November 15, 2009

Monteverde is a beautiful region which spans both sides of the continental divide in the province of Puntarenas in the Northwest of the country.  Monteverde is one of the most visited places in Costa Rica due to its many forest reserves, including the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest, which I visited for about a week, and a cloud forest reserve.  However, the region is not what gives this post it’s name, but rather the cheese factory which sits on a hill there.

Frusterated with the defense policies in the United States a group of Quakers from Alabama moved to Costa Rica, a country that had just recently abolished its army.  Monteverde, a secluded and mostly vacant region covered in forest became their home.  Here they could live simply as dairy farmers.  The Quakers started a lot of great programs in Monteverde, including the first conservation efforts and the establishment of a craft co-op. Their most emblematic contribution was the cheese factory.

In the 1950s Monteverde was still very much remote.  It’s road access would not allow the sale of milk from the top of the mountain, as it would surely spoil during the day journey down.  Cheese lasts much longer than milk and can be sold at a higher price.  Since the establishment of the factory it has grown immensely and today Monteverde cheese can be found anywhere in Costa Rica and is supplied by over 250 dairy farms in the region.

With such a big operation, waste management quickly became a problem.  Luckily, their first problem was determining what to do with all of the left over cream after the cheese making process.  I say luckily because it didn’t take long for the company to realize they should be making sour cream and ice cream as well as cheese.  (I tried their coconut ice cream and it was divine). What is left after the ice cream? Whey.

For a while the whey was simply discarded in streams near the factory.  It isn’t hard to believe that soon the company was pressured by the community to change their techniques. Their solution was pigs. Pigs eat whey, and even left over or rotting cheese.  So the company bought some land and built a 400 pig industrial farm. Not surprisingly, soon the company had a new problem: manure.

The solution to this problem was a series of mostly unsuccessful attempts at some sort of septic system.  An anaerobic pond smelled so terrible that dozens of residents were calling the factory each day and others simply left Monteverde.  Once they added water hyacinth to filter the water, the smell improved a little, but mosquitos came to mate in the perfect climate seemingly designed for them– no oxygen and no predators.  Community outrage soon focused on the squealing of mating pigs and the horrendous swarms of mosquitos. The company hired a biologist who applied a bacteria as a biological control, which seemed to work for a while. The state of the program today was unknown by my professor, but the manure problem is still very much a problem.

Meanwhile, Monteverde has a solid community of 250 farmers dropping milk at their doors every morning. One wonders why they simply did not ask the farmers if they would adopt a couple of pigs, especially as those pigs would be fed by the company.  The farmers would simply fill their trucks up with whey for their journey back home.  Not only would there be no waste problem, but the manure could serve as a valuable resource for the farmers: gas.  Remember Don Roberto and his completely pig pen powered kitchen?

My professor said the problem with that idea is that you would have to educate the farmers. God forbid.  How much do you really have to teach a cow farmer how to raise pigs? How hard is it to convince someone to use free gas?  Which problem would you rather have?

Time and time again we see how so called “easy fixes” of industrial agriculture create more problems than they solve. We must think about our agricultural problems ecologically.  Waste is always worth. There must be a circle, positive feedback.

United States farm policy has a similar “easy fix”: take the animals off the farm and replace them with artificial fertilizers.  Michael Pollan says we have taken the regenerative process of farming (waste=fertility) and divided it into two perfectly neat problems: lack of nitrogen and a whole lot of poop.  Put the animals back on the farms and you do not have this problem.  Pollan describes a rotation used in Argentina which is 5 years of cows on pasture and 3 years of corn, soy or wheat.  When it comes time for the cash crops, fertilizer and pesticides are not needed. (from “Food As a National Security Issue” on NPR, 10/2008)

Fertility and waste, land and animal, farmer and processor are interconnected and dependent upon each other.  These connections must be understood and honored in order to come up with sustainable solutions to ecological problems.

I read this on a tourist website about Monteverde: “In keeping with the Quaker community’s belief in environmental responsibility and in working in harmony with nature, the factory has established an innovative water treatment facility and waste management system which involves extracting the whey by-product and donating it to the local pig farm as food!” What is the by-product of that?


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