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Cathy Wirth's Scheuer Environmental Fellowship, Summer 1998

Scheuer Grant Application | Summary Report | Farmer Interview Questions

The Transition from Traditional to Organic Agriculture Among Small Farmers in Costa Rica

(Scheuer Fellowship Grant Application, 3/20/98)


I interned last semester with a community organization in Costa Rica which does organic farming education and outreach with small farmers. I plan to work again with this organization to do research on the transition from traditional to organic agriculture among small farmers, and to study in particular how acquisition and use of technical knowledge affects the process. I will focus specifically on farmers' experiences with a new technology called the microtunnel, and will use this as a base from which to look more generally at farmers' experiences learning and applying technologies involved in organic farming. I will also conduct an experiment with the microtunnels themselves which should provide useful technical information to the farmers using them. This research is strongly connected to my academic interests and will serve as the basis for my thesis in biological anthropology.

Project Background

Last semester I interned with Jugar del Valle, an organization in Costa Rica which works to promote organic and sustainable farming practices among small farmers. Jugar del Valle was started ten years ago by a group of Costa Rican farmers who wanted to find an alternative to traditional agricultural practices which were destroying their land and health. They created an organic vegetable farm which has received national and international recognition and has been held up as a model of economically profitable and agriculturally productive farming. With the help of a grant from the government of Holland, they recently constructed an education center on the farm. Using their own experience and knowledge as a base, they offer week long seminars on organic agriculture several times a month which draw farmers and other interested groups from throughout Costa Rica and Central America.

During my time at Jugar del Valle I did a lot of farmwork, got to see how the farm works in everything from administration on down to manure shoveling, and participated in one of the seminars on organic agriculture. I also did several independent projects which included teaching English classes for employees of the farm and people that lived nearby as well as conducting an experiment on the effectiveness of microtunnels, a technology being promoted among farmers in the region. The internship was a good introduction to the farming community in the area and the struggles that small farmers deal with on an daily basis. It also let me see a piece of the bigger picture of the organic farming movement in Costa Rica and some of the changes that traditional forms of agriculture are undergoing.

Traditional agricultural practices, particularly as related to pesticide use, are increasingly becoming problematic for farmers in countries like Costa Rica. Brought in with the Green Revolution a host of advances, including agricultural mechanization, agrochemical use, and monocultural planting, were intended to increase productivity. In the short term they did, but the fundamental unsustainability of many of these techniques is surfacing in the long term in the form of dying and unproductive soils, chemically resistant pests and diseases, human health problems, environmental poisoning, and soaring costs of production. In a country like Costa Rica which is dominated socially, politically, and economically by agriculture, these are not abstract issues which affect an isolated farming sector, but very real concerns in the everyday lives of many people. Organic agriculture is certainly not the sole or perfect solution to such problems, but it does offer an important alternative to traditional agricultural practices. It is relatively new in the country, but seems to be slowly gaining acceptance among both farmers and consumers as people become increasingly aware of the potential of organic agriculture and some of the dangers associated with traditional agriculture.

For farmers interested in switching to organic farming though there are many obstacles. In the case of Jugar del Valle for example, since the farm was one of the first organic farms to be established in Costa Rica there was very little information available at the time on how to grow organically. While they had some support from outside sources, much of their success was due to what they learned from their own experimentation and experience. As small farmers without money to spare on the ups and downs of the learning process, the transition was a very difficult one at times. One of their goals in offering seminars on organic agriculture is to spare other farmers some of the same hardships. In addition to teaching farmers what they know however, an important aspect of their educational philosophy is to enable farmers to do their own experimenting should they need to. A problem for many small farmers, especially with traditional agriculture and pesticide use, is that they do not know enough about the agricultural systems they are dealing with to address issues which arise. Jugar del Valle aims to make organic agriculture accessible to other farmers in ways which empower them to develop practices which meet their own needs. While this sort of work makes a difference in helping farmers make the switch, it is still not an easy process by any means. Although it has been a decade since Jugar del Valle first got its start, many of the same issues they dealt with face beginning organic farmers today.

Project Description

I would like to go back this summer and work with Jugar del Valle again on a project related to the issue of what the transition from traditional to organic agriculture is like for small farmers in Costa Rica. More specifically, I will look at how access to and use of technical knowledge affects the success of these changes. The focus of the project will be the microtunnels I experimented with last semester, which are just beginning to be used by organic vegetable farmers in the region where Jugar del Valle is located. Although the phenomena of conversion to non-traditional forms of agriculture is a very broad one, in concentrating on the case of the tunnels I hope to look at the subject from a more focused perspective.

