Family Ranch

Cycle of Life

Rancho Margot stable hand brings in horses.

Costa Rica’s Rancho Margot is a self-sustaining piece of paradise and a model for a new age of ranching in a country driven by eco-tourism.

Whether you’re wandering horseback or afoot around Rancho Margot in the Costa Rican province of Alajuela, you gain a deeper understanding for the country’s popular phrase Pura Vida, which roughly translates in English to “pure life.”

Nestled in the foothills overlooking Lake Arenal in the northwestern part of the country, the 420-acre farm and ranch is a recreational resort and a living laboratory and classroom for those wanting to learn about sustainable agriculture. It also has achieved carbon-negative status for directly reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Juan Sostheim stands for a photo at Rancho Margot.
Juan Sostheim went from the fast-food industry to building Costa Rica’s first carbon-negative ranch and eco-resort. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

“There are no cables, no wire, no tubes that come onto this ranch,” says owner Juan Sostheim as he gives me a tour of the grounds during my trip to the ranch last fall. “We produce 100 percent of our own energy with two water turbines, and we produce more than we need. We also produce methane gas from animal waste, grow our own food without chemicals, and make our own furniture and soaps.”

Raised in Chile, Sostheim attended college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and went on to live and work in various locations around the world. He spent most of his career at the top of the fast-food industry, opening Burger King franchises throughout Europe. He also worked for an agricultural chemical company in France, which is where he became interested in sustainability and healthy living.

In 2002, however, he suffered a heart attack and that changed his life forever. Doctors told him he needed to slow down and relax, so he took his family on vacation in Costa Rica, and decided to retire there and start his next venture.

In 2004, he purchased more than 400 treeless acres that had been overgrazed by horses and cattle, and sought to restore it to its natural ecological state and raise his own food.

A rooster eats from the leaf of a banana tree.
The ranch utilizes chemical-free crops to produce livestock feed, which neutralizes waste odor. Here, a rooster eats leaves from banana trees. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

“I just wanted to basically grow my own food and live off the land,” he says. “But my children convinced me to take it further and create an eco-resort. I started looking into what was being touted as ‘eco,’ and I was so disappointed and knew I could do better. Today, I’m doing what is basically the sum of my experiences.”

For more than a decade, Sostheim and his staff have planted productive trees and plants and restored the land back into a tropical rainforest, which has invited back native species of deer, birds, fish and other animals to help restore balance to the ecosystem.

The ranch also raises its own bees, cattle, hogs, poultry, and chemical-free medicinal and food crops for resort guests and employees. Approximately 67 percent of guest and employee food, as well as most of its livestock feed, is raised on the ranch. They also have a string of Criollo horses used to gather the cattle and for guests to ride.

Working with between 45 and 50 employees and volunteers, Sostheim has developed an educational program he refers to as a “living university.” Throughout the year, more than 50 universities in the United States and Costa Rica, and other specialized organizations from around the world, send students to be immersed in sustainable agriculture innovations. Giving back to his community, Sostheim helps fund teachers and educational and extracurricular programs for school children in the local village of El Castillo.

Ranch Margot makes their own soaps.
The ranch produces its own soap using fat and oil byproducts, and coffee grounds for exfoliation. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

“Education is important to me because it’s the future of this ranch,” he says. “That’s where I will get my staff, and [with education] they add value to what we do.”

One of the most innovative and interesting parts of the ranch is Sostheim’s integrated closed-loop system. Hydroelectric power comes from rivers that rush through the ranch into gravity-fed turbines that produce electricity and dispense clean water back into streams. Complex composting systems collect food, vegetative and livestock waste, and turn it into rich compost, hot-water heat and methane gas.

“We find a use for everything, including animal waste,” Sostheim says, noting that there are no flies or foul smells on the ranch because they make most of their own livestock feed from things grown on the ranch. “If you feed animals well and they have clean digestive systems, their excretions are neutral in smell.”

Rancho Margot stables.
The stable blends into the ranch’s natural architecture and surroundings. Photo by Jennifer Denison.

Rancho Margot has a canal system in its livestock units that flows to a centralized area where solid and liquid wastes are separated. The solid waste is composted to raise worms that are fed to the chickens, to produce fertilizer for the crops and produce heat for hot water. The liquid is stored in large bio-digesters, where it is deprived of oxygen and anaerobic bacteria digest the organic matter, which then creates methane gas that is used to power the restaurant’s appliances.

“The rainforest is full of all sorts of enemies to cultivation,” says Sostheim. “But we are proof that we can grow the things that are supposed to grow here with clean water and air, and without chemicals. Everything I produce, I want to make sure it’s the best I can produce.” For more information, visit ranchomargot.com.

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of Western Horseman.

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