San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Organic Market Offers Healthier Alternatives

EVERY Saturday, shortly after sunrise,eager customers gradually fill up a small,fenced-in lot in Barrio La Cruz, where a signreads Feria Orgánica El Trueque.Part of a handful of organic markets inCosta Rica, El Trueque is the only one in SanJosé that exclusively sells pesticide- and hormone-free products.While the market runs from 6 a.m.-noon,its organizers and regular clients recommendarriving early. Only two hours after opening,some staples may already be sold out, reflectinga growing demand for organic productsthat are low in supply nationwide.The outdoor market’s dozen or so tablesare arranged according to the type of goodsoffered. Certified organic produce – includingfruits, vegetables, roots, beans and herbs– are sold in one row, while another sells“alternative” products, including free-rangechicken and eggs, homemade baked goods,natural honey and jams, macrobiotic merchandiseand noni derivatives.An “In Transition” banner singles outdairy products from a farm in the process ofobtaining its organic certification and anothertable, with organic coffee and chocolates,offers booklets on the benefits of organicagriculture.El Trueque’s prices, compared to those inregular produce ferias, are slightly moreexpensive. A kilo of carrots at most weekendfarmers markets ranges from ¢100-150($0.22-0.33) while El Trueque’s organic versiongoes for ¢200 ($0.45). But compared tothe price tags on supermarkets’ organic produce,shoppers say El Trueque’s are moreeconomical.THE five-year-old market, which originatedin Moravia, draws frequent and loyalbuyers from all over.For years, Anne Aronson has been drivingmore than half an hour from San Rafaelde Heredia, north of San José to shop at ElTrueque, which she describes as a “verydelightful place to come to on Saturdays.”The products make the difference, sheexplains, but also the lack of danger.“You don’t have to watch over your walletlike in other places,” Aronson said.She calls herself a faithful believer inorganic products because they are healthierand taste better.“There is no comparison,” she said andmentions that the school she works at recentlyswitched to feeding its 400 students organicfruits and vegetables daily.After she fills her baskets, Aronson customarilysits down to a plate of gallo pinto,fresh tortillas and organic coffee at the market’ssoda. She said the cafeteria has become asocial tradition amongst El Trueque’s clients.“Uniting people – it’s emphasized here,”Aronson said.YET greetings and conversation flow notonly between purchasers, but also with vendors.The market’s small size fosters friendshipsand trust between buyers and sellers, aswell as annual tours to participating farms,said Marianne Díaz, who works with ElTrueque’s sponsor, the EducationalCorporation for Costa Rican Development.“It’s no longer the ‘consumer’ and the‘seller,’” she explains. Typical formalitiesand roles also fade in the market’s vendorcommittee, where both shoppers and sellershold offices.Despite its unique charms and warm small-town atmosphere, not everyonefinds El Trueque so inviting. Many buyerscome only once or twice, and then give upwhen they cannot find everything theyneed, Díaz said.Compared to standard fruit and vegetablemarkets, El Trueque’s variety isslim, due in part to the country’s fledglingorganic industry. The limited range ofavailable products is something “onlyconscientious clients accept,” sheexplained.The dispersed locations and small productionsof organic farms around the countrymake it challenging for the market toround up and centralize produce, saidFrancisco Sibaja, vendor and president ofEl Trueque’s association.“If someone’s growing organicpapayas in Guanacaste, they might selltheir whole harvest to a nearby hotel,”Sibaja said.THE minimal number of farmersgrowing organic produce coupled with arespect for nature’s biological harvestclock also mean, fewer organic options.“If people don’t see mangoes here, theydon’t understand that it’s because the naturalgrowing period for mangoes is over,”said Patricia Rodríguez, who sells dairyproducts from cows who do not receivehormone injections and are treated withnatural remedies.Rodríguez also believes that the wideavailability of pesticide-sprayed products,as well as the public’s lack of healthy eatinghabits, create other factors El Truequehas to compete with. Awareness, she stated,needs to spread not just between buyers,but also among farmers.“They need to stop thinking only abouttheir profits and start thinking abouthumanity,” said the organic farmer.While organic agriculture has beengrowing in Costa Rica, it still represents asmall percentage of the total area cultivated.FIFTEEN years ago, Sibaja said,when he and a handful of other “crazy”farmers, as they were perceived, startedcultivating organically, their motivationstemmed from higher profits.But today, he said, more awarenessexists. Farmers who abandon toxic pesticidesand fertilizers to seek organic certificationusually do so for health and environmentalreasons.For El Trueque vendor Rafael AngelGuerrero, whose family-based vegetablecooperative also sells to supermarket distributors,the resolution to go organic 15years ago arose from a desire to protect hisfamily from the pollution caused by agrochemicals.The results, he said, have been radicallydifferent: His children can play in thefields without danger and an abundance ofbirds fly in the area.“I wish everyone would do it. We’dlive in another world,” Guerrero said.TOMORROW the market will beoffering a variety of goods made fromcorn, along with its regular products, aspart of the Feria del Maíz.El Trueque is located 650 meters southof Iglesia San Cayetano in Barrio ElCarmen de Paso Ancho.For more information, call 226-8791.

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