Biochar & Regeneration During The Dry Season

This is not the first time I am hearing of it, but this concept is counterintuitive to me because it involves combustion, which I associate with carbon emissions. On our hillside we are working to regenerate quality soil on what once was a fertile, productive coffee farm. When the sun rises over what we planted this year to help prepare the soil for next year’s coffee planting, I have been considering what we need to do differently during the dry season. October is the last month of rainy season, so we are almost there. It is clear that we need all the good ideas we can find in this effort. This seems worthy of consideration:

Loading soil with biochar allows farmers to cut way back on irrigation

At high applications levels, researchers found that biochar can not only soak up a lot of carbon, but also reduce the need for irrigation by almost 40%.

Biochar – the charcoal product used to enrich agricultural soil and trap carbon—may have a hidden commercial benefit for farmers: it could lock moisture in the soil and save on gallons of costly irrigation.

The coarse, black material, made by combusting wood, grass, and other organic materials under low-oxygen conditions, helps to sequester carbon in the soil. Continue reading

Know GEF Through Its New Leader

Mongabay‘s Rhett A. Butler offers an engaging conversation with the new leader of GEF, who we have confidence will lead this institution to the planet’s benefit. His realization at a young age about seasonal differences in bird abundance is a good example of why programs like Celebrate Urban Birds in places where migratory birds come and go are so important. It has been too long since we last sourced from Mongabay, but today we correct that with this recorded interview (click above) and the printed version (click below):

The post-COVID opportunity for the environment: An interview with the GEF’s Carlos Manuel Rodriguez

Tropical forests in places like Costa Rica (pictured) can be an important source of livelihoods by attracting nature-oriented tourists. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay: Congratulations on the new role at the Global Environment Facility.

Rodriguez: Well, I’m very pleased and honored. I’ve been working half my professional life in government and half within the civil society in Costa Rica. I have worked very close to the GEF, including in the early days of the GEF. I was a negotiator for CBD for the Rio convention and also had the fortune to work with the government of Costa Rica in the first implementation of GEF funding in Costa Rica. Those were very interesting times, the mid-1990s.

I’m really delighted that 25 plus years after that, I’m leading this very prestigious organization. I never thought I would have that opportunity, particularly for coming from a developing country, a recipient country. Continue reading

Postcards From Costa Rica

In early May I posted a “this I believe” kind of note, linking to an essay about the importance of the US Postal Service. Several months later Organikos launched its roasting and delivery service in the USA, putting that belief to the test, with dozens of coffee parcels going to all corners of the country’s continental borders as well as remote interior places. Flying colors. Thank you, postal carriers. Thank you, Benjamin Franklin and all those after you who have kept the institution moving forward. Other great institutions, having thrived for more than a century, demonstrate that even great ideas sometimes need help. So, in our own little ways, we support the mission. Costa Rica is one of the many places in the world inspired by both the National Park Service of the USA as well as its Postal Service. In recent months Correos de Costa Rica took the precaution of halting mail service to and from the USA. When it is back providing that service, our first little supportive action will be sending postcards to all those in the USA who ordered coffee.

CSA + NGO = 100% Forward

Organikos had a life before Authentica, but when Authentica opened one year ago the context was different. The Adriatic island and the outpost in India were temporary homes where we were launching projects for clients. Costa Rica is where the entrepreneurial conservation work began, so now we were coming home to stay and build a platform of our own. The logic for Authentica? Several million visitors per year had become the norm for the country over the last couple decades. And for Organikos? On average one million bags of coffee went home in the luggage of those visitors each year, mostly to the USA. Authentica’s location in two of Costa Rica’s most successful hotels would allow Organikos coffee to increase that flow. Good logic, no question.

Until now. This year international tourism is a fraction of that norm, and next year is likely to be similar. It would be easy to see the glass as less than half full, but instead we are looking for ways to refill the glass. We want those million bags of coffee to reach all the people who have either already fallen in love with Costa Rica, or are yet to.

