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Small Costa Rican farm is an inspiration for a better food system

Jan 02, 2024 12:31PM ● By Genevieve Vahl

The crop beds at the co-op. (Genevieve Vahl/City Journals)

For three weeks in November, this City Journals reporter worked for my stay on a farm in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. The Osa Peninsula is home to 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity when its landmass is only about 0.00000085% of the earth’s total, about three quarters the size of Rhode Island. As winter is in full swing here in Utah, summer is emerging out of the months-long rainy season down in the jungle. 

Osa Co-op was founded in 2000 as a means for 26 small palm oil producers on the Osa Peninsula to ban together to transport their yield to the oil extraction plant 200 km away.   

“This allowed them to move production in trucks with more capacity and lower transportation costs, which at that time, the trip was more expensive than what was received per ton of palm oil,” said Alexander Solórzano Leiton, the co-op’s manager and son of the founder. 

But, “By 2016, the cooperative made changes to go from working only on palm oil to other products which approves the search for other agricultural activities that can provide added value and can be managed sustainably,” Leiton said. Lining their tree groves in alternating rows of vanilla vines and cocoa trees, plantains and palm, bananas and papaya, they see the importance of biodiversity inherent to the Osa Peninsula as imperative to their practice.

“What made us change mainly is the dependence on a single crop, palm oil, historically has very changing prices that leaves producers in serious economic problems,” Leiton said. “As a second point, palm is planted as a monoculture and that makes the economy even more fragile because there are more diseases.” 

It was too expensive for small individual farmers to get their product to market, so combining resources, they cut costs, running more efficiently, together. Today, the co-op has 107 partners, all small producers who live around Corcovado National Park, banning their resources together to farm organically, within the land’s means, to bring items to market without the land at its expense. Osa Co-op offers an example in how resisting large scale, monocropped farming using a cooperative model benefits the land, the farmers and the community simultaneously. 

Monocropping is the repeated growing of a single crop on the same piece of land over and over again. Industrializing the food system and monocropping specifically originates in the attempt at trying to solve world hunger by using high-yielding, low-cost crops to produce more food. 

In Utah, 95% of the total farms in the state are considered family farms, with only 25% hiring farm labor. Yet the top crops of the state are hay/haylage, wheat for grain, corn for silage, corn for grain and barley for grain, according to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture for Utah.

“Over 80% of irrigated agricultural lands in Utah are used to produce alfalfa, pasture or other hay crops,” according to Utah State University's Burdette Baker, Matt Yost and Cody Zesiger. “Much of the land that was favorable for fruit and vegetable crops in Utah has been converted to urban uses.”

There is simplicity in monocropping, only needing machinery and infrastructure necessary for one crop type, giving beginner farmers a reasonable entry point into the industry. Proponents believe it promotes economic growth and generates employment opportunities. Like hay and corn in the U.S., palm oil production is that monocrop offering single infrastructure, high yielding crops to create economic development and rural employment in Costa Rica. Osa Co-op itself started out as a palm oil farm after all.  

Yet monocropping poses far more environmental problems that original foresight did not account for. By depleting all biodiversity, monocropping makes farms less resilient to disease or pests, putting the large swaths of land of the same crop equally vulnerable.

“An infestation of stem borers can destroy summer squash, but may leave eggplant untouched. An unexpected hail may crush corn and not bother beets,” wrote Ocean Robbins for Food Revolution Network, an organization committed to inspiring and advocating for healthy, ethical and sustainable food for all. Maintaining a biodiverse land creates resilience. 

“When humans decimate that diversity through monocropping, any event that leads to a diminished harvest has ripple effects, such as increasing food prices and bringing about greater food insecurity,” Robbins wrote. “Biodiversity is the signature of a natural system.” 

Panama disease wiped the dominant banana strain out of existence in the 1940s and ’50s, prompting the introduction of African palm in Costa Rica. The high yielding, multipurpose vegetable oil gained momentum in the ’60s and ’70s, with the government giving tax incentives and subsidies to encourage establishments of palm oil plantations. According to Grow Jungles, a nonprofit looking to preserve the integrity of the Costa Rican jungle by connecting conservationists and scientists, it is estimated that as of 2020, about 655,000 acres of land are dedicated to African palm in Costa Rica, which is about 5% of the total land use in a country about the size of West Virginia or Denmark. 

Although Costa Rica is different culturally and climatically, our problems here aren’t too different. 

Bigger farms are more often rewarded with better prices and subsidies because of their larger yields. Yet they are producing empty calories—more calories that are less nutrient dense.  Monocropping displaces small scale farmers, specifically indigenous communities from ancestral lands thus their cultural heritage, traditional practices and livelihoods. 

