The Ultimate Bioreactor

Fred Morgan with a Scythe
The President of Finca Leola, Fred Morgan, demonstrates
the correct use of a scythe, as he converts carbohydrates into
mechanical energy in an economical and fuel efficient manner.

We have reported on Finca Leola several times in the past few years, because their model for profitable reforestation is one of the most positive, encouraging developments we’ve ever seen – nurturing economic development through tropical reforestation, via an operation designed to sustainably grow and harvest timber. In our report “From Deforesting to Reforesting,” sequential graphic images illustrate the concept – convert deforested land into tree plantations using “pioneer trees” that provide a cash crop, then as these trees are gradually thinned and eventually completely harvested, a diverse forest of slower growing native trees is systematically reestablished, which itself is then sustainably harvested. The profits from these operations provide the funds for expansion.

The concept works. Since establishment in 2003, Finca Leola has expanded their holdings to four forestry plantations, where they are taking over degraded land and putting the forest back, making money for themselves, their employees, and the tree owners, with enough left over to finance new land aquisitions. They now have 645 acres under management (261 hectares), up from an initial holding of 245 acres. In many cases, the process of converting these former dairy farms and cattle ranches into restored forest is well under way.

In this article, Fred Morgan describes some of the ways the operations at Finca Leola are becoming more efficient, and rediscovering the scythe as a cost-effective substitute for a gasoline-powered weed whacker. His analysis of the benefits of employing a human wielding a scythe instead of a human wielding a gas-powered weed whacker is a very interesting illustration of how the choice isn’t always obvious, and sometimes we can actually get more work done, with less physical effort, if we don’t bother with the headaches of mechanization. This is not a sentimental analysis; this is a simple assessment of what constitutes optimal best practices on the Finca – and the scythe beats the weed whacker.

In this manner and in other ways described in the article to follow, the practices being pioneered – or rediscovered – at Finca Leola are inspiring steps towards combining good business with sustainable business; to decentralize and demechanize operations in ways that actually increase efficiency. In so doing, they also facilitate a level of autarky that may help these operations weather whatever storms the world may offer in the coming years – financial or physical. – Ed Ring

The Ultimate Bioreactor – Using Carbohydrates Instead of Hydrocarbons
by Fred & Amy Morgan, October 14, 2008
Two year old Teak “pioneer” trees reach for the
sky. During the first few years it is essential to
keep weeds under control around young trees.

It is pretty much a given that the days of cheap oil are finished. Where we go from here is not known, but we will probably never again see gas for $1.25 a gallon (that was less than 8 years ago).

There is an old story about how, if you put a frog in a pot of cool water and slowly raise the temperature, you can cook it before it knows that the temperature is getting too hot. Supposedly this is due to being cold-blooded. It may or may not be true for frogs (I haven’t cooked any lately to be sure), but we humans tend to be slow to shift in response to changes in our environment.

When fuel was cheap, it made sense to use it (not in the long term, perhaps, but short term), but as the price of fuel continues to climb, what made economic economic sense no longer does. We are in the middle of an experiment here at Finca Leola S.A. of moving away from using fuel as much as possible.

One area where we spend a lot of money every year is commercial weed whackers. We currently have close to 750 acres of trees growing in four different locations. In the early years, you have to keep up with the weeds around the trees. Because the land is not all that flat, using brush hogs, etc, doesn’t work very well. So imagine lots of people with weed whackers mowing 750 acres. Now think about the cost of labor, fuel, and repairs.

In Costa Rica, the Spanish word for weed whacker is motoguadaña. Literally translated, motorized scythe. The word came from Spain, not from Costa Rica. Our workers don’t even know what a scythe (or guadaña) is, maybe because most of the farmland in this part of the country was cleared after motoguadañas already existed. The people use machetes for everything.

As an experiment, we bought several European-style scythes and have been using them. In the hands of a pro, a scythe is just as fast as a motoguadaña (even in the hands of me!) but has other advantages. Most of my work every day is doing what I am doing right now, writing and communicating, so I spend a lot of time sitting. We were paying a worker to cut our lawn with a weed whacker. Now, it is me out there cutting the grass with the scythe, enjoying the breezes, enjoying getting something done while getting the exercise I need. What could be more efficient?

A weed whacker survives about two years in plantation use. This is because they are running every day for 7 to 8 hours. A scythe on the other hand, if used properly and taken care of, may well last 20 years or so. The cost of a good scythe is roughly about a quarter of the price of a weed whacker.

What really adds up is consumables. A weed whacker needs about $6 of fuel here in Costa Rica to run per day. A scythe? Only what the operater eats. What is really nice is that the scythe is lighter and takes less effort to use, as long as you use it correctly. There goes the excuse to eat more!

It would seem that this is a simple solution, but there are challenges to implementation.

Costa Rica
The breathtaking vistas of Costa Rica.