The tunnels consist of wire hoops covered in plastic which are placed over rows to protect crops from water damage during the rainy season. The major national distributor for organic produce is pressuring farmers to use the tunnels if they want to maintain their distribution contracts because, despite being a huge investment for most small farmers, they supposedly speed up the harvest by a month and produce larger and healthier plants. Some farmers in the area started using them during the last rainy season, but results tended not to be as spectacular as predicted by the distributor. For a few farmers this was disastrous, and one has even gone out of business after investing in the tunnels and not getting the projected returns.

During my internship last semester I did a small experiment for Jugar del Valle to explore the effectiveness of these tunnels. While the results were somewhat inconclusive due to time restraints, they did seem to indicate that plants were indeed not growing as quickly or as well as the distributors had indicated and that the tunnels could potentially cause severe erosion of valuable organic matter by channeling rainwater between rows. In addition to the issue of whether the tunnels actually worked or not, an equally interesting question had to do with how they were used and perceived by farmers.

Most farmers adopting the tunnels did so solely on the basis of the distributor's recommendation and knew relatively little about the tunnels or how to use them. This tended to undercut some of the effectiveness the tunnels might have had.

In continuing to work with the tunnels I have several goals in mind. I would first of all like to expand on the actual experiments I did last semester and test several possible variations on the tunnels as well as their use under different conditions. Since the tunnels could be a major asset to farmers if they worked, Jugar del Valle is very interested to see how successful they might be with some modifications and would be happy to help me get started on the experiments. Whatever the results, the information that would come out of such a study would be valuable to Jugar del Valle and other farmers in the area to either help them utilize the tunnels more effectively or else stop using them before they cause further ecological and economic damage.

Testing the tunnels would involve setting up approximately ten tunnels of different sizes and constructions. Several varieties of crops would be planted beneath the tunnels and factors such as plant size and health would be tracked over the course of their development (generally 6-9 weeks depending on the crop and growth conditions) and compared with control rows not covered by the tunnels. At maturation the final productivity and quality of tunnel and non-tunnel harvests would be analyzed.

Secondly, I would like to explore the way farmers are dealing with the tunnels as a new technology, looking at this also in the larger context of how farmers' understanding and use of new techniques and technologies affects the transition from traditional to organic agriculture. Although farmers at Jugar del Valle have the experience and resources they need to be able to experiment with the tunnels before considering using them, this is not typical for most farmers. Many farmers seem to be using the tunnels because of outside pressure without knowing enough about them to deal with some of the problems that arise. The contrast between passive and active involvement in technological adaptation will be interesting to investigate as it may relate to making the switch from traditional to organic farming practices. Information on how farmers make use of the tunnels and other technologies would also be useful to Jugar del Valle as they work to help farmers become more knowledgeable and self-reliant.

Doing this research would involve speaking with farmers in the area who are using the tunnels. I have met many of these farmers already, and establishing contact with them through Jugar del Valle should not be difficult. I would like to visit these farmers to see how they are making use of the tunnels and conduct informal interviews with them about their experiences with the tunnels and more generally how they have learned and used new farming methods in switching to organic agriculture. Since most of the farmers using the tunnels are at this point established organic farmers, I would also like to talk to farmers who are more in the beginning stages of the transition process. Jugar del Valle has contact with over 200 farmers who have taken their course on organic agriculture and are just starting to farm organically who would be excellent resources in this respect. Since this is a large group, depending on time and practicality restraints I could either visit and interview a small sample, send out a questionnaire to all of them, or try combination of both approaches.

Academic Context

As a study of a biological technology applied in a social context, this research fits in well with my academic interests in the social and biological sciences and my interdisciplinary bioanthropology major. I plan to use the research as a base for a bioanthropology thesis to be completed next year. For my course work within the bioanthropology major I have tried to build up some general background in both sociology and anthropology and biology and have also taken a few courses more specifically applicable to agriculture. In terms of research skills, I am currently taking a course on research methods in sociology and anthropology which I have found extremely helpful in thinking about how to organize the research with farmers. I have also taken a number of biology courses with research components which have given me experience to draw on in designing the tunnel experiments. My advisor, Steve Piker, has helped me to think through my research plans to date, and I will consult further with him and other Sociology/Anthropology and Biology professors to work out more of the details of the research before I go. While in Costa Rica I will also keep in touch with Steve about my progress. In addition, I have access to professors from the foreign study program I participated in last semester who would be valuable resources should I need more immediate advice or support.

