This article first appeared in the Tico Times.
Kimberly Beck Hovland and Barry Hovland moved from Cincinnati, Ohio, to rural Costa Rica in 2010, but they say that the seeds for that radical life change were planted much earlier.
“Planted” turns out to be an apt metaphor. The Hovlands had long been interested in living off the land. They even have twin Eastern Hemlocks ‘planted’ on their bodies, his tattooed on his chest, hers on her hip. And when they came to Costa Rica, they relocated to a 9-hectare (22.5-acre) farm, fertile land bordered by a river and with a natural spring in their backyard, where they grow coffee, cacao, bananas, papaya, squash, peppers, and passionfruit, to name just a few of the crops that help them realize their dream of being more self-sufficient.
They christened the farm “10 Degrees Above” for its latitudinal position in relation to the equator. It’s just outside the tiny town of San Miguel de Matina, in the province of Limon, on the Caribbean side of the country.
Real versus manufactured need
How did the Hovlands get from latitude 39 in Cincinnati to latitude 10 in Costa Rica? How’d they go from “selling data pipes” (Kim) and teaching photography (Barry) to clearing land in the tropics, building their own roads, stringing their own wiring, and building not one but three houses?
We could go way back, no doubt, but let’s start with the couple meeting as Peace Corps volunteers in Tanzania, Africa, in a town so remote the kids there had never seen blacktop and the babies cried when confronted with white people. Kim and Barry worked in community-based natural resources management, as Environmental Extension Officers.
“They called us ‘mentals’,” says Barry, born in Minnesota in 1977. “It was from ‘environmental’ but it was also because everyone thought we were crazy for wanting that assignment, where there was no running water and no electricity.”
Kim, born in Ohio in 1969, finished her Peace Corps stint first, and Barry later followed her to Cincinnati. Reentry wasn’t easy for either of them. “After being in Africa for a few years, coming back to the U.S. freaks you out a little,” Barry says. “I remember going to buy some deodorant, and being confronted with just this wall of choices.”
“It was physically overwhelming for him,” Kim remembers. “He could not make a choice.”
“Living in the U.S.,” she continues, “there’s so much purposeless advertising telling you you need things no one really needs. In Africa, they do actually desperately need things. Food. Clean water. Rain for their crops.”
“We needed a middle ground” between those two extremes, says Barry.
An ad on the Internet
Ironically, it was an ad that pointed them in the direction of Costa Rica. At this point they were both back in the 9 to 5 grind, and Kim had had a banner year at her sales job. She banked her US$30,000 bonus check, hoping it would be a down payment for a new life they had yet to invent.
“We thought about buying a big RV and just driving around the States,” says Kim. “Then I started looking on landandfarm.com, but the places that looked good—beautiful land in Oregon and California where the growing seasons are long and we could grow our own food—were really expensive.” Then she saw a little ad for land in Costa Rica. “It was just all green,” she says. “It was greener than anything else on that site.”
Two research trips later, they bought what would become 10 Degrees Above for US$35,000. They looked all over the country, but found that the Caribbean Zone was not only less expensive but better suited their desire for a working farm. “On the Pacific Coast, the ideal is a cleared lot with just a few trees and an unobstructed view of the ocean,” says Barry. That’s pretty, but it’s not necessarily very fertile.”
By the numbers
“We got a good price because the place had been neglected” and was overgrown, says Barry. There were no roads, no electricity, and though there was a natural spring there were no pipes making that water available for use. The only structure on the land was a dilapidated caretaker’s shack that had to be pulled down.
Besides the initial US$35,000 for the acreage, they paid a realtor US$4,000 in fees and commissions, another US$4,000 to have roads built, a little less than US$1,000 to bring in electricity, and US$25,000 (including the $1000 for electric and $2,000 of the road cost) to build a charming one-room high-ceilinged “love shack” with a tropical hardwood wraparound deck. That latter figure included the clearing of the land and all the appliances they needed for the house.
They also spent about US$6,000 (they used most of the concrete floor from the previous shack) on a small two-bedroom cabin with front porch that they rent out, and they’re building a larger two-story home up the hill, having budgeted $30,000 for that structure.
DIY, hiring help, and paying local prices
“I do a lot of the work myself,” Barry points out. “My dad was a contractor, and I brought a lot of tools down.” If Kim and Barry don’t do the work themselves, they oversee it, and unlike some absentee owners they know who’ve been overcharged, the Hovlands feel that they have a relationship with their town and the people in it that helps them get better prices.
“In the Peace Corps,” Barry recalls, “they drop you off in a community, and you see taillights. You’ve had three months or less of language training. You find a friend, fast. You go out with whatever language skills you have, smile big, and you get to know people in the community.”
That training served them well when they moved to Costa Rica. They are known now in San Miguel, and they hire locals they can trust to help out with building and on the farm. To get started, they asked a neighbor to help them get the water from the spring to their house. When he proved himself with that job, they hired him for other jobs, and put him in charge of sourcing materials. “When we tell people—even Ticos—what we pay for, say, the wood we build with, they say ‘Muy barata!’ [very cheap]. It’s because we have a Tico negotiating for us.” says Kim.
The five-year plan
When asked about making a living in paradise, Barry sighs and Kim laughs ruefully. Though they have a lot of irons in the fire, they’re still paying out a bit more than they’re taking in.
But they have a five-year plan. Back in Ohio, they sold their house, renting to save money before moving down. Barry’s photography has created some income—through Café Press he sells the remarkable snake and frog and bird photos he takes here in Costa Rica, and people can even get an alarm clock or a shower curtain with a great shot of a wet sloth clinging to a tree—the photo was taken right outside their house. When the buildings are all finished, he hopes to have 8-person photography workshops onsite. He’s done some occasion photos for local Costa Ricans, and put together a video for a nearby Amish dairy.
“We did that in kind,” says Kim of the video. “We got $580 in milk products. It’s not income, but we’re eating really good ice cream.” Kim also posts regularly on a blog that gives detailed accounts of their life on the farm, from roasting and grinding cacao to making the trek to San Jose for a local photography expo. She hopes her online presence will draw people to the farm and to Barry’s workshops.