Particularly for those people who have come, or want to come to Costa Rica to support its conservation commitments, our goal now is to provide an alternative way to lend that support. With our coffee as a taste of place alternative while travel is on hold, we have set up a platform for roasting and delivering 4 of our 12 coffee selections in the USA. And we continue to commit that 100% of the profits from the sale of these coffees goes to bird habitat regeneration initiatives in Costa Rica. Our first such initiative is in progress, but we want to expand our conservation outreach. One way to do this might be by partnering with conservation NGOs in Costa Rica. We are starting to explore this option.

Regenerating, Banana & Plantain

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Following yesterday’s theme, but switching to another example, today I will say a few words more about the pitch. The last time I spent time thinking about bananas as much as I am now, it was in the context of creating an edible landscape. Amie and other team members wrote plenty on this topic when we were based in Kerala.

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Now that I am prepping for regeneration I am watching these banana and plantain plantings grow day to day, week to week as I remove the grasses surrounding them. Continue reading

Regenerating, Early Steps

Ornamentals

In the early stages of regenerating this erstwhile coffee farm, moving decades-old ornamentals to the periphery has been an important activity. But some ornamentals stay put. The purple flowers center-left in the image above are a favorite of both hummingbirds and butterflies, so that bush, planted only one year ago, was a no-go. And behind it, a bougainvillea that was planted in 2001 remains because it has become a favorite place for hens to bring their chicks to hide under the foliage from a grey hawk that has taken up residence above in the poro trees.

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In this image above, in the background is a sibling of the bougainvillea planted in 2001, and this one was already closer to the periphery so did not need moving. But in the foreground is an example of another ornamental that has a completely different purpose. It is, frankly, an ugly ornamental as these things go. It does not produce flowers, instead putting its energy and other resources underground to create a strong, deep root system. It is planted for soil retention. And this stalk was cut from a mature version of the same, as seen below. Continue reading

Tending The Pitch

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In previous posts I have pointed my lens to this area, but from another angle and with limited scope. In the photo above, in the distant upper right you san see a small light object which is the top of the bee colony. With this view you can make out where the curvy berms lead and if you squint you can see the long quadrangle. A few months prior to our departure to live in Croatia in August, 2006 I decided that this stretch of relatively flat land would make a good football pitch for our boys and their friends. It was a mess of bramble and brush at the time so I cleared it and removed the big rocks and let it be. We would be gone for one year, and when we came back I would finish the pitch.

Plans change. We did not return to live in Costa Rica for another dozen years. This week, as we move to Plan B I took a snapshot of how that pitch looks right now. I am one quarter of the way through removing all the grasses that invaded the land while we were away. Under their blanket is all the rich soil that earthworms produce when left alone for awhile. That pitch, which now has 30 banana and plantain trees, and hundreds of bean plants as well as beets, will next get watermelon where the land is already cleared. These all will help the soil, and prepare the shade needed, in advance of coffee planting next year.

Planting Coffee, Plan B

TriunfoSeedlings

VTriunfoFIf you have been following these pages for at least a few months, you know that we kept the coffee beans from our last harvest to use as seeds for replanting land that was coffee farm for most of the last century. For better or worse, the photo above is not the result of those coffee beans. It is normal for seeds like our to germinate in 6-8 weeks. As of today we have precisely zero germination. Plan A, complete. Not a failure, just a lesson in the vagaries of agriculture. Plan B has been growing on me since creating the new labels for our coffee. Specifically one of the single estates that we offer, which is produced at Villa Triunfo in the Western Valley of Costa Rica. These specifications, which I received last year during our cupping sessions, were my guide to rewriting the text for the label on the back of the bag:

VTBackThis farm is unique in that it has Starmaya and Marsellesa cultivars which were both developed as a joint venture between ECOM and CIRAD (agricultural development in France). This lot of coffee displays how when Marsellesa, a Sarchimor type varietal is properly cared for, harvested and processed it can rival some of the most desirable varietals in the region. This coffee was produced in the Red Honey method which leaves some residual mucilage on the seed prior to drying. After drying, the parchment coffee appears red in color resulting in the “Red Honey” distinction. With this process, a bit of the coffee fruit flavors make their way into the cup as well.

