The Rancho Mastatal is located at the entrace of the same named park, not so far from the provincial city Puriscal in Costa Rica, in the middle of the jungle. It is a huge domain with 300 acres which is 120 ha of which only 15 acres that is 6 ha are used for habitat, living space and food production. The rest of the area is protected for the development of the wild fauna and flora and is integrated in a national program for the protection of the environment.
It is a sister farm to Finca Bona Fide in Nicaragua and numerous exchanges of personal take place.
Founded by a couple Robin and Timo in 2000, it is an experimental and pedagogical farm in permaculture and agroforestry. The farm receives about 1000 persons a year. It is therefore not autonomous in food but makes it a point to purchase for its needs locally, enabling the locals to live off the tourism as well. On the domain it is like an entire small scale village is under construction following natural building principles. The community practices sociocraty and is composed of permanents and apprentices.
We stayed three days including two nights on the farm. Price is a bit expensive but reasonable in Costa Rica especially as it includes the 3 meals of the day that we take altogether with the community and visitors.
We are hosted in a beautiful bamboo structure constituted by an open platform over the jungle and a ground floor with a basic kitchen, a terrace and another room. It is a natural building which is owned by one of their friends but that the Rancho exploits for them. It is accessible through a path in the middle of the jungle. Shower and dry toilets are opened to the jungle as well and mounted on a platform, we go from structure to the next on a little wooden covered bridge.
From this path, we walk about 5 minutes through the hamlet which has one or two houses, a primary school, a high school as well as a bar and a library. A bus arrives from puriscal once a day in the afternoon and goes in direction of Puriscal once at 5am. Roads around lead to other houses or farms disseminated along the way.
The farm has one big block of 235 acres on the one side of the road and of 65 acres on the other side. On the first is the natural preserved domain in which the Rancho has created a small trecking path leading to a natural waterfall. There is also the main building of the farm which is mostly made out of natural building in which there is an office, a room, a modern bathroom, an open kitchen opened to the back of the building which is covered and arranged with a very long table where the meals are taken. At the side, another building also in natural building contains the shop to transform the food and a beautiful round alcove with integrated benches and arranged with cushions where permanents and volunteers can gather around.
In front of the main building are several vegetable garden areas certain of which are dedicated to apprentices which are growing whatever they want. The rest is filled with edible plants and the aim is to notice those that fair the best under this climate and on this ground in order later to generalize their use. Behind, after the meal zone, there are again edible plants as well as a path that leads to beautiful natural building toilets which are connected to a biodigester which provides low pressure methane to the kitchen. This one is completed by a second biodigester based on cowpat as the human production isn’t sufficient.
Further up the road as well as lower than the farm, we find accessible by separate entrances other natural buildings which are small houses inhabited by the founders and some permanents. They each have their own little terrain around where they each grow many edible plants as well. During our stay, one new house there was under construction.
On the other side of the road, there is the fruit forst as well as the plant nursery, a chicken house, a wood shop to build furniture (chairs, tables, beds,…) as well as to make some carpentry work. The forest is organized in order to maximize the number of trees for the space while taking into account the terrain (some parts have steep slopes). Regularly we find nitrogen fiwing trees which are there to help the fruit trees to grow. In this forest, the aim is to determine the species that require the less amendment to produce in order to promote the species that give food with the less work possible. There is little to no watering in this vast orchard. Within the orchard, there is a more or less circular path along which as in a small village, a certain number of natural buildings are builtup for dormitories for the apprentices or the visitors, notably student clases. There is also a nice wooden platform with a roof which is a classroom and yoga area. During out passage there were two houses under construction there. Some houses are impressive and original bamboo structures or equipped with beautiful cob walls and colored mosaic. Regularly, an opened bathroom with shower and dry toilets complete the little village.
LWATER AND ENERGY MANAGEMENT
Water is provided by the mountain and the national park. The grey water are rejected at the foot of the fruit trees as the soap in usage is produced on the farm and completely natural. All toilets are dry toilets (except for the biodigester ones). Toilets produce compost for the fruit trees. One toilet is connected to a biodigester which produces low pressure methane for the cooking. This one is completed by a biodigester working on cow manure in order to feed the kitchen with the same pipes.
Part of the kitchen is equipped with a rocket stove which diminishes the smoke that is breathed by the cook and uses more efficiently the wood. This one is mainly employed for preparation that will then be stocked.
Most of the waste are vegetables and therefore added to the compost or given to the chickens. Human waste is reused. Non organic waste is a problem in the Rancho as it is quite isolated. Of course a maximum is reused since homemade preparations are numerous. It seems that the community onsite does not produce a lot of waste as there are no shops around that would sell stuff which would produce waste. However, it is required of the North American classes of sudents to collect and carry their plastic waste with them when they leave.
