Chris Belland's - "Going Green"
Sunday, September 4, 2011
The Farm of the Future in a Third-world Country

My brother lives in Nicaragua. It has the second poorest economy in the hemisphere after Haiti. I've always found it strikingly odd that, because of the natural environment, everyone has something to eat and, because of the family network, most of them have a roof over their heads.

What I found even more unusual is the existence of one of the most significant examples of "off the grid" farm production I've ever seen, done in a manner that's totally in keeping with the best practices of environmental stewardship.

It is a coffee plantation called Selva Negra, high in the mountains of Matagalpa-Jinotega. Its website is located at www.selvanegra.com. Tell them Chris sent you.

The plantation had its origins in the late 19th century, when German immigrants came to this part of Nicaragua to begin growing coffee. Apparently they were successful, although not in the mode of the operation currently being practiced. They stayed through a changing political climate that many times was violent, given the coming in and going out of the Samosas, the Sandinistas and the Contras. Maybe they survived because of the geographic isolation or the fact they kept their noses out of local politics. There is a burned-out tank from the wars at the intersection where you turn off to go into Selva Negra but maybe it has nothing to do with the farm operation.

In 1975 the farm was taken over by Eddy and Mausi Kúhl. What's interesting to me is that my mother's family name is also Kúhl. We were definitely related to the current operators of the farm. Eddy is a civil engineer who provides all the technical changes that have occurred on the farm, including the methane generators, the hydro electric generator and many other innovations that make Selva Negra an amazing example of what can be done. Mausi, on the other hand, is the "straw boss" of the operation. She is a bundle of energy with a cell phone and walkie-talkie strapped to her belt at all times, receiving information and dispensing orders as necessary. Mausi runs the farm and the hotel operation on the plantation while Eddy writes, gives tours of the farm and dreams up newer and better ways to do things.

There are almost 400 people who permanently live on the farm, including the coffee plantation workers, the livestock handlers, the hotel workers and other staff members. Out of so many people, plus the visitors who rent the cabins and hotel rooms, they actually take out only 55 gallons of refuse a week to the city dump in Matagalpa. Everything else is recycled, reused, composted or turned into methane gas.

One of the most striking examples of how the farm works as a single unit is that all manure from livestock, human refuse from flushing the toilets and the fresh water used in washing the coffee beans is collected in large concrete pods with a "floating" cap. It is an anaerobic (oxygen free) environment where the materials break down and produce methane gas. The gas is then piped into the hotel kitchen and the worker housing and used for cooking. A perfect loop of waste to energy to waste.

All the waste from the hotel and the workers' dining area is reused on the farm for various purposes. It is all sorted with leftovers that go to feed pigs or into compost bins or, in the case of large amounts of leaf waste, to provide landscaping mulch or organic fertilizers.

There are a number of large lakes on the property that grow algae that is pretty to look at on the lake but serves yet another purpose. The algae is periodically raked out of the lake and used to produce livestock feed and something they call M.M. (mountain micro-organisms), which are actually actinomycete fungi used in the acceleration of organic waste decomposition.

The farm is 5,000 feet up in the mountains, which is still low enough to receive a fair amount of running water from the upper regions of the plantation. That water is captured in a lake, then piped down to a water turbine generator that creates about 45 kilowatts of energy for use on the farm. This, along with solar collectors, appears to be enough to keep the farm off the electric grid.

One might imagine a place like this would be very much involved in composting and it is. They have built an entire vermiculture (creating compost with the use of worms) using manure from the cows, pigs, chickens and horses. From this process they produce enough compost for use on the farm and this, combined with different types of organic pest control, makes Selva Negra a completely organic coffee-producing plantation. They sell their coffee to the guests, online and in a store run by their daughter in New York.

In the old days, the plantation model was a self-sufficient organization that probably practiced a great deal of what we perceive as cutting-edge environmental technology but it was interesting to see it being practiced here in Nicaragua. In addition to the methods of organic farming, the plantation also practices exemplary methods of social facilities for all of the workers. Selva Negra has its own carpentry shop, welding facility and mechanical workshop. It also provides free housing for the many workers, a free medical clinic (very, very unusual in Nicaragua) and a school for the children. In addition to providing all these things as part of the compensation package to the workers, they also are able to pay a better-than-average wage. And they have no problem getting workers for such a well-run organization. It can be done.

I invite all of you to take a look at the website and if you ever find yourselves in that part of the world, you'll not be disappointed spending a few days in such a wonderful, beautiful place.