producer cannot control. Production of organic fertilizers using the farm’s raw material reduces costs to the producer significantly. It may, in the short term, represent higher labor investment, but this labor is generally supplied by the producer and the family members. The use of organic fertilizers is more cost-effective in the medium and long term, for it helps protect and enrich the biological diversity of the soil, while reducing the need to purchase chemical fertilizers. We use the farm wastes to obtain compost (organic fertilizer): goat and chicken manure, coffee pulp, leftovers of the goats’ food, and kitchen wastes. The fertilizer is applied to the crops in the farm. We also have a composting toilet.
The annual net loss of forests (that is, the sum of the loss minus the increment in forest areas) for the period 2000-2010 is similar to the area of Costa Rica (http://www.fao.org/forestry/fra/fra2010/es/). However, the impact of deforestation is much higher than the net loss of forested areas. Planting new forests is not enough to recover the original biological diversity since planted forests have much less diversity in their floristic composition (they have fewer plant, shrub and tree species). Tree planting is a productive activity, though, and it is urgent to continue planting species to mitigate the greenhouse effect, provide habitat for animal species in danger of extinction, protect the soil, create nicer landscapes, protect water resources, etcetera. Life Monteverde plants around 500 trees annually with the help from students and volunteers. We select native tree species of the region to contribute to conservation of the local biodiversity. We collect seeds from the trees in the farm, grow them in the nursery and then plant the seedlings in the farm or give them away. At the same time, we are gradually eliminating exotic tree species that were introduced in the past in the farm.
Large scale food production aims at increasing the profits to producers, claiming there is need to supply the population concentrated in the cities. But it is highly dependent on chemicals which are harmful to human health and the environment. Small scale sustainable production, either for home consumption or for local markets, favors reduction of pesticides, enhances the local economy and strengthens the relation between producers and consumers. Small scale activities also favor the biological diversity. In our farm, production of chickens, goats and pigs is complemented with coffee, vegetables, grains and fruits. The animals supply manure which is used for producing organic fertilizer and methane gas. Gradually, the animal feed will be produced entirely in the farm. Thus, it will be possible to provide the animals with a healthier diet while reducing dependence on imported food. Organic vegetables, grains and fruits are consumed by the workers of the farm, visitors and a small quantity is sold at the local Agricultural Fair.
Costa Rica has a hydroelectric energy production system enough to supply 70% of the national demand. This type of energy is available in all regions of the country and it is relatively cheap compared to its cost in other countries in the region. However, its availability and low cost are threatened by the growing consumption of energy, along with the environmental impact caused by hydroelectric dams and the global warming effect on the rain pattern. There is growing interest in promoting small scale energy production systems, causing low environmental impact and less dependence on the influence of global factors. Energy production from the farm’s organic wastes brings economic benefits for the producer, in the form of reduction of the electricity bill. It also benefits the environment, by reducing gas emissions and by producing organic fertilizer. In addition, consumers’ health is favored by eating organically fertilized vegetables. The sun as a source of heat is a permanent resource for Life Monteverde. It is commonly used to dry coffee, grains, fruit, clothes and firewood. We are investigating the feasibility of building solar panels adapted to cloudy areas. Since November 2011 we have a coffee depulper which is operated with a bicycle and all of the coffee drying uses solar energy exclusively. Finally, the gas produced by the biodigestor is used for cooking.
Monteverde protects a high percentage of the cloud forest on the continental divide. This achievement, though, is incomplete if this protection is not extended to the forests at medium elevation and to connections between these and the forests on top of the mountains. Many bird, insect and mammal species carry out altitudinal migrations to feed and reproduce. The protection of forest within private farms contribute to keep the biological corridors that favor such migrations. In Life Monteverde we keep 50% of the total area covered by forests. The main purpose is to protect the biodiversity, but it is also an opportunity for environmental education. With the help of students and volunteers we keep a system of low-impact trails visitors can use to enjoy and learn from nature. We take the visitors for walks along the trails, so they can learn about the interaction between natural forest and agricultural production.
In the Monteverde area the average annual precipitation is 3,500 liters of water per square meter. The roof over the pigsty of our farm covers 40 square meters. How can we use that water? We want to use at least 20% of this volume to give water to the pigs, to clean the pigsty and to mix with the manure that goes to the biodigester. The rest of the water will return to the environment without contact with the production system of the pig farm, thus avoiding using about 20,000 liters from public water system. While the amount of money saved may be little, we believe that many small actions like this, replicated around the world, contribute to the protection of the environment and local economies. We will also apply this strategy to collect rainwater from the roofs of other buildings on the farm. Since April 2012 we have used a system for collecting, storing and using rainwater for needs such as cooking, washing sheds, coffee washing, sanitation, irrigation of vegetables, etc. We also have a greywater treatment system.
Guillermo Vargas, who acts as head instructor at the farm has extensive experience in all educational topics offered, and also has experience working with students. He is fluent in both Spanish and English.