Fiona Lamont sat at her makeshift market counter methodically recording the prices of different vegetables in her notebook. Her only other tools were a calculator and a metal scale hanging from the rafters overhead.
It was the second week of the new organic market in the western San José suburb of Escazú, where anything from arugula to strawberries fanned out in a rainbow of colors and flavors over straw mats.
“We want to keep it sort of simple,” Lamont explained as she took a breather between customers.
Lamont and a crew of volunteers launched the organic market the first week of May.
Those in the know now come Wednesday mornings between 8:15 and noon to the park across from the Red Cross in Escazú Centro, to buy their fruit and veggies for the week.
Unlike at Escazú’s traditional Saturday market, all the produce here is certified organic, or on the path to being so.
“Our motivation is really to be able to have this product for ourselves,” Lamont said. But, “we know there is a demand.”
At midmorning, a handful of curious shoppers wandered from basket to basket, peering at prices and picking favorites.
Melody Wong and Alexander Wills were following their 4-year-old daughter as she skipped around the display. They were shopping for items such as lettuce and sweet bell peppers that normally carry the most pesticides in non-organic markets.
Wong, a teacher at the United World College Costa Rica in Santa Ana, southwest of San José, said her family tries to eat organic wherever they live. She was pleased with what she saw in Escazú.
“It is a really good selection and the prices are very good” compared to Auto Mercado’s section,Wong said.
Traditional market fare, such as carrots, potatoes and onions, were on display next to English cucumbers, dandelion, mint and containers of green tea and homemade pesto.
Two additional stands sold Coronado cheese (regular and goat varieties), yogurt and milk – in transition to receiving organic status – and essential oils, lotions and soaps.
The Wednesday market is a spin-off of others organized by NicoyaPeninsula resident Honey Akerson.
The 60-year-old midwife and farmer started selling organic lettuce and herbs on Saturdays in Montezuma, on the southern tip of the peninsula, 13 years ago. Business was slow-going at first.
“For a couple of years it was just me and the park,” Akerson said.
Selling organic produce was more of a spiritual mission than a business scheme.
“I lost a child at that time,” explained the mother of nine. “I had a space in my life and in my heart to fill.”
Since then, Akerson has expanded her reach on the peninsula to Tambor and Malpaís.
The Escazú market was not her idea and, she said, she would not have started it without the encouragement of her Central Valley customers.
“People don’t realize the amount of work (it takes) to organize,” Akerson said. “It’s a big deal to make that happen every week.”
Saturdays are long for Akerson and her helpers. An organic farmer from the mountain town of Zarcero, in north-central Costa Rica – which produces most of the organic produce for the Nicoya Peninsula and Escazú markets (see sidebar) – picks up the freshly picked produce Friday night, dips down to San José for bread and cheese, and then drives to the Pacific port of Puntarenas, where Akerson meets him to help sort the goods.
The first market is in Tambor, from 8 a.m. to noon; the second is in Montezuma, from 10 a.m. to noon; and the third is in Malpaís, from 3 p.m. until dusk.
Akerson gives any leftovers to nearby schools and needy families, sometimes selling items at reduced prices to those who can afford it. The point, she said, is not to earn big bucks, but to help others eat healthier and get along better.
“I think it lifts up the whole area,” Akerson said.
In Escazú, Lamont knows why she prefers organic produce.
“It’s for your own health and the health of the land,” she said. “It’s my way of contributing to saving the planet.”
For Akerson, it’s simple logic.
“Well, I guess we’re organic, aren’t we?”
Escazú Organic Market Mini-Sampler
Head of cauliflower ¢800
Pack of strawberries ¢800
Pack of blackberries ¢800
English cucumber ¢400
Jar of pesto ¢4,200
Chunk of goat cheese ¢2,700
Bar of organic soap ¢1,500
Receiving the label “organic” could take a while in Costa Rica – from one to three years, according to those involved in the market.
Farmers receive their organic certification after they are inspected by the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry.
Inspectors visit potential organic farms and conduct a series of soil tests for evidence of pesticides and herbicides. Depending on the results, farmers could wait up to three years before they are allowed to label their products organic.
Once approved, the farms are constantly checked and re-certified.
Most of the organic produce going to the west coast and Escazú comes from the Zarcero region.
A farmer for all his life, Carlos Huertas went organic in the mid-1980s after he discovered the dangers of insecticides and pesticides from Japanese volunteers visiting the region, he said.
“We didn’t realize what we were doing,” explained Huertas, who farms in Zarcero.
The 46-year-old said he went through years of experimentation and loss before his organic fields started to produce regularly.
“They were very difficult years,” Huertas said. “People called us crazy.”
His 12.5-hectare farm now pumps out cabbage, beets, spinach, zucchini and cherry tomatoes, among other goods.
He said his biggest customer is Wal-Mart, which owns the Más x Menos and Hipermás supermarket chains, among others, but he hopes some day to focus on his smallest clients – people like Honey Akerson, who buy for small organic markets or for themselves.
Huertas called these customers “more conscious and less problematic.”
“They know the value (of organic produce),” he said.