Summary Report, 9/6/98

I had a wonderful time in Costa Rica this summer and learned a lot in the course of working on my project. My original proposal involved working with a community organization and organic farm called Jugar del Valle, and through them investigating the effectiveness of a technology called the microtunnel, as well as interviewing farmers associated with the organization about their experiences using such technologies and making the transition to organic agriculture. For the most part I was able to accomplish this.

During my first month there I focused on getting the microtunnel experiment set up, since I needed to get the tunnels in place in time for the plants to be able to mature before the end of the summer. The farmers at Jugar del Valle had gotten a government grant to try out the tunnels in addition to the amount of money I was able to contribute to tunnel construction, so we were able to build quite a few. The construction process took a while (and left me with a good number of blisters!), but once the tunnels were in place the experiment went pretty smoothly. The tunnels were used exclusively for lettuce, since this was the crop which was suffering the most from winter rains. I measured the weight and level of leaf damage to lettuce inside and outside of the tunnels and also looked at the percentage of plants inside and outside the tunnels which were of high enough quality to be sold. Results indicated that although plants inside the tunnels weighed more, they were generally paler and less well-formed. Overall, the tunnels also yielded a lower percentage of plants of market-level quality. While this was a big disappointment to farmers at Jugar del Valle, and they actually ended up curtailing their use of the tunnels, a lot was learned about the tunnels and they are thinking about modifications which could be made for next year. I prepared a preliminary report and analysis of my results for them, which they are planning to use to as a basis for information which will be published or distributed to other farmers.

The second part of my project involved interviewing farmers associated with Jugar del Valle about their own experiences with the tunnels and with making the transition from conventional to organic farming. By the time I arrived there had been some changes in the membership of this group and a number of the farmers were not actually using the tunnels. Because of this I ended up focusing my interviews less on the tunnels than I had planned and more on the transition to organic agriculture. I interviewed eight farmers or groups of farmers who work with Jugar del Valle and distribute produce through them. These interviews were fascinating for me and turned out to be a great way to get to know a fantastic group of people. I learned a lot about what these farmers go through on a daily and more long term basis as they struggle to survive as farmers and achieve and maintain the progress they have made in learning to grow organically. Of all the work I did this summer, the interviews were the most rewarding for me.

In addition to carrying out the formal pieces of my project, I also had the opportunity to more informally participate in and learn about life on the farm and in the community in which I was living. I met a number of wonderful people who made me feel very welcome and were willing to share parts of their lives with me. This experience was invaluable to me and was also something from which I learned a lot, both academically and personally.

I plan to use the information I collected this summer as the basis for the bioanthropology thesis which I will be writing this year. I have not yet worked out all the details, but it looks like it will be some combination of a biology-type paper on the work I did with the tunnels and a sociology/anthropology paper based on the interviews I did and other information I collected about the organic agriculture movement in the country. Although the process of producing a thesis seems a bit daunting at the moment, I am actually looking forward to writing it and especially to having the chance to think more about what I did, saw, and learned this summer. I feel like I got a lot out of what I did this summer on a number of levels and I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to do this project.

Interview Questions

My name is Cathy Wirth. I am a student from the States and am studying organic agriculture here in Costa Rica with Jugar del Valle. As part of my studies, I am interested in finding out more about why farmers decide to switch to organic agriculture and what their experiences with organic agriculture are like once they switch. I am interviewing farmers who work with Jugar del Valle, and if you don't mind being interviewed, I would like to ask you a few questions about why you switched to organic agriculture and what it has been like for you.

Me llamo Cathy Wirth. Soy una estudiante de los Estados y estoy estudiando agricultura orgánica aquí en Costa Rica con Jugar del Valle. Como parte de mis estudios, me gustaría aprender mas sobre por qué deciden los agricultores cambiar a agricultura orgánica y cómo son sus experiencias con el cambio. Estoy entrevistando agricultores que trabajan con Jugar del Valle, y si no le molesta ser entrevistado, me gustaría hacerle algunas preguntas sobre por qué decidió cambiar a agricultura orgánica y como ha sido el cambio.