Just about anyone can use a weed whacker. Put in the right mix, start it up, and start destroying things. The ability to cut really isn’t based on skill, it is based on machine power. It is a noisy, stinky thing, but it is very easy to use and very effective.

A scythe is quite different. It is all skill and very little power. In fact, you shouldn’t be forcing it. The skill is in maintaining the right angle and maintaining a sharp edge. To maintain the edge, you have to know how to sharpen and how to reshape the edge every few hours. This is done by peening, a lost art if there ever was one – though there are jigs to help make it easier.

Against us as well is that the Costa Ricans think of it as a kind of machete, so they want to use the same motion. This is a sharp cutting motion, where the speed and force of the swing provides the cut. They also want to raise the blade to get a good momentum and hit the grass hard, but both of these are counterproductive. A scythe works by being very sharp and having the grass run along the blade’s arc until cut all the way through, so the idea is to not try to cut too much at a time and to let each clump be sliced in two as it slides along the blade. It took me a while to figure out that keeping the blade down on the ground on the return stroke cleans the grass off and helps with the next cut. It is nearly magical as it works, and truly enjoyable. It takes time, skill, and patience to learn to do right, but the savings are well worth it.

I think this is a key concept: There are many, many things that work just as well without fuel, but they require skill, strength, and being in pretty good shape. Power is a shortcut. I can drop a tree up to about 8 inches in diameter or lop off a limb faster with an ax than with a chainsaw (including the time to fuel and start the chainsaw).

Finca Leola's tree farms
The location of Finca Leola’s four tree farms. While all of
them are in Costa Rica’s north-central highlands, it makes
sense for each operation to be largely self-sufficient.

Another issue is localization. What I mean is this: The temptation is to centralize everything around a few principle people and make everyone else travel. In the mornings, the office area of Finca Leola resembles an anthill with nearly 100 workers. Everyone shows up, mills around a little and then shoots out the entrance for different locations. But why? Back when fuel was cheap and so was transportation, it made sense I suppose, but as fuel costs rise, we are rethinking this consolidation.

It is a struggle to get people to go directly to the place of work, bypassing the office even though often the office is in the wrong direction. There is a culture that says that if I see you appear on time, you are a good worker, so everyone wants to show up at the office to let the owners know they are good workers – even though it will be another 30 minutes to an hour until they actually are doing anything productive!

As we continue to grow, we have to separate operations more and more. This requires coordination and planning. It also requires more travel by principle people and less by the workers. It is always tempting by those in charge to require everyone to make their lives easier, but that can be very, very wasteful.

A good example of such planning is to have as much processing of wood done at the plantations as possible. This is due to a simple fact: Wood is heavy. The more waste you can remove before transporting it, the better. Part of the waste is water, which can be removed by kilns, and the rest is all the bark and sawdust as you shape flooring, boards, and furniture.

This requires more from those in management. It is much easier to have all your workers show up at one factory so that you can keep an eye on them and all you have to do is go to one place. It is much harder when you have several different locations and each one requires a significant amount of travel over less-than-ideal roads. But when you think what is best for the environment and resources, it makes a lot more sense than requiring, say, 200 workers to travel over those same roads.

On the personal level, I am making a determined effort to use my bike between our locations as much as possible. Between fueling a car and fueling my bike, the best choice is obvious, and here I do have an excuse to eat more. An added budget benefit? I expect to save on medical bills all my life. Many of us have grown up with cars and the convenience of them, even though now it is putting a pretty bad cramp on many budgets just to fill them up. It is very interesting though, that many people will drive to work, and then drive to a gym in order to get exercise, whereas if they combined the two, they could save time and a lot of money.

The average commute in the USA is about 16 miles each way. This is a bit rough on a bike, but very doable if you are in shape. There are many commutes much less than that, say, under 5 miles. And yet, the vast majority of people drive even though it is much more costly. The reason is simple: It isn’t as fast and convenient. After all, jump in the car, turn the ignition, and off you go. Commuting by bike requires some planning and preparation. Although I don’t have to think about what to change into when I arrive or how to clean up, most people do. It also takes some skill. For a good cyclist, 16 miles is a warmup, 5 miles is not even thought about. But for a person who hasn’t ridden for years and years, 16 miles is going to make you feel it, particularly where you sit down. The other challenge on commuting is that the US road system isn’t designed to share the road with bikes, nor are many drivers of cars very conscious of cyclists. I have the advantage there, as roads less than ideal for cars are ideally suited to mountain bikes.

We continue to explore and test options for becoming less fuel-dependent, such as using animal power, water power, and solar power, and our key people are usually quite willing to try new old things. With their support, we are slowly bringing the rest of the workers around.

Map of Costa Rica Parks and Proposed Bio-Corridor
Finca Leola’s tree farms (red dots – the one to the right is the first one,
the 2-4th farms are clustered around the dot to the left) are located in
in the rich, deep soils of Costa Rica’s interior. The dark green on the
map denotes existing parks; light green the proposed bio-corridor.
(Scale: one pixel = one kilometer)

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