Photo by Ray Che
By Michael Cavanagh
As we stepped into the cool of the jungle, the thick foliage blocking out penetrating sunlight and the outside world, our host casually picked a leaf off a tree and consumed it without missing a beat. He chewed on the impromptu snack while continuing to explain the symbiosis of the ecosystem we currently were engulfed in, pointing out exotic plants and explaining their proliferation over millennia. While most people discuss the origins of their housewares on a tour of their home (Here’s the dining room, we got the centerpiece from IKEA”…) Stephen Farrell was shedding light on the botany and biology of his farm. This wasn’t eco-tourism, this was eco-education.
On the east side of the mountainous range that splits Costa Rica, Finca Luna Nueva Lodge sits in the luscious verdant countryside falling away from Arenal Volcano. Its fire-spewing neighbor (which has settled down in lava production in its old age) has been a major reason for the current fertility of the area, contributing rich soils over the course of its erupting existence. Also benefitting from a temperate climate with abundant rainfall, Finca Luna is situated in a hospitable environment perfect for the cultivation of plants and animals — something Farrell knows a thing or two about.
Growing up in Santa Barbara, California in the 60s, the self-described health conscious hippie began his fascination with food from an unexpected source: a coconut crÃ¨me pie. The rapture with this food product was not from oral consumption but rather intellectual examination. Dissecting the ingredients that went into the pie’s makeup, thanks to a PBS special, was a revelation for young Farrell, one that would lead him to a life of understanding food from its source. His career as an organic farmer, which began near his hometown in 1974, would eventually bring him to Costa Rica in 1983, when the country was yet to be discovered by commercial tourist interests. With aspirations of macadamia cultivation, the young gringo put into practice his horticulture experience learned back home. Although his green thumb worked just fine, the slow nature of the nut’s maturation led him to the fortuitous decision to grow organic ginger. The impressive quality of his plants was apparent and he soon found a US distributor, which allowed him to continue to cultivate crops in his beloved Costa Rica. Yet, once that distributor left the business, Farrell faced a bit of a dilemma; until a radical company proposed a radical idea.
With the middleman out of the way, New Moon Foods, an ethically conscious food sourcing company, went directly to the source for the product. The company’s demand exceeded Farrell’s production, so it purchased a 207-acre farm and hired Farrell to run the farm’s operations. Luckily, this was not the typical American economic assault on a foreign country’s natural resources; the powerful northern neighbor sweeping down to displace thousands of rural residents. Conversely, the move in 1994 was done with the community in mind — an opportunity to farm in a sustainable manner and hopefully have a positive impact on the agriculture in the area.
After purchase of the land, considerable work needed to be done to convert it to sustainable farmland, a distinction that was vital to the operation. And as the country’s only organic and biodynamic farm, sustainability is not a token phrase but rather an inherent mission that propels every decision made at Finca Luna. From the ozonated pool (which provides an alternative to chemically treating the pool water with chlorine) to the construction of the property’s numerous buildings using fallen or harvested wood from the farm, there is an evident cognition of the impacts and consequences of every decision. And those decisions came about like the many plants on the farm — organically.
This new eco-tourism destination was not born out of an idea hatched in a boardroom relying on tourism trends to cash in on new travel developments, but rather, it came about from a central theme at Finca Luna — education. After 14 years of developing the farm and cultivating a growing number of crops, New Moon wanted their executives to gain a deeper appreciation for organics, and what better way to accomplish that goal than to learn from the man who had his hands in the dirt for over three decades. Farrell began hosting his American visitors in a simple building and quickly realized the impact a tangible connection between people and their food at its source was having. In light of the detrimental impacts on the globe he witnessed from large commercial farming operations, Farrell decided he could help turn the tide not solely from growing organic food, but also by educating visitors about its benefits, which extend beyond individual health concerns.
While he is certainly a strong proponent for eating organic food for personal health reasons, Farrell also highlights the larger issues involved with modern methods of food production.
“There is a vicious cycle of chemical agriculture that turns a farm into a junkie,” a passionate Farrell explains.
The chemical dependency analogy is apt, with chemical farming requiring larger doses of product and stronger equipment to administer it to reach the same result as time goes by. The problem, according to Farrell, is that while people understand soil chemistry, they lack the comprehension of soil biology. A typical scenario unfolds in which a farmer administers the prescribed medicine of a chemical cocktail resulting in a bountiful crop of large, beautiful-looking produce. The junkie is hooked, outward euphoria masking the slow destruction of life within. The numerous and increasing amount of herbicides and pesticides needed to sustain the path become increasingly expensive while larger tractors, needed to plow through deeper layers of dead soil, have a similar impact on the wallet. Like a cigarette smoker paying for blackened lungs, chemical farmers don’t see the forest for the trees. This leads Farrell to yet another wide-ranging point:
“Eating dead food doesn’t do anything for our consciousness as a species or individually,” he argues.
