Costa Rica attracts tourists who think green—visitors who want to enjoy tropical beaches, rainforests and wildlife in a sustainable way. And they carry that attitude to the table. They want to eat organic food. The nation’s hospitality industry is eager to oblige.
“Costa Rica’s hotels want to provide organic vegetables to their clients. It’s a huge niche market that people can make money in so there are a lot of entrepreneurs,” says Jim Nienhuis, a CALS horticulture professor who regularly teaches and conducts field research in the Central American country.
To help Costa Rican farmers fill that desire, Nienhuis recently hosted seven students from the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica in Wisconsin, where they visited organic farms, research stations, botanical displays and urban gardens. This spring, a group of UW-Madison students will do the same thing in Costa Rica.
Growing organic food in the tropics is tough, Nienhuis says. There are more insects and diseases, and no winter to kill them. And growers make things harder for themselves in their eagerness to please visitors’ palates.
“They try to grow varieties that are familiar to American or European tourists. Those varieties are almost always poorly adapted to the tropics so the growers always have to pile on the pesticides,” he says.
A key goal of the exchange program is help the students see how plants grow differently at different latitudes. Nienhuis and his Costa Rican colleagues planted identical vegetable gardens—each with 28 varieties—in Madison and San Carlos so students could observe differences.
“We have a real strength in vegetable variety development; they don’t have that there. I want to get them to see that they can develop their own varieties,” says Nienhuis. “The garden is a way of demystifying the process of variety development.”