A Narrative of Hope for Epsilon Theory

Brian Stoffel
Oct 7 · 6 min read

Readers of Epsilon Theory are a different pack. They refuse to abide by the narratives pushed on them by the media, the political elite, their neighbors. It can be a freeing experience.

At the same time, it can be a depressing one: The Widening Gyre. The Long Now. To read and nod your head “Yes,” is to acknowledge that things are falling apart.

Image source: Pixabay

Of course, Epsilon Theory also gives us two mantras to forge ahead:

I wholeheartedly agree with both of these. But I also want a story of hope to throw in the mix. Last month, Rusty Guinn wrote about a blight on his farm. It reminded me that I’m intimately familiar with a story that mirrors what Epsilon Theory hopes to accomplish: autonomy of mind for those who read it.

A Tiny Coffee Farm That Forged Its Own Path

In the early 1990s, Gerardo Calderon — a coffee farmer who had lived on his land his entire life — became sick from using industrial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. At the same time, organic certification companies from North America came down to convince farmers to take up non-chemical farming.

Their message was clear: “this is better for you, and the earth. Consumers will pay more for it.” The subtext was even more clear: Chemicals are bad. Organic is good.

All farmers had to do — they were told — was go chemical free for three years. An answer to Gerardo’s prayers.

Easy peasy.


From Ben Hunt’s piece last month — which examined the predicament we find ourselves in — let’s examine the similarities (with some additions):

Sure, the chemical companies are some of the first to become rhinoceroses. But soon enough it’s the scientists and the academics and the organic fanatics who turn. They are the worst of the lot. Not because they’re the biggest and baddest rhinos. But because they know better. Because they make a conscious and deliberate choice IN THEIR HEADS to lie to themselves and embrace a real and palpable evil IN THEIR HEARTS.

So what happened in Costa Rica? We know by now the chemical companies were lying to the farmers. Hell, Monsanto’s on the hook for causing cancer. But so were the organic certification companies.

How do you think those certifiers earned a living? By convincing you to transition away from chemicals. Think those dynamics play a role in how much you’re willing to share about the road ahead?

If you give up chemicals cold turkey in a monoculture, what do you think happens? Everything shrivels up and dies out. Three years without chemicals — with little guidance for how to navigate the transition? Most farms lost 80%-plus of their crop.

Image source: Getty Images

In the 1990s, a full 8% of Costa Rican farmers gave organic certification a try. Today, it’s less than 1%. And those certification companies share a large brunt of the blame.

Clear Eyes. Full Heart.

Everyone went back to chemical farming. It put food on the table — and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

But Gerardo and his 7 acre El Toledo farm didn’t have that luxury. The sickness would come back. So, for the next fifteen years, Gerardo, his wife, and two sons worked in numerous industries — taxi driving, auto mechanic, construction, you name it — to make ends meet.

All the while, their natural curiosity and anti-rhinoceros-ness shone through:

  • They would consult chemical companies to see what might be available to help — knowing full well the chemicals could hurt them, and they’d be lied to.
  • They would consult organic professionals for advice — knowing full well those professionals had incentive to make organic farming sound easier.
  • They would consult academics and agricultural scientists — knowing full well these professionals, going to work in urban schools, had no real skin in the game.
  • They would consult permaculture experts from Europe and North America — knowing full well they had wealthy clientele who could support these ventures that Costa Rica does not.

Can’t Lose

In short, they were open to hearing anyone and anything. And they were open to trying anything. What happened over the next 15 years was nothing short of a miracle.

Image source: Kaneeta Hardman

El Toledo— quite simply — gave the land back to Mother Nature. Native species of plants and animals returned and filled in the areas between the coffee trees. And she obliged by created a diverse ecosystem that helped make the soil healthy.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t a straight line towards sustainability. And there were many lean years.

The farm still isn’t at the same capacity is was before, but it’s enough that the family can “just” farm these days. And the diversity has surfaced as an asset in unpredictable ways.

Nowhere has this been more true that with the rust fungus — which has devastated Central America. El Toledo, while not emerging unscathed, was one of the few farms that escaped the worst:

If you inspect a rust-infected leaf from El Toledo close enough, you’d notice a faint white fungus was also (apparently) feeding on the leaf. It turns out that this white fungus was the natural predator to the rust fungus.

On all the other farms around them, chemical fungicides had indiscriminately killed off both the rust and white fungus — much how chemotherapy doesn’t just target cancer cells, but kills everything in its path.

The problem is, the rust fungus mutated; it developed an immunity to the fungicides. All it took was that one Black Swan event to wipe out huge swaths of coffee.

Because the white fungus did not mutate, and because all of these farms were largely monocultures, there was absolutely nothing standing between the rust fungus and the coffee plants.

Make. Protect. Teach.

These days, El Toledo hasn’t stopped innovating. Gerardo’s son — Gabriel — is now using the shells of the coffee fruit to make wine. These shells are normally dumped in rivers and create massive pollution problems.

By showing farmers how to make a marketable product with their waste, Gabriel is not only helping reduce waste, but also helping increase income.

More than that, however, is the importance of the farm’s tour. What started out as an after-thought has become a full-fledged business. Don’t believe me? Just check out the reviews on Trip Advisor.

Here’s the most important part. Every tour starts with this:

We are so happy that we can run our farm in a way that’s good for us and in harmony with nature. At the same time, we are an organic coffee farm that will tell you all the bad things about the organic movement. Our neighbors — who are our family — use chemicals. We don’t blame them. Fifteen years ago, we wished we could have continued. We survived with their help.

What were chemical companies trying to do when they came up with their chemicals? Honestly, many were probably trying to help farmers.

We don’t take any sides. We don’t have all of the answers. We have our experience, and we want to share it with you. Please, share your experience with us. It makes us all better.

Worse before better

This is one of Ben Hunt’s key reminders: things are going to get much worse before they get better. There are imbalances that need to be reckoned. When everything becomes centralized — agricultural practices, media dissemination, monetary policy — the act of decentralizing is painful.

El Toledo would never have chosen to go through 15 years of strife. They didn’t know what would be on the other end. Lucky for us, we do: a model of sustainability, contentment, and balance. And an ecosystem that is dictated by the needs and desires of the local community — not a larger nudging entity.

That’s the reward of clear eyes and full hearts. That’s what making, teaching, and protecting can get us. El Toledo has proven it. So when things get worse — which they probably will — remember that following these simple systems can only lead in one direction: can’t lose.

Brian Stoffel

Written by

After 5 years as an inner-city teacher, my wife & I moved to Costa Rica & discovered an inspiring farm. We split our time b/t there and the US w/ our two kids.

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