There are stories in each one of these roots. This plant can help against the flu. That tree over there has leaves used to make the iconic Panama hats. Here’s the kudzu, which became invasive when planted in the southeastern United States but has stayed tame in the tropical climate.
Harve Thomas walks through this expansive finca in Santa Barbara de Heredia, beneath the shadow of Volcán Poás. Mazes of towering bamboo stalks or swooping morning glory branches outline the many hillside paths.
“There’s so much you can do with plants,” he said. “Basically everything comes from plants.”
Thomas’ Ark Herb Farm has been open since 1990 and now houses over 1,000 different plant species. He estimates his eight-hectare plot has the most diverse collection of plants in Central America. Many species are duplicated in keeping with the Ark name, that is two of each.
Shipments of different seeds and crops come in to Ark Herb from all over the world. There’s black pepper from Vietnam, tea leaves from China, and Mexican-native chia, which can be made into a thick beverage that Thomas said could be the next big fad.
Arkansas-born and educated primarily in architecture, Thomas is president of three companies that stem from the farm’s production: Los Patitos, Global Spice and Condimentos Escazú. His companies’ main staple is achiote, which is a seasoning dye used mainly in protein and rice combination dishes to give them their red color. The Los Patitos brand of achiote liquid and paste are by far the most popular in Costa Rica.
“A monopoly is only good if you’re the one who has it,” he joked, saying he thinks he makes a cent for each time it is included on a restaurant’s plate. His other big sellers are mint, arugula, and basil, which are grown in hordes on the finca. Numerous restaurants and bed and breakfasts purchase his fresh fruits and vegetables.
In the farm’s early years Thomas put an emphasis on cultivating and selling plants for medicinal purposes. He focused largely on echinacea, a brilliant daisy-like flower that researchers have seen as sporting some medical benefits. The plant is believed to have been a main component in Native American healing practices.
Though they exported a few million dollars worth of treatment products, Thomas said it was an enterprise that never reached a next level of potential he had hoped for.
He and other Costa Rican farmers across the country must pay unskilled laborers at least 8,944.51 colons per normal working day, according to labor law. Though that number went into effect Jan. 1, Thomas said labor has always come at a high price in the country. The current amount is a bit more than $16 a day.
“Agriculture in Costa Rica is next to impossible,” he said. “I’m happy to see Costa Rica has a higher pay for the labor costs, but it goes against agriculture.”
Comparatively to nearby countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize, the industry in Costa Rica faces much higher operating costs. Not only is labor a factor, but so is electricity and water, which remain especially high here.
Now, Thomas said he works very little but oversees his 15 field hands and does experiments with plants in his botanical garden. Sometimes researchers and botany students will visit to take notes at the farm that acts as the holy grail of botany laboratories.
Though he is glad Monsanto has been largely prevented from new Costa Rican projects, he said the issues with genetically modified organisms are more complicated than some protestors would like to admit.
“We’ve been doing hybrids for thousands of years,” he said. “It’s those kinds of changes that have allowed the population to go from 2 billion to 7 billion in my lifetime.”
Doubling as both owner and main tour guide, Thomas is a walking encyclopedia who seemingly knows every origin, bit of research done and purpose of each plant species. With a slight southern drawl still left over after years of traveling and an easy laugh, Thomas talks in depth about the practicality of plants. Why go to the doctor and buy a prescription when sometimes the solution is growing right under your feet? There’s others, he says while walking under the shade from his trees, that become too zealous or over-sensitive when farming and forget the initial purposes for feeding or healing.
“A lot of people get religious about herbs. Me, I’m not religious.”