Last Saturday I had my friend Youngju and her host family out to my house. She is an exchange student from Korea I met at my university. She had not yet been on a Wisconsin farm, so of course I had to have her over for barn chores and dinner. After all, a person cannot really know Wisconsin until they have been to a farm!
We all had a wonderful time. As it turned out, since Youngju lives in the city in Korea, she had never been on a farm before. I was impressed to see that she was not afraid of the cows. I know I was afraid of them when we first started farming.
Having Youngju out to my farm made me remember my experience in Costa Rica last fall. I and my study abroad group spent one day in a remote part of Costa Rica working with some small subsistence farmers. In Spanish, they are referred to as "campesinos.” This word comes from the word "campo," which means "field.” Campesinos are the peasants in Costa Rican farming hierarchy. Wealthy farmers with larger farms are called "granjeros,” which means "farmers,” or "rancheros,” ranchers.
The campesinos we visited in Costa Rica had been given their land by the government seven years ago as part of a land reform program. Their government had been trying to alleviate some of the poverty in the cities by moving people back to the land. Campesinos are not going to get rich—most of them do not even sell crops—but they can own their houses and land and feed themselves and their families.
My campesino family consisted of a father and mother and three sons. All of the sons were grown and living off the farm, although one did come to help often. My campesino father had about three acres of land. He was growing sugar cane, corn, rice, beans, watermelon, plantains, bananas and cabbage. He also had one horse (that I got to ride all day!), two pigs, lots of chickens and a dog. They also had a pet kitten, which made me very happy. Pet cats are rare in Costa Rica, and I missed my kitties. Sadly, they didn't have a cow. I was missing my cows too!
My campesino father had his land laid out very well. He grew rice in a low marshy spot, and beans above it on a sunny hillside. His largest field was for watermelon, and he had planted plantain trees all around it in a nice hedge. Our job was to cut the dead leaves off of the plantain trees. They are not really trees; they are large plants. They have a sort of trunk, although it is not of hard wood. I was thrilled because I finally got to use a machete. Our program director had told us she couldn't stop us from using dangerous tools but she would appreciate it if we chose not to. She was looking directly at me but I pretended not to hear her.
While we worked amongst the plantain trees, I asked my campesino father about the various plants I saw. It was sad because neither of us knew the English translation for the plants, but I was fascinated nonetheless. Every single plant had some sort of medicinal use. What is more, he knew what moon cycles were best for picking certain plants. I explained to him how organic farmers in the United States are rediscovering medicinal herbs. He thought it was very amusing that we would spend money on veterinarians and medicines when the plants could do it all. I was very humbled by his botanical knowledge. Some day I hope to go back and learn it for myself.
The best part of the day for me was learning how to make tortillas with my campesino mother. She is a brave, strong lady. I couldn't imagine having to cook over an open fire inside a wooden house like she does every single day. Especially not in Costa Rica where it is always hot anyway. We began with fresh corn that had been soaked in water for a day. I put it into a little hand mill that was mounted on the counter and I ground it into a bowl. Grinding the wet corn was difficult. I laughed and told her I was afraid of her. She asked me why, and I said that she had to have the strongest arms of any woman in the world. She laughed so hard she had to back away from the fire so she wouldn't burn herself.
I added a little more water to the mixture and watched in amazement as her and our program director expertly made perfect little circle tortillas. The secret is to take a banana or plantain leaf and hold it over the fire until it wilts. You put the mixture on top of the leaf to form it and it settles into a circle quite nicely. Then I put it in the cast iron skillet over the fire, flipped it once, and there it was.
It was the best tortilla I ever tasted made by the some of the nicest people I have ever met. They had made this little piece of land into a food paradise through a lot of hard work and dedication. I hope they prosper for years to come.