THE WAY IT WORKS
The farm was founded by Robin and Timo. Rapidly the community grew with permanent residents. They are seven. Each have their naturally-built house or it is under construction. They had started up by inviting volunteers for all kinds of time periods, even short stays, however managing this got complicated especially in addition to welcoming classes of students. Hence they decided to take seven apprentices that stay between six months to a year in order to let them learn and take a certifying course in permaculture as well as provide a qualified help for the work on the farm. The apprentices are hosted in a dormitory and small houses are also being built to increase the apprentice space. Each apprentice follows the training program and starts up a personal project (for example test new fermentations, take care of a piece of the vegetable garden with plants of one’s choice, take care of the vanilla,…etc.). There is also local staff to make the lunch meals and help with the dinner preparation. When there are classes of students, there can be more than 40 people onsite. Moreover, they also host occasional visitors like us.
The apprentices and permanents gather each morning in the maint building after breakfast to organize the activities of the day. Daily tasks are allocated on a monthly rotating basis. The day is spent between training and punctual missions necessary for the Rancho. Once a week everyone gathers in the meeting alcove, a round space, opened and arranged with cushions. There they create a trust circle when kindness is the first principle, it is the time to speak about what each one feels, what they lived through the week and possible conflicts or disappointments. Each evening, before dinner, with everyone present at the Rancho and sharing the meal, everyone takes hands and randomly, those who wishes it can speak up and say what they are thankful for for this day. The circle ends by the responsible apprentice which announces the evening’s menu and a general gratitude formula is uttered by everyone.
The organization of the human relations and the human factor are the most difficult part to manage and can go up to a complete failure according to Timo. The permanents have arrived progressively and their relationships were not clearly defined. At first everything went well but progressively tensions can get created when the relation between individuals is not clearly defined. That is why Timo was working to set up not only a governance but also responsibility perimeters as well as the rights and recognition going with these in a bit more formalized way in order to avoid misunderstandings and possible tensions. As well the apprentices program is well defined as well as the rules to welcome classes and visitors. The applied governance is a sociocraty which uses consent instead of consensus which is much more efficient. Consent means that unless you are totally opposed to a decision for stron reasons, the proposed decision is adopted as is. It is up to each individual to decide whether they can live with this decision and not whether they agree or not with it.
The Rancho Mastatal is impressive for its natural buildings which compose a real village across the property. Not only are they numerous but they are always improved from the first one to the more recent ones and often beautifully decorated. See natural building video here.
There are two remarkable constructions in bamboo, of which one was designed by an architect who passed by. It has a 1m² base while the upper floors have a much larger surface. Other constructions combine bamboo platforms and cob walls (straw, lime and earth/clay). Constructions are mostly finished with a lime wash which give to the walls a soft and smooth aspect. Colors are introduced at this moment as well as decorations with small stones or mosaic inserted in the walls. Each construction has an artistic touch and has its own character.
Bathrooms are all opened and covered with a roof. Some toilets and showers are facing the jungle in a way that you can enjoy a beautiful panorama of the jungle. They are all located on elevated platforms notably to place compost trays below them. They are very well worked all in curves and sometimes arranged with a mosaic. One of them has even been finished with tadelakt, a technique that produces an extremely soft surface while staying warm to the touch.
With more than a 1000 visitors per year, the aim of the farm is not food autonomy, at least not in itself but rather by integrating the local ecosystem as everything that does not come from the farm comes from the village and the surrounding productive farms. Timo thinks a lot about integrating the Rancho in the local community and to promote autonomy at this level. The farm does all these experiences with fruit trees and plants and then trains the locals in an attempt to share the acquired knowledge and increase the resilience and independence of the community.
However, onsite are a lot of edible plants which end up in salads or meals or sauces or drinks (such as kefir or smoothies,…etc.) prepared onsite. Katuk for example a delicious plant with leaves that have nice nutty taste. Açaï a plant which is harvested to make a drink out of it. Yucca, mustard, small spicy peppers.
There are more than 400 different species of fruit trees: mandarine, banana, mangosteen, rambutan, peach palm, mangos, lemons, oranges and also vanilla, heliconias for the colibris, pepper on nitrogen fixing trees.
The farm also produces its own soap to ensure the grey waters are not polluted by chemical products and makes them available to all guests for this purpose.
There is also about 30 chickens, for the eggs and beehives for honey. There used to be goats as an experience, however the care to bring is to important compared to the production of milk and cheese. They were also very dangerous in the middle of the orchard.
Technical videos made on-site
Fermentation and Kefir
Introduction to Natural Building
Mexican Hot Sauce Recipe
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