By Kristina Casagrand
LIBERIA, Costa Rica — Rice isn’t as simple as it lets on. The journey from seed to plate involves building small villages, leveling land, fighting pests and navigating canyons of silos, dryers, and a machine called the “squirrel cage.”
In Costa Rica, nearly every meal rests on rice. Rice, beans and eggs for breakfast. Meat and salad for lunch, with a serving of rice and beans. Rice and beans for dinner, and if not that, then chicken with rice or shrimp with rice. Rice even bodes well for vegetarians, who can eat it with stir-fried vegetables, or squash. Or avocado. Or pico.
For the country’s largest rice farm, Tio Pelon, smooth operations start with stable infrastructure. A village for workers and their families encircles the administration area. A school, town hall and doctor serve the 500 people who live there. Currently, the company employs 600 men and women on its farm, and another 200 distributors.
On the Tio Pelon’s industrial side, the most vital part of the infrastructure involves massive irrigation from the Rio Salto.
Without water, “there would never be rice here,” said Ferndandez Leonel, a Tio Pelon engineer. “For eight months of the year, it doesn’t rain.” He cited Costa Rica’s national parks as vital to their business. “For us, it’s a buffer for water.”
Irrigation allows the company to grow 4,000 hectares (9,884 acres) of rice and tilapia. With another 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) set aside as forest, the farm’s size is massive. “Out to that ridge,” is a typical measurement, as a person points to distant hillside.
To produce its industrial power, the company now uses its own rice husks as biofuel. Costa Rica offered incentives for self-generated energy when an energy deficit hit the country, Leonel said. They also use biodigestor technology from the farm’s 4,000 pigs.
On the farm, four tractors pirouetted around a two-hectare (nearly five-acre) field formerly used for cantaloupe. They leveled the land to prepare for rice production, which kicked up clouds of dirt. On one border, a dredger thrust a sideways tree trunk into what Leonel said is a primary forest.
“This is the most modern technology in liberating the land,” Leonel said.
Overhead, wood storks and snowy egrets scouted for insects. Leonel said he welcomes the birds. Clusters of birds alert farmers about pest problems.
Farmers kill about half of the insects by flooding the field. To manage the other half, cropdusters spray the fields once a month. On the ground, herbicide trucks with man-size tires patrol the paddies, and the men who spray plants wear gas masks.
Because of its size, Tio Pelon can process its own rice, but that’s not always the case.
North of Liberia on the Pan-American Highway, semi-trucks whistle and hiss around Arroz Sabanero’s rice processing plant. During the harvest season, the facility receives about 20 truckloads each day from its 23 cooperative members’ plantations.
Men and machines test the rice for quality every step of the way.
Upon arrival, company scientists begin analyzing the rice for its quality, a process that can last two hours. The batches that pass first visit “the squirrel cage.” It captures all the rice fibers, bird feathers, rocks and other impurities before the rice moves a step further.
“They might not be the most beautiful machines you’ve ever seen,” said Eric Villalobos, head of production, as he knocked the machine’s hollow green body, “but they do the job.”
Nearby, drying machines loom 16 meters tall. A mist of dust chokes the air: black specks, white specks, specks so small you can’t see them. They work into skin pores, and itch more with scratching.
“People who work here wear smocks,” Villalobos said. “Your skin gets used to it. And if it doesn’t, you leave.”
Stand around long enough, and a person might find himself covered with it. Although the machinery receives a thorough cleaning each year, dust can pile up to 2 inches thick in places unaffected by wind.
Inside, noise takes over where dust leaves off. Milling machines rumble metal flooring, at up to 60 decibels. Elsewhere, rooms sound like waterfalls as rice jets through impurity testers, setting off frenetic red lights for each bad grain. The rejects get sent to another round of testing—what may not work as a 98 percent pure consumer bag could be acceptable for an 80 percent pure stock.
Arroz Sabanero makes investments when they can. New dryers will be 85 percent more efficient than old ones. A new packing system puts out 45 bags of rice each minute.
At that rate, Tio Pelon, Arroz Sabanero and other rice companies like it are able to feed Costa Rica its major staple crop—with whatever other food its people choose.