Villa Vanilla Spice Farm Costa Rica
Situated in the lush rainforest of the Central Pacific and conveniently only 10 miles from Manuel Antonio national park is the ongoing ecological project Villa Vanilla. Villa Vanilla Spice Farm Costa Rica is a small commercial spice farm that comprises twenty-seven acres of agricultural land and over 125 acres of primary and secondary forest. Vanilla is the main crop, lending its name to the farm, but other spices, including cinnamon, cocoa, black pepper, and allspice, are cultivated as well. Also found on the farm are various plants used to make essential oils and medicine, as well as many exotic fruits and orchids. I was fortunate enough to visit Villa Vanilla on one of their daily spice tours that let visitors see first hand their unique approach to farming.
What makes Villa Vanilla so different from other farms, and what leaves a profound impression on its visitors, is its back to basics approach to agriculture. Rather than growing vanilla and its other products using methods prevalent in modern farming, Villa Vanilla utilizes techniques that strive to improve the local ecosystem. This philosophy of farming has come about through many years of trial and error by the farm’s manager/owner Henry Karczynski. Karczynski, a German American transplant to Costa Rica, got his humble beginnings in agricultural development as a volunteer for the Peace Corps in 1975. He then worked as project manager for a number of NGO’s, and later as a consultant in various Central American countries before finally settling down in Costa Rica.
When Karczynski began Villa Vanilla over 20 years ago, his approach to farming was the modern view of profit farming, that is, maximizing profit from only a couple cash crops. This set up is what we expect a modern farm to be, row after row of one type of plant, with workers struggling to rid the plots of weeds and other invading species. Karczynski had a few good harvests with this system of farming and his many orderly rows of vanilla, until the Central Pacific was battered with several tropical hurricanes that left eight meters of water in its wake. This deluge severely impaired agricultural production in the area. As a result of this tragic setback, Karczynski decided to investigate more sustainable methods of farming. Traveling to Madagascar and Mexico to learn about global vanilla production, he also began to study the literature of biodynamic farming.
Biodynamic Farming is an approach to agriculture that looks at each individual farm as a unified sustainable ecosystem that demands careful maintenance. In practice this means that the main ingredients of cultivation, like fertilizer, pesticide, and food for livestock, should come directly from the farm and not bought outside and added in later as is popular in modern agriculture.
Consequently, Biodynamic Farming calls for a larger variety of plant and animal species living on the farm. These other species, although not grown for profit, interact with and directly affect the cash crop. For example, many types of plants used to feed livestock also present other benefits for the farm as a whole. These plants present a windscreen for other crops, supply leaf litter that helps maintain healthy soil, and impart a deeper root structure to help prevent erosion. The other plant species also provide homes to the natural enemies of pests usually found on farms.
A tour of the grounds at Villa Vanilla shows the biodynamic process in action. In the crop areas vanilla grows on its host tree coral in seemingly random patches with other plant species spread out across the whole farm. Our guide explained that these patches are carefully laid out for efficiency and that the laborers have to be specially trained for several months. This in turn makes working on the farm a highly skilled occupation that includes job security. At the heart of these patches is the vanilla vine – a climbing perennial with flowering orchids and long round green pods.
At Villa Vanilla a technique of strip intercropping is used to cultivate these vanilla pods growing on their coral trees. Rather than unified rows of just vanilla or cinnamon, various plant species are grown together to give them the chance to interact symbiotically. By growing next to these cash crops, these other plants supply the vital leaf litter that provides the nutrients for a healthy soil. Experts who studied soil quality after the tropical hurricanes devastated the region; found the soil at Villa Vanilla to be the healthiest in the area, as well as the first re-inhabited by earthworms. Another Biodynamic technique used at Villa Vanilla is the use of natural fertilizer. Young trees are fertilized with composted animal waste and woodchips taken directly from other parts of the farm. A useful byproduct of this composting is a dark liquid like tea that can be used as a natural insecticide. Karczynski thus saves money by not needing fertilizer and insecticide from outside manufacturers.
In the crop postproduction area, I saw hundreds of darkened vanilla pods drying outdoors on the grass and on wooden slats inside the warehouse. Our guide explained that vanilla pods must be cured in the sun and shade for several months to start an enzymatic process that gives vanilla its distinctive taste. In each of these pods are thousands of tiny edible black seeds that look like – and are called caviar. It is these seeds that we find in natural vanilla ice cream.
Our guide went on to tell us that vanilla is the most popular flavor in the world due to its unique ability to subdue the bitterness of other flavors without adding its own taste of vanilla. For example, many people use a hint of vanilla in tomato sauces to remove the sour aftertaste of the tomato. Likewise, a ground up vanilla pod can be added to coffee grinds during the brewing process to take out the acidic taste without adding any additional flavor.
Our tour ended in a rustic patio that overlooks the hundreds of acres of rainforest of Villa Vanilla, and the foothills beyond. Here we finally had the opportunity to taste the farm grown vanilla as an ingredient in one of its oldest uses: Xocolatl. Xocolatl is the ancient form of hot chocolate enjoyed by the Mexican royalty in pre-Columbian history, and later brought back by the Spanish for the European courts. The recipe is 2,000 years old and includes cocoa bean, vanilla, and chili pepper. The chili pepper is included to open the capillaries of the throat and mouth, and allow for the rapid ingestion of the supposed medicinal properties of the cocoa bean. The vanilla removes the harsh aftertaste of the cocoa bean. Without any added sugar or milk, it is easy to see how vanilla is a critical ingredient; without it the Xocolatl would be too bitter to drink. To this day vanilla is a primary ingredient in chocolate.
Enjoying this ancient beverage of Xocolatl and thinking about all I learned from the tour, I realized that sustainable agriculture, in addition to being both environmentally and socially friendly, can also be applied as a very profitable business model. Without having to spend resources on fertilizers and insecticides, farmers can invest this money in other areas. The new spice shop on the grounds of Villa Vanilla is an example of this. More importantly, an elevated level of quality control is inherent by using a very specialized work force to cultivate their crops. This was recently validated when Villa Vanilla was awarded “Biggest and best quality vanilla pod” by the international board, vanillareview.com. For these and many other reasons sustainable agriculture is becoming an established mode of farming. Everyday more and more people are signing up for these tours at Villa Vanilla to learn where their everyday and exotic spices come from, as well as to see for themselves a form of agriculture that improves the local ecosystem.