This past week has taken the preconceiving, assumption-riddled little world of my mind for a roller-coaster of a ride. Facilitated by the good people at LASP this week was an exercise in connecting my stomach and my taste buds to my mind through my eyes as my legs carried me through the realities and alternatives of food production in Costa Rica. If you saw the pictures you might already know I had the privilege of visiting some perhaps idyllic looking plantations of coffee, pineapple, and banana in the West of the country. Perhaps you, like me connect the sight of a bunch of bananas, or a plump pineapple, or the dark leaves of a coffee plant with almost tangible memories of cream pie, or the shiny juices of that golden fruit running into the sand of a beach, or waking up to the rich aroma of a pot of coffee on a Sunday morning. All delicious, all pleasant, and all easier to stomach when our only frame of reference is between the time when we pick up our groceries until they enter our mouths.
I suppose I could talk about the pesticides and herbicides that go into our precious Del Monte bananas, sprayed by planes indiscriminately over plants, workers, the worker’s homes and schools alike, or the Nicaraguan workers working their 24 hour shifts in the pineapple fields who can’t unionize because they’re technically illegal but SOMEONE has to do the work to feed the mouth of the North American crying for dessert. I could speak of the respiratory problems and cancers I barely know of that the people who live on these plantations suffer from, or the erosion of the soil due to the unnatural mono-crop style farming that equals most profit in littlest time, or the fertile central valley where the coffee fields are getting paved over to build factories to make the software in our phones and laptops. I could talk about how many of the workers are paid piecework, their job to separate the fruits into first, second, and third grade for our perfectionist eyes scouring for any hint of a bruise while the broken, bruised, and “ruined” fourth grade fruits go to the markets in Costa Rica. But this sounds accusatory and I don’t mean to be. In all honesty, I know who many of you are reading this and I know you are very aware people who care about injustice. And you’re probably thinking it’s the same in the clothing factories of Bangladesh, or the cocoa farms of Cote d’Ivoire, or the oil sands and the Indigenous along the Athabasca, or the freeways, pavers, and construction signs encroaching on the fertile land of the small time farmers we know and love in North Edmonton. And you already know that we are the greed that prevents other’s need and you say who are you to tell me anyway, and well, you’re right. So I’ll tell you a different story, of one that happened yesterday.
Roderick is a farmer along a hillside high above San Jose. As a boy he started out conventional farming with his family, working for “The Man” as he put it. At some point he became disillusioned with the realities of conventional food production, its drive to produce more for “The Man” with less in less time and the pressure from “The Man” to use more and more herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. So by the age of 21 he got out of the high-production monoculture style of agriculture and set out on his own with his family. Fifteen or so years later the result is a sloping property with tall trees, banana plants, coffee plants, fruit trees, herbs, vegetables, sheep and wild things all growing interspersed and in their own good time. The birds sing in the trees and a sloth hides overhead. It is an ecosystem that lives and breathes spirit. I tried to write earlier about the spirituality of food and I learned a lot more from Roderick that day. He spoke softly and simply but his words were wise beyond his years. It was powerful to see how grounded his faith is in the care of the soil. And care for the soil he does. He showed us how the soil on his farm has grown up to one meter since he started working it. On his farm he tells us it is not just food that is produced but soil, and “spirit”, and “laughter”. For Roderick, owning a farm isn’t about a profit. He told us himself “I am not rich in money but I’m rich in spirit. In knowledge. I could get more money if I wanted it but I don’t need it. I produce what I need to live, to be happy, to sell. That is enough”. He grows for need while others pillage for greed.
Now, I am not a farmer and many of you know much more about the nature of food production than I do. So with my own beliefs that are fogged in the myopia of my own limited understanding I won’t try to say this is the way to farm or that is the way. I suppose one could say this kind of organic farming just isn’t feasible to fulfill the food demand from everyone to which I suppose I could reply if we would learn to eat what could be grown near us, or if we didn’t demand the luxury fruits, or if we didn’t throw away half of our food maybe we wouldn’t require such an astronomical amount of production anyway. But I really don’t know much of these things in truth. And then the question for me anyway isn’t so much what needs to be produced but how and why it is. And it was Roderick’s connection between the soil and the spirit that sticks with me. I’ll leave you with a quote from him who puts it differently and better than I could:
“Christ is in the soil. Why do we all live in these big cities all so far from nature, you know? The soil and the food it produces connects us spiritually, and through food we are connected to Christ. What we eat so often now isn’t food, it doesn’t have the spirit because it’s not given time to flourish, to be what it is meant to be as it grows. Care for the land, cultivate the spirit. Cultivate the land, care for the spirit. To do the one is to do the other.”
I’m still processing a lot of what I’ve seen and in many ways I feel like I’m moving through life with a turned back at the moment, seeing all these things piling up higher and higher behind me without time to analyze and think about them as is my nature, while I am pushed too swiftly forward by the river of history, so much bigger and faster than my own tiny stream. I’m not sure about everything I have heard of “The Man” or food production and consumption and how we fit into that bigger picture and I’m sure the above thoughts reflect these internal contradictions, but I’ve heard and seen much of the devastation of Creation by greed and what I saw in Roderick and his family’s little organic farm was the opposite: a peace-building, soul-filling, veneration of Creation.
It was a powerfully peaceful place and it was affirming to find out today after writing this that I have been given the exciting privilege to return there for the month of April to fulfill the community immersion portion of the program.
A typical view of the “farm” with coffee plants in the foreground
Drying coffee beans
Our little group with Roderick and Evila after being spoiled with food and coffee from the farm
“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.