Some of my questions are (and don't feel like you need to answer all of them):

Algunas de mis preguntas son (y no sienta que necesita responder a todos):


How long have you been farming organically?

¿Cuánto tiempo hace que cultiva orgánicamente?


How long have you been farming in general?

¿Cuánto tiempo hace que es agricultor?


How did you get into farming?

¿Cómo llegó a ser agricultor?


What do you grow?

¿Que tipos de productos cultiva?


Did you used to grow the same things before you switched to organic agriculture? If not, what did you grow?

Antes de cambiar a agricultura orgánica, ¿ cultivó los mismos tipos de productos? Si no, ¿qué cultivó?


How big is your farm?

¿De qué tamaño es su finca?


Were you on the same land before you switched?

¿Estaba en la misma finca antes de cambiar?


For you, what is organic agriculture? How is it different than non-organic agriculture?

Para usted, ¿qué es la agricultura orgánica? ¿Cómo es diferente de la agricultura que no es orgánica?


Why did you decide to switch to organic agriculture?

¿Por qué decidió cambiar a agricultura orgánica?


Was the productivity of your farm a factor in your decision to switch?

¿Fué la productividad de su finca un factor importante en su decisión de cambiar?


Has the productivity of your farm changed since you switched? How?

¿Ha cambiado mucho la productividad de su finca desde que cambió a agricultura orgánica? ¿Cómo?

Was the profitability of your farm a factor in your decision to switch?

¿Fué la rentabilidad de su finca un factor importante en su decisión de cambiar?


Has the profitabilty of your farm changed since you switched?

¿Ha cambiado mucho la rentabilidad de su finca desde que cambió a agricultura orgánica?


Do you find that it is more or less expensive to run the farm now than it was before you switched?

¿Cree que es más o menos caro manejar la finca ahora que antes de cambiar?


Before you switched, were you concerned about the effect that pesticides were having on your health? Was this a factor in your decision to switch?

Antes de cambiar, ¿estaba preocupado por los effectos de las pesticidas en su salud? ¿Fué esto un factor en su decisión cambiar?


Do you think that your health has improved since you switched?

¿Cree que ha mejorado su salud desde que cambió?


How did you hear about Jugar del Valle and why did you decide to work with them?

¿Cómo se enteró de Jugar del Valle y por qué decidió trabajar con ellos?


Were you interested in switching to organic agriculture before you met Gabriel and Jugar del Valle or did they get you interested in organic agriculture?

¿Tenía interés en la agricultura orgánica antes de conocer a Gabriel y Jugar del Valle o fueron ellos los que despertaron el interés?


Have you needed a lot of help and support in order to make the switch? Have you had enough?

¿Ha necesitado mucho ayuda y apoyo para hacer el cambio? ¿Ha tenido suficiente?


How did your friends, co-workers, family, etc. feel about your switching to organic agriculture?

¿Qué piensan sus amigos, compañeros, familiares, etc. sobre su decisión de cambiar a agricultura orgánica?


How has the switch to organic agriculture been?

¿Cómo ha sido el cambio a agricultura orgánica?


What have been some of the challenges?

¿Qué tipos de desafíos encontró?


Did you switch all at once or bit by bit?

¿Cambió a la vez o poco a poco?


Did you have to make a lot of changes?

¿Tuvo que hacer muchos cambios para convertir a orgánica su finca?


Did you use a lot of chemicals before you switched?

¿Usaba muchos químicos antes de cambiar?


Did you have to learn a lot of new ways of doing things in order to farm organically?

¿Tuvo que aprender muchas técnicas o maneras nuevas de hacer cosas en la finca para cultivar orgánicamente?


How did you learn them?

¿Cómo aprendió estas técnicas?


Was it hard to do so?

¿Fué difícil aprenderlas?


How comfortable do you feel with any new techniques you have learned?

¿Cuán cómodo se siente usted con las nuevas técnicas que ha aprendido?


When problems with production come up on the farm how do you deal with them?

Cuándo hay problemas con la producción de la finca, ¿cómo brega con ellos?


Do you feel like you can deal with them yourself?

¿Cree que puede arreglarlos usted mismo?


How did you used to deal with production problems before you switched to organic agriculture?

¿Cómo bregó con los problemas de la producción antes de cambiar a agricultura orgánica?


Do you think you'll stick with organic agriculture?

En el futuro, ¿piensa seguir con la agricultura orgánica?