Sunday, 11 April 2010

visit to the hen lady's farm

 Noity is the hen lady at the Farmers' Market. As plump and as lively as any mother hen she is a fixture of the market, selling out of her wonderful free range organic eggs an hour into market. She sells chickens too, and pork in the winter months. We are stall neighbours and it's a joy to talk with her and see her interact with her clients, her husband Timo and her other stall neighbour, the cheese man Miguel. I wouldn't miss the feria just for a chance to see Noity.

She's had a typical and yet not so typical life for a Talamancan campesino. Her father came from Panama and somehow secured some land which he still, well into his nineties, farms. Noity met Timo when he came to cut trees for her father, she had her first child with him when she was 15, he was 35. They moved to Timo's family land and slowly she has built up her own poulty business. Timo still cuts trees, specializing in difficult terrain, he has a team of two magnificent oxen he uses to haul lumber. They grow plantains and keep a small herd of beef cattle. Noity runs the chicken business herself, telling me it's "women's work".

They live in a small, basic, typical campesino house. Spotlessly clean, efficient and bare. There's no electricity and her cell phone won't work at the house. They bathe in a well carved out by a year round spring and cook staples over an open fire. Noity has a propane stovetop too for quick things. She has a milkcow which provides enough milk for the family each day and she makes a little cheese. She boils the milk to pasteurize it so it won't spoil so quickly in a house without refrigeration. They eat around 4pm and talk until dark - here never later than 6:30, then go to bed. Noity doesn't use lamps or candles, she says there's too much of a breeze at the house. Life takes place on the covered deck which extends to the kitchen, there are two old chairs with cushions, the children make do with wooden seats and sleep with their mattresses on the floor. Noity and Timo's room is tiny, just enough room for a bed, a plastic set of drawers and cartons and cartons of eggs.
In the kitchen, and the outside pila (a concrete sink with side areas for washing clothes or children), water is always running. It's a widely held belief that taps should not be turned off and that water is inexhaustible. A friend of ours installed a water system for a local indigenous village, he returned after two weeks to find that all the faucets had been removed so the water could constantly run. While this might be shocking to those of us who grew up or live in an increasingly water conscious world, it remains here almost a status symbol to have running water constantly. When Noity saw my raised eyebrows and asked she laughed at my reply and answered, but love, it rains here, there's plenty of water. She's right of course. There is here, right now.

She was so happy to show me her chickens. There are two areas kept far apart on the farm. The broilers are in a large open shed, 250 of them in each of two enclosures. She buys the chicks at 2 days old, they are ready for the table at 6 weeks, indeed if they get any older they can't walk: bred to have large breasts they get too heavy if they get too big. The broilers are also bred to have few feathers - they're not pretty birds, but Noity's seem happy enough for the few weeks of their lives with plenty of air, natural light, clean space, food and water. She feeds them corn and herbs with weekly meals of garlic and onion for parasite control. The killing shed is close by. Noity kills 80 chickens a week, her method is to hold the bird in a cut off 2 liter soda bottle, the neck of which has been removed. The chicken's head pokes through the opening and is quickly removed with a pair of shears. This method is taught in the local high school's animal program. It's highly efficient and quick. The feathers and heads are cooked up and fed to the pigs. The rest is sold with the bird. Noity charges 2,400 colones per kilo, that's about $5.40 at today's exchange rate. We're not sure if the corn she feeds is organic (she gets it from various sources), but it's certainly the best tasting chicken around here.

The layers live in a pretty hen house atop a hill close to her home. There's about 200 of them, all look like rhode island reds, but I'm not sure. Noity buys these as chicks too. They start laying at 17 weeks and she'll keep them as layers for 2 years then fatten them up and sell them live to locals for the soup pot. The chickens are free range, but are kept in the hen house until mid morning to ensure all eggs are laid where they can be found. Wandering around the farm with her clucking as softly and contentedly as any hen I fell in love with this way of life all over again. So beautiful, so peaceful. So simple.

And yet it's not really. Noity has weight issues and complains of symptoms that sound like early onset diabetes. She has had a recurring problem with ulcers on one leg and complains of stomach pains often. Sometimes she spends nights in the clinic with stomach issues. When I ask her how she's been in the week she explains it through food: lovely, I could eat everything, fried egg, fried plantain, pork, coffee. . . Salad isn't a regular feature of her diet. When she invited us to sit for a snack she handed us large glasses of dark liquid. I thought it was tamarind juice, it wasn't till my first sip I realized it was coke. I haven't had coke in years. We unwrapped plastic packets of cookies. Seems so incongruous, and yet it's only that way because of my ideals and my expectations. She was giving us what we as foreigners had brought her culture.

Noity drives a big black pick-up truck. Timo can't drive, nor can he read or work with numbers, Noity does all that. Both use their hands to speak, the many stories they tell are full of noises and gestures taking the listener right into the situation, they are great storytellers and funny with it. The plantains they grow are organic, some they bring to market, but most they sell to a local co-operative. We were surprised to see the fruits covered with the blue plastic bags the plantations use. Normally those bags are impregnated with pesticides. Seemingly however they are also sold 'clean' and are used to cover the fruit to keep the black bees away. The bees eat the immature fruit leaving marks on the surface of the peel. We have been talking to her about stopping the use of the bags - the gringos she sells to have bad associations with the bags, and the locals don't care about the peel. Noity has always looked surprised by our suggestion - she doesn't understand. We tell her the bags are very bad, they end up in the waterways and ocean and are responsible for the deaths of many turtles and sea birds. She says her bags never get into the ocean, she always burns them.

Noity stands spanning the chasm between two worlds. Whether she can bridge the gap might be the most important question of the decade.


  1. How lovely to share the everyday part of your world. I share your reflections how the parts that we have provided to other cultures are not always in their best interests. The banana bags they use here in Australia are simply plastic - no pesticides - they stop birds from eating the fruit, and reflect heat.
    Take care

  2. Thank you Ancel for the lovely story about Noity. I am reminded again why I admire the country people of Cosat Rica so much. They truly live Pura Vida.


thanks for sharing!