Costa Rica – Day 4

Banana’s and Integrated Farming

Today was Banana day! We visited EARTH University’s 3600-hectare banana conventional banana operation first and then we went over and toured their organic operation. Bananas are perennial plants that can last up to twelve years; after twelve years yield begins to decline substantially. It takes about ten months from when it’s planted until harvest. Bananas are sometimes referred to as the walking plant because after the fruit is harvested a new shoot develops at the base of the plant and the old shoot is cut off and left to decompose. The flower of the fruit is also cut off to control the number and size of bananas that are produced. This is done to produce the size of bananas that we see in the grocery store.

Bananas are quite sensitive to the environment. They do not like cold temperatures; they do not survive if flooding persists for more than 24 hours but they also do not like long dry season; they need 120 cm of topsoil in order to develop roots. There is a lot of care put into how the banana is handled and cared for in the field because of the consumer’s visual preferences. There is a blue bag placed on the bananas with an insecticide in the conventional production to protect against the red stain from thrips and also to protect the bananas in general. The red stain does not affect the quality of the banana at all but consumers do not like the look of it and so producers try hard to protect the bananas. Sigatoka is a leaf disease that affects the speed of ripening in the bananas. The more leaves that are infected with the virus the faster the bananas ripen. This leads to the excessive amounts of fungicides that are sprayed onto the crop. Bananas are sprayed once a week, 52 weeks a year and it costs about $2500 per hectare per year in conventional and for the organic it is about $1500 per hectare per year. Another sanitary measure that is taken to control the spread of sigatoka is to trim and cut off infected leaves so that the fungus does not spread to the bananas. Nematodes can also be a problem because they attack the roots of the crop. Bananas are sprayed three times a year with a nematicide to aid in the control of the pest and the workers have to wear protective suits because of how harmful the chemicals can be. Weed control is done every 6 – 8 weeks and is done by applying herbicides.

After visiting the field we stopped at the processing plant. The bananas are brought into the processing plant on what is called a banana train that runs through the entire plantation. From here the large banana bunch is washed and cut into the smaller bunches that we buy in the store and placed into a water bath. Any waste that can still be used for human consumption, just does not meet the visual criteria is used for dehydration purposes and animal food. The processing plant employees are trained to do one job and are paid $22/day for an 8 hour work day however if there is a shipment that needs to go out you work until your done and you get paid overtime. Everyone works 6 days a week.

From the processing plant we moved over to the organic research plots that was establish 9 years prior to our visit. All of the chemicals and fertilizers are made on site but external inputs are used in some cases. There are four different research plots within the entire research station. One plot is 3 rows of bananas separated by leguminous trees that aid in nitrogen fixation and the reduction of required inputs. The second is banana and cocoa, the third is banana and wood species as well as some fruit trees and the fourth is banana and leguminous grass species for ground cover. Each system has their own advantages and disadvantages, but the production seems to be similar in all four situations. One interesting aspect of this organic banana production is that the external off farm inputs that are bought in do not have to come from a certified organic system. A second interesting point that was mentioned is that the carbon-neutral certification is more of a balancing act rather than being truly carbon-neutral.

After the banana tour of both the conventional and organic production systems we headed out to visit a true agroforestry integrated farm system. This integrated farm was 7 hectares and the whole family lives off the farm. In the middle of the farm there is 3 hectares of protected forest which the family receives money from the ministry for the continued protection of that land. They are very involved with the local market and sell produce at the market every week. A few years ago the family also started processing their own orange juice and selling that as well. With the help of the ministry they were able to purchase a mechanized juicer, which was about $6000, and it can squeeze 800 oranges in 1 hour where as by hand it would have taken 6 hours. This machine can squeeze 14 oranges a minute.

The motto of the family is to take care of the soil as much as possible and to them the forest means life. They also belong to an association that teaches other farmers how to farm in a forest and intercrop. Recently there has also been talk of an international organization taking an interest in the way this family farms and wanting to learn how they are successful at it. There are six main crops that are grown on this farm which are corn, cassava, bananas, oranges, heart of palm and coconut; however there are a fast variety of crops. There are some trees that are harvested for timber to household use but trees are then replanted to maintain the forest ecosystem. This is an organic operation and so the fertilizer is all composted food waste from the house and the leaf litter and decay plants that are left after harvest. Cover crops are also planted along with nitrogen fixing legumes.

At the integrated farm we also got to help plant coconut trees and then we got to drink coconut water and eat the slimy fruit of the coconut. At lunch we also got freshly squeezed orange juice and even though I am not of fan of the orange juice that you buy in the store I loved the freshly squeezed orange juice.

My three key learning points of today were; number 1 was the shear amount of chemicals that are applied to conventional bananas due to the consumer demand for perfectly looking bananas. My second learning point is that the ideal scenario for agriculture is a mix of the conventional and organic extremes. Not all organic practices are far fetched and there are roles that chemicals can play in agricultural settings if they are used properly. My third learning point is that it is possible to farm in a forest as a substance farmer.

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