“Before white Americans moved into the region, Goshutes knew the land intimately and took from it all they needed to sustain life,” Dennis Defa wrote in “A History of Utah’s American Indians.” “As efficient and effective hunters and gatherers, they understood the fragile nature of the desert and maintained a balance that provided for their needs without destroying the limited resources of their arid homeland.” Native communities lived within the land’s means for time immemorial. 

“Palm oil companies prioritize profit and expansion,” said Miguel Guevara, founder of Grow Jungles. Not unlike the industrial farming plaguing our country. 

It’s important to acknowledge the industrial scale, low cost system gives access to food as a human right. Everyone deserves that access. Yet it's the cheap, fast food that is killing Americans, specifically people of color, at higher rates than anywhere else in the world.

Not to mention the dangers of biocide, fertilizers and pesticides on farmhands of large scale, monocropped operations. Especially as pesticide resistance builds and more and stronger chemicals have to be used. These pesticides are killing pollinators at rates to extinction, while the chemicals are also getting into local water supplies. Palm specifically requires significant amounts of water which can put demand on local water supplies, especially during the dry season and in the drier regions of the country. 

Alfalfa in Utah accounts for 46% of irrigated cropland in Utah in 2022. “Other hay and haylage” accounts for 19% of irrigated cropland in 2022, up from 11% in 2017. And pasture accounts for 23% of irrigated cropland in 2022, up from 21% in 2017. 

“Pesticides and agrochemicals poison the very hands that toil to harvest the bounty of destruction,” Guevara said. 

Monocropping makes the earth less resilient to climate change by eroding the land’s ability to retain soil and water. It decreases soil biodiversity, depleting the same nutrients year after year. The deforestation that palm plantations entail releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as well as lessening the environment’s ability to sequester carbon. 

We have small farms here in Utah doing their part in helping better our food system, reducing our carbon footprints, getting the community locally grown food and reducing the humanitarian and environmental costs of the industrialized food system. Yet Osa Co-op specifically can serve as inspiration through its resistance to monocropping through its cooperative model. Operating at the benefit of all, instead of at the cost of. 

Moving the fermenting cocoa seeds from their first box into the descending crate for the second of three rounds of fermentation. (Genevieve Vahl/City Journals)


Being a co-op allows farms like Osa Co-op and their partners to remain small, to remain biodiverse, to remain organic. They can afford to have smaller yields in a cooperative when they are not the sole producers of the yield. They combine their yields into the community pot, get their cuts, while splitting expenses. Still producing enough to make it worthwhile in the market. Every farmer does not have to spend the resources to individually get their small yields to the extraction plant, to the market. They can share the costs, cutting less into profit.

Osa Co-op is run mostly by hand. They have a tractor, but I snipped the cocoa beans off the trees with a hand pruner. I sat on a stump while beans were being macheted in half for me to squeeze the seeds out into a half-barrel vat. I hand planted celery seeds. The low mechanized nature of the farm also serves as a way for farms to remain small. You do not need specialized equipment per crop, with less overhead in infrastructure. It takes longer, there is smaller yield, but in a cooperative model, you have enough to still be a competitor. Cooperative partners share the resources, costs and responsibilities, where remaining small and true to the land is realistic.  

In remaining biodiverse, they don’t have to rely on chemicals and biocides for the success of the farm. The land is healthier, the soil replenished, resilient to disease and pest and farmers are not exposed to harmful chemicals. In producing multiple crops, the cooperative’s community lot gives smaller yields weight in participating in the market, from several angles. Helping themselves and the earth in tandem. Their biodiversity promotes financial stability for the farmers without abusing the land. 

Shifting power out of the hands of a few to reallocating subsidies and tax breaks to small farmers allows them to be able to serve their communities while championing harmonious, sustainable farming practices with the land. 

It’s not about shuttering large scale farms’ livelihoods in order to promote small ones. But it is allowing them to downscale without fearing of going belly-up, freeing up funds for smaller farmers to get some of the share. Downscaling their operation, diversifying their land, creating smaller, more nutrient dense yields that, in collaboration with community partners, can enter the market with reduced costs and heightened benefits.

“Working in sustainable agriculture is very important because it means working with the health of the soil and people, both clients and farmers, in mind,” said Leiton. “The objective of Osa Co-op has been focused on improving the quality of life of the producers of the Osa Peninsula.”

Farms are inherently collaborative in nature, working together to get the land maintained and producing. But how Osa Co-op and their partners are able to enter the marketplace together instead of individually, they have power, serving as inspiration for our own food system. To reallocate funds, subsidies and tax breaks could mean to prioritize the land, the farmers and our communities simultaneously. For when it becomes time to start seedlings and begin uncovering the plant beds, we are more equipped to begin making our local food system more resilient and prosperous for us all.