By Grace Wade
“Here you are looking at a line of papaya, a line of bananas, a line of plantains, and oh! Look! A line of baby pineapple,” exclaims Zoe St. John, agriculture director of the eco-town Kalu Yala, as she walks through a small scale agroforestry in the Panamanian jungle. Rows of alternating crops are integrated with the natural environment, an image of the symbiosis that can exist between humans and the environment.
Chickens cluck and strut at edges of the enclosure, which barely seems like an enclosure at all with the plethora of green plants covering almost every square inch. St. John walks closer to the infant pineapple plant and admires its growth with an almost maternal smile. “I am so proud of it! Isn’t it fantastic!”
St. John is a tall, bright eyed 25-year-old farmer originally from New Orleans. Now she lives in the tropical jungles of Panama in the developing eco-community of Kalu Yala. She arrived as an agriculture intern a little more than a year ago and quickly became the director of agriculture when the former director left.
Kalu Yala, a community start-up and educational institute located 50 minutes outside of San Miguel at the end of a hot 3-mile hike, is being built from the bottom up with the goal of becoming one of the world’s most sustainable towns.
“Our mission is to build a new town that proves civilization can live in a socially and environmentally responsible way,” says Jimmy Stice, the 36-year-old founder and CEO of Kalu Yala.
Interns travel to the jungle town from the U.S. and across the world to explore and create conservation, energy, and construction models they can apply to the urban communities where many resident interns will return. Many of these projects will also be implemented long-term at Kalu Yala. The work areas and communal center of town stretch across more than 500 acres of former cow pasture sold to the community by neighboring farmers.
While St. John is the agriculture director of the program, she wears a lot of hats, including farm manager, farm director, and greenhouse manager. Yet, despite her titles, she spends most of her time outside digging in the dirt alongside her agriculture students, harvesting an array of crops such as breadfruit, garlic vine, and passionfruit.
The extensive agriculture program at Kalu Yala includes rotational chicken and cow pastures, a newly up-and-running greenhouse, a 50-acre agroforestry farm, and ponds of tilapia. However, in this moment St. John is walking us through a small permaculture forest pointing out various plants in various stages of life. Permaculture is a farming method that follows a set of 12 principles relying on observation and interaction with nature. It is based on the natural flow that is presented to the farmer who then works with nature to make sure the farm maintains harmony with its environment. However, St. John feels that permaculture creates more of a forage style farm suited for smaller families, not for large-scale implementation.
“If you are a farmer that has worked with tropical trees you can just walk through and point them out,” explains St. John as she expertly navigates the forest, frequently stopping mid-sentence to identify yucca, lime trees, and an array of other crops. “However, if you are not a farmer this permaculture farm is not efficient. How the heck would you be able to know what to eat?!”
In order to feed a town as large as Kalu Yala, the agriculture program has to turn to agroforestry. An agroforestry still employs the principles of permaculture, but in a more organized fashion so that crops are more easily identifiable. To do this rows of alternating crops are planted.
“It’s incredibly nuanced as it takes into account the culture, the climate, the soil, and well everything,” St. John says. She also points out that the 50-acre agroforestry will have large hardwood trees, such as jackfruit or breadfruit trees, that will sequester carbon from the atmosphere — a win/win for both the planet and the community that relies on the trees for food.
The reason closed-loop farm systems like an agroforestry or permaculture forest are so important is because conventional farming methods strip the soil of its nutrients, leaving it degraded or in need of artificial fertilizers. This degradation can turn fertile land in deserts, which is now occurring across the world.
“If we want to make sure that everyone can feed themselves we have to have regionalized, very nuanced, and specific solutions,” St. John says, “Agroforestry systems and carbon farming is one of the best solutions we have agriculturally speaking.”
When the farm at Kalu Yala was first established at the end of 2012, the town hired a permaculturist who assessed the land and climate in order to decide which crops would do best. The permaculturist brought hundreds of different species adapted to grow in the jungle that are considered non-invasive. About 50 percent of the crops on the farm are non-native, but from regions with a similar climate such as Thailand, according to St. John.
She has accumulated knowledge through books and trial and error. St. John says she has killed more plants than she’s grown during her time as a farmer). She passes along the expertise she’s gaining to her agriculture students. This semester she had two: Trevor Hanks and Luke Stone.
“I do not know if I want to be a farmer, but I know that if I decide to, I have a lot of things I would need to know crossed off,” says Stone, a 20-year-old college student from Connecticut, whose final project for his internship explored all-natural pesticides made from garlic, hot peppers, and neem oil. “You don’t even know how much you are learning from Zoe until one day you’re like, ‘Woah, what is all of this in my brain.’”
Meanwhile, 22-year-old Hanks spent his semester digging trenches that irrigated water to the farmland. Hanks, who studies sustainability at San Diego State University, plans to own a farm one day.
“There are a lot of facets that go into owning and operating a farm,” Hanks says. “Kalu Yala and Zoe gave me the tools so I know exactly how to go about that business.”
On a typical work day, St. John and her two students awake up at 7 a.m., well before the rest of the town, and get to work on the farm. This way they can avoid doing hard labor in the hot tropical sun of midday. This semester they finished putting the roof onto the greenhouse as well as spent months composting the soil that eventually will be used to grow seedlings.
“My favorite thing I think about agriculture is that death begets life,” explains St. John as she munches on protein-packed katuk and minty, red cranberry hibiscus leaves she has just plucked from nearby plants, both of which are used in salads for meals at Kalu Yala. “That is composting in a nutshell. It’s really just us controlling the process of death.”
St. John discovered her passion for agriculture during her post-college travels. A graduate of Rhodes College with a history degree in North African Colonialism, St. John decided to explore South and Central America through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, otherwise known as WWOOFing.
“I told myself I could go back to the city after, but my friends noticed I was miserable,” St. John says. “They told me to go back to the farm wherever the heck it may be.” She's been at Kalu Yala for little over a year now.
Now, watching her pass around bamboo wax fruit to students, cheeks stuffed with her own big bite, it is clear that St. John is anything but miserable. It’s almost impossible to imagine her anywhere but the rainforest with her muck boots and machete as she points out a lime tree which she proclaims as “sassy.” Yet, she does acknowledge that living in Panama has its struggles, especially for someone who spent four years studying the ramifications of colonialism.
“I stay awake thinking about how I am an American in Panama literally every night,” says St. John as we now sit by the peaceful tilapia ponds, the soft sound of water trickling in the background. “There’s a difference, though, between neocolonialism and globalization. A lot of it is about intention. We are not telling neighboring farmers to adopt our values and practices. We really are just here.”