Today, I will put in motion Plan B, one part of which is the acquisition and planting of seedlings from these hybrid beans (those in the photo at the top) that our friends at Villa Triunfo have been having great success with.

Organikos, Coffee & Community

Walking yesterday’s theme further down a country road: since late March Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been a constant topic of interest. Initially my thoughts were with the family farms supplying our fruits and vegetables. We spent the month of April and much of May looking closely at how we might support them. Concerned that the social distancing and lockdown measures that were sure to come would close the farmers’ markets, putting unbearable pressure on those families and their farms we thought a limited time, limited purpose CSA would help these farmers. It was a good idea, but it was not for us to do. The municipalities, farmer cooperatives and other organizers of the farmers’ markets in Costa Rica proved creative and resilient. So far, so good.

Now, as we prepare to launch our coffee roasting and delivery service in the USA, I see Organikos offering a community the opportunity to support coffee farmers in Costa Rica. Last year, prior to opening, we had projected that in 2020 Organikos would sell 7,000 pounds of coffee in the two Authentica shops. Those two shops were designed to serve the travelers who have been arriving and departing by the millions for the last two decades. We entered into supply contracts based on those projections, and invested in the infrastructure to make it happen. We were on track, through mid-March, to meet the projections. Needless to say, now that will not happen as planned.

We may yet get to 7,000 pounds of coffee sold in 2020. With 4+ months to go, with the website ready to go live and the roaster fired up we will see how quickly we can build a community to support this particular form of agriculture.

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Brunca

We have mentioned this region previously, showing where our organic coffee comes from. Brunca is, from my experience, the region most people would neglect to name if quizzed on listing all of Costa Rica’s coffee-growing zones. And while no one would claim it is racing to lead the pack in awareness, it is the region with the oldest certified organic coffee estate in the hemisphere, and if only for that reason, I think its future is bright:

BruncaCoffeeThe beverage’s taste ranges from the very soft, coming from the low and middle areas, to the sweet and complex citrus flavor of the higher areas of Pérez Zeledón and Coto Brus. Light aromas stand out, with fragrances similar to orange flowers and coffee jasmine.

Brunca is a region located in the south of Costa Rica and comprises the Coto Brus, Buenos Aires and Pérez Zeledón cantons. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Tres Rios

Tomorrow I will highlight a video showing one final region classified by the Costa Rica Coffee Institute. Yesterday I linked to a video of one of the lesser known regions; today, the smallest but historically most prestigious region:

TresRiosCoffeeIts green color has characteristic blue shades. A full-bodied beverage which guarantees, among other features, a pleasant long-lasting aftertaste. A fine and balanced acidity mixed with sweet notes.

Tres Ríos is located a few kilometers east of the capital of Costa Rica, San José.  Its origin dates back to 1820, with the expansion of the coffee area from the Central Valley to other provinces, which grew strongly during the 1840s and until the middle of the century. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Turrialba

From the Central Valley, go due east. You will cross into Cartago province and go through one of the most verdant agricultural zones in the country. If you are lucky to have a sunny day, the variations on green will dazzle you. Irazu volcano will be on your left, due north. When you have driven for about two hours you will arrive in Turrialba:

TurrialbaCoffeeIn this beautiful valley, the early ripening of coffee, extended by multiple flowerings resulting from constant rains, provides special conditions for the bean, which is characterized by its large size. Turrialba coffee is cherished because it supplies both the national and international markets early. The cup is characterized by a mild acidity, light body, and a delicate and soft aroma. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Central Valley

Organikos, the enterprise and its first regenerative agriculture project, is located in Costa Rica’s Central Valley. Also, one of the two Authentica shops is located on a Central Valley coffee hacienda, so we have multiple reasons to favor this region over others. But, no. It is just one more important part of the mix that makes up this country’s remarkably diverse coffee terrain:

CentralValleyCoffeeIn general, Central Valley beans produce well-balanced cups, with flavors such as chocolate and fruits and aromas including honey , among others. Its intensity varies depending on the altitude where the crop is established and may be medium to strong.

The Central Valley is composed of the provinces of San José, Heredia and Alajuela. It is the most highly populated region of Costa Rica, where the capital, San José, is located. Here, coffee plantations were first established and were then taken to the other seven coffee growing regions. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: West Valley

When we talk of shade-grown coffee terrain, the Western Valley of Costa Rica has the classic look that would come to mind for many, as per the video above. The Costa Rica Coffee Institute describes the coffee from this region, which recently has been the “hot stuff” among coffee specialists, in this way:

WestValleyCoffeeFlavors range from traditional and beloved chocolate notes to a more complex selection, where good tasters can find citrus-like flavors such as orange, in addition to peach, honey and vanilla, among others. This is all in line with good fruit harvesting and processing practices.

Inhabitants of San Ramón, Palmares, Naranjo, Grecia, Atenas, Valverde Vega and Alfaro Ruiz in the province of Alajuela, in the Western Valley, enjoy a pleasant climate throughout the year, with well-defined dry and rainy seasons. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Guanacaste

The Costa Rica Coffee Institute, we believe, is a very important factor in the success of the country’s coffee sector, with the Tarrazu region leveraging the Institute’s resources more effectively than most. This, in turn, has played a role in Tarrazu’s exceptional success with its own regional cooperatives. Good growing conditions, of course, are the most important factor. But why else do some regions do so much better than other regions? What explains our neglect of the Orosi region during the first year of Organikos operations?

We have also neglected Guanacaste coffee region, but this seems more obviously based on its geography. If you have been to Costa Rica, as a statistical fact it is very likely you spent some of your time in the northwest of the country. Most visitors spend at least part of their vacation in this zone due to the exceptional beauty of the Pacific coast, especially as contrasted to the arid conditions just inland. It does not sound like coffee country. Read the Institute’s own description, where the bold section might throw off anyone, but the nuances that follow help understand why a closer look makes sense:

GuanacasteCoffeeHigh temperatures and a dry climate result in a bean that is long and soft when roasting. The drink is soft, full-bodied and lightly acid, with well-defined salty and bitter notes.

The Guanacaste region is characterized by the exploitation of coffee crops in small areas, distributed in the provinces of Guanacaste, Puntarenas and Alajuela (Sarapiquí and San Carlos). Coffee plantations are located between mountainous areas with the cool temperatures of the Central Volcanic and Guanacaste mountain ranges. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Orosi

One year ago, when we had completed all the cupping sessions, farm visits and decision-making about the 12 coffees we would start with, a couple regions were left out of our mix. One of them was Orosi, and there was no good reason other than our shelf space considerations. We will resume our search and find a coffee to represent Orosi in our offering soon.

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Tarrazu

Costa Rica has a remarkably diverse landscape for such a small country. And that diversity translates into an excellent variety of high quality coffees, each unique according to the region of origin, and the particular farms within those regions. We have chosen twelve coffees from the regions that international tasting competitions have consistently prized the most, including four single estate coffees that stand out for their quality. Continue reading

Curvy Berms, Seedlings & Fertile Earth

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Curvy berm

What looks like an elongated haystack curving downslope in this photo we call a berm. No hay there, just a mix of cut grass covering branches, logs, and such. The purpose of a berm, diagonally traversing this hill, is explained better by others. When we prune trees and bushes, cut grass, and find old logs on the land their biomass help build this berm. Recently we trimmed all our vetiver grass, a soil retention ally that grows waist-high in rows throughout our hills. We cut it back twice a year, and added it to the  top of the curvy berm.

PoroSeedlings

Poro seedlings

To the left of that berm are re-plantings of a type of palm that we had growing on the property already, which birds love for the orange fruit it provides and for nesting. Those 20 palms join the 30 banana and plantain trees on the flat area below, and the dozen or so citrus trees recently planted. The shade-providing and nitrogen-fixing tree called poro will be planted during the next waning moon cycle.

Poro

Poro trees, parents of the seedlings, with vetiver grass downslope

We have collected hundreds of seedlings from the poro trees originally planted when this land was part of a coffee farm.

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This rainbow reminded me to document the work on the land where the bees are, and where the coffee will be. For now, just a quick note. On the lower left of the photo above you can see where I have been using a pickax to loosen soil, dark and rich and teeming with earthworms, for planting in between the rows of bananas. I last cleared this space before we moved to Croatia in 2006. The grasses and vines that occupied this space for the intervening years until recent months, now our enemy for growing plants we favor, have performed an amazing ecosystem service. The earthworms and smell of the soil tell me that.

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End of day, sunset time, back on the terrace of our home, an unexpected spectacle. In the photo below, which is looking due east, the sun is coming from the west, hitting Irazu volcano and lighting it up in such a way that it almost looks like golden lava is flowing down its cone. I’ll take that view, with thanks to whatever caused it.

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Sunset-illuminated Irazu volcano in the distance

Swifts Here & There

Knight-Swifts

Watching a flock of swifts power and zoom all over the sky in Cornwall, I realized that the feeling of being trapped by the coronavirus is not just about wanting to be somewhere else—it is about wanting to escape this time entirely. Photograph from Alamy

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Costa Rican Swift. Chaetura fumosa. Smallest swift in most of range. All dark gray with contrasting pale rump and paler throat, both of which can be difficult to see in many viewing conditions. A good look at the rump is necessary for a firm visual identification, otherwise Vaux’s Swift can look very similar. However, in some parts of its range (the Osa Peninsula, for example) this is the only small Chaetura swift. Makes twittering calls similar to many other swifts. Usually found in flocks over forests and more open areas.

I am not even the second birdiest member of our family. I enjoy birding events and join the fun from time to time. Apart from such events I do not travel specifically for birds, even the one to the right.  We see it on occasion and it is a particular pleasure. Not as thrillingly colorful as a scarlet macaw, nor as resplendent as a quetzal, but it is part of a famed family of birds. The essay below explains why. In Costa Rica the airports will be opening up again on August 1. Until then, and still for the foreseeable future, tourism is primarily locals going on weekend outings. Birding is usually thought of as a motivator for foreigners visiting Costa Rica–especially those from the UK–but now is an activity appreciated by more locals than usual. Sam Knight‘s perspective from the UK, where tourism is also primarily local currently, can be especially well appreciated from our vantage point in Costa Rica:

Letter from the U.K.

Swifts and the Fantasy of Escape

On July 17th, I drove out of London for the first time since the start of the pandemic. The last time I had seen a field or sensed a broad horizon was four months earlier, when we escaped the city in the early days of the coronavirus, feeling faintly ridiculous, to celebrate my daughter’s third birthday with an Easter-egg hunt on a quiet country lane. Last week, I was taking my daughters to stay with their grandparents for a few days, in the town of Helston, in Cornwall. It’s about three hundred miles from London—no great shakes by U.S. standards but about as far as you can drive in England without crossing into Scotland or falling into the sea. We left at 5:30 a.m., heading west, and arrived in Helston in the early afternoon. It’s hard to describe the effect of movement after being confined in a dense urban neighborhood for so long. The monotonous walks to the shitty park. I felt like I was being unpeeled. As we stood in my mother-in-law’s garden, in the bright July sun, a party of swifts, tipping from right to left, their long wings like blades, came over our heads and spiralled higher and higher into the sky, screaming. Continue reading