I hated the family farm as a kid.
It was hot; it reeked of manure; and it’s where a tree crushed and killed my grandfather. When we visited, I spent my time playing with my Game Boy while the other kids took turns riding young bulls.
So I was surprised when my dad asked me to take the farm over last year. He’d recently retired and was planning on selling part of it to pay off his house in the city. He’d live off the rest and drive up to the farm throughout the week. But the lawyer he hired stole the land. My dad lost his house and was afraid he’d lose everything else.
I agreed to Dad’s request, but had no idea what to do. I’m a journalist and was spending nearly every waking hour in front of a computer running a small newspaper in the capital, San Jose. The farm was a few hours north, in Guanacaste, a province known for beautiful beaches and cattle farms. It’s also known for its increasingly severe droughts.
Guanacaste sits in Central America’s Dry Corridor, nearly 1,000 miles of land that stretches from Mexico to Panama and is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change. Temperatures are rising; the corridor is growing; and droughts and erratic rainfall take turns devastating the region and the livelihoods of the millions of residents. In 2014, the area’s worst drought in more than 80 years caused an estimated $25 million in damage to Costa Rica’s cattle and agricultural sector.
At first, I thought about selling the farm. Though I’m a meat-eater, I’m not a fan of the cattle industry because of the havoc it wreaks on the environment. Not to mention I have vivid memories of giant bruises people on the farm would get from cattle kicks. But the newspaper crumbled last May, and I needed something else to dive into.
I started researching an alternative to cattle farming and stumbled upon dragon fruit, which is packed with vitamins, nutrients and bright magenta flesh. It also grows on a cactus native to that part of Costa Rica and can survive months without water. Even its Latin name, seemed perfect.
So last October, I got to work. I met with Juan Carlos Sotela, my dad’s second cousin who has a small plot of land next to the farm and helps take care of it. Juan Carlos is a tank of a man, barrel-chested and nicknamed “Panzon” after his even larger belly. I’ve seen him punch a bull and get kicked by horses. He even survived getting hit by a bus.
But what almost ended him was losing his son Jose. Jose was only 18 when he died. He loved the cowboy life. I remember him lassoing dogs around the farm when he was just five. Then, one afternoon in late August 2017, Jose was herding cattle when a thunderstorm rolled through.
Jose didn’t show up for dinner, and Juan Carlos knew something was wrong when he saw cattle wandering aimlessly on the street. He and his other son, Chuzi, ran to the area where Jose had been working and found him under a tree, dead alongside his horse and a calf. They had been struck by lightning. His brother remembers a hole in the tree canopy, Jose’s charred body and an exploded cell phone in his chest pocket.
While the farm is normally silent come dusk, family members told me that for weeks you could hear Juan Carlos and his wife crying each night. Juan Carlos lost his will to work and sold off most of the cattle he had spent years gathering. Weeds took over the corral. He told me he dreamed of Jose galloping toward him on his horse while a flood chased him from behind, but he couldn’t save him.
Juan Carlos has been excited about the dragon fruit project. All he’d known before was how to be a cattle farmer and never thought about doing anything else. Now, when I prune a plant to spur growth or buy a brush for hand pollination, he asks me why I’m doing what I’m doing.
“You learn something new every day,” is his favourite response after I answer his questions.
Last year, when we started clearing the farm for planting, Juan Carlos let me live in Jose’s old room. Newspaper and magazine cutouts of horses decorated the walls and the only light came from a small plug-in night light. Electricity didn’t come to the farm until the mid-2000s, and Jose didn’t like light at night.
I’d wake up at sunrise to take advantage of the few cool hours before the sun beat down a flood of light and heat for the rest of the day. It didn’t take long to learn that sunblock and a baseball cap wouldn’t cut it; any exposed skin sizzled and burnt. You need long sleeves, pants, gloves and a big brimmed hat, known locally as a.
We spent weeks clearing land. We dug hundreds of holes and lugged wooden posts to each one and stamped them in. Dragon fruit grows on a climbing cactus. It sprouts roots as it creeps its way up the post and then branches out in a spiky green mane. The flowers bloom a few times a year. It’s a spectacular large white flower that lasts a single night before it shrivels up and starts growing into a fruit.
I used up my savings to get the crop started. By mid-December, I had 1,000 baby cactuses reaching for the sky. We got our first flower in June and picked our first fruit on July 8. It was tiny and barely enough to make a cup of juice, but it was a bright little magenta ball of hope.
When a drought tore through the region in 2015, thousands of heads of cattle in Guanacaste died and the industry dropped nearly 60 per cent. Things in the Central American Dry Corridor are expected to only get worse. And although this is going to devastate farming and ranching, few people here are able to think about building a rainwater harvesting system for an ever-worsening ecological catastrophe when they need to fix the car to buy medicine for the cattle today.
Ironically, my dad is also a climate change sceptic. But I found his scepticism is deeply rooted in the farm. My dad, who was living in Connecticut, rushed down to Costa Rica after my grandfather’s accident. Three separate doctors told him that his father would recover, so my dad left. My grandfather died a few days later. The first memory I have of my father is his crying at the top of a flight of stairs after my grandfather died. He’s had a hard time trusting doctors, scientists or experts ever since. He thinks green initiatives are ways for corrupt companies to cash in on government funds.
While the government began an ambitious plan for the country to go carbon neutral by 2050, rural communities have historically been abandoned by the state and are in desperate need of help now.
My dad is well aware of the water shortage we face — though he says it has long been a problem — and is relieved at how little water dragon fruit needs compared to cattle. He’s taken a liking to the fruit, too; in fact, he’s been the main consumer of our tiny harvest this year. He’s also excited about how much the fruit sells for at supermarkets.
After retiring and then getting scammed, my dad worried he had nothing to offer. I knew he did, of course, but this tiny fruit helped him to embrace his future again. He wants us to expand the dragon fruit project and build a new house on the farm. He’s even planning on building a woodworking workshop and planting a garden of fruit trees.
I always wanted to build things with my dad — a go-kart, a treehouse — but he was never around much when I was kid. Now, though, we’re building something together every day.
Alexander Villegas is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Costa Rica
The New York Times