And this broad awareness of food production seems to be at the crux of life at this unique farmstay. The goal of widespread understanding of systemic consequences of contemporary farming is something that Farrell is determined to achieve. But how does a small farming operation with 34 staff and a handful of rotating interns make a dramatic impact? One guest at a time it seems.
Finca Luna is quite different than other local eco-tourism operations because it is concerned with much more than an awareness and appreciation of the amazing biodiversity of the region. In addition to adventure activities and nature hikes, Finca Luna allows guests to discover the inner workings of the farm, gaining a significant appreciation of where our food comes from. That insight comes, in part, from three different tours: the Farm Tour, the Rainforest Mysteries Tour, and the Sacred Seeds Sanctuary. Designed to reveal the interconnectivity of life and the symbiosis on the farm and in the jungle, the tours are guided by Farrell or a trained guide. On this cool, overcast day, the ginger-growing hippie led the way.
To say that he has a wealth of knowledge would be to say that an encyclopedia contains some interesting facts. The depth of information was impressive, and not just because he was pulling leaves off random trees and eating them. The Mayan origins of trees and medicinal uses of plants rolled off of his tongue with a comfortable ease, challenging our brain synapses to fire quick enough to process the information. The foundations of biodynamic farming and the recipe for kim chee recalled effortlessly, all the while maintaining a welcoming seriousness which challenged our perceptions and preconceptions. But that challenge did not come as an aggressive indictment of our lack of knowledge but rather a comfortable invitation to discover a fundamental part of life. Like finding something that is in plain sight, the education of food sources was something of a revelation.
As we trekked across the farm meeting pigs and sampling the various herbs and plants growing in abundance (under Farrell’s direction of course), the age-old tradition of farming was cast in a different light. The acres of neatly lined corn rows that were previously recognized as crop cultivation seemed alien and foolhardy as Farrell explained the weaknesses and dangers of monoculture. The plagues of disease wiping out entire harvests due to the ease of proliferation in that environment would not have a chance at Finca Luna, with pests encountering different plants with various defense mechanisms at every turn. But it was not simply the design of staggered plants that was enlightening. Witnessing the real world actualization of the philosophy of the farm as an organism was a profound experience. As Farrell shed light on the evolutionary transformation of the curvature of the pigs’ snouts, he also explained that when the animals used their snouts in the course of digging for grubs, the squat swine were also turning the soil to be used for crops years down the road. Four-legged hoes, I suppose. And it was learning about the interconnectedness of the farm, how the life processes of one plant or animal would benefit others, even if it was in the distant future, that was the enduring keepsake of the visit.
Now, with all of that being said, a trip to Finca Luna does not necessarily require preparation akin to an advanced college course. The peace and tranquility of the eco-lodge is worth the affordable price of accommodation in itself. With no TVs, lounge bar, or night club, guests can enjoy being on a “sun schedule,” rising at dawn with the rest of the diurnal world and enjoying a hot cup of local coffee while toucans glide above the jungle canopy. Adventure seekers can trek to Arenal Volcano national park for an excursion, stop in the neighboring town for a bit of Tico flavor, and return to the quiet of Finca Luna for slumber. Guests can be pampered at the on-site Health Spa, lounge by the pool, and maybe strike up a conversation with a visiting intern before heading to dinner. And if nothing else, visitors can simply relax and admire the flourishing beauty, which surrounds the lodge. This is a tropical paradise, after all. Just be sure to ask Farrell which plants are edible before insouciantly sampling the local vegetation.
Want to learn more about agritourism and farmstays? Check out Discovering Agritourism: Why a Farmstay May Inspire You More Than You Think
About the Writer
Michael Cavanagh is a freelance writer in search of memorable locales, delectable cuisine, and delicious drink. An experienced world traveler, Michael views globetrotting as an adventure like no other. He hopes to share his discoveries with other oenophiles, foodies, nomads, and travel enthusiasts. Michael has been published in The Wine Enthusiast, PalatePress, Destinations Travel Magazine, Terroirist, and has a regular column at Examiner.
Photos courtesy of Finca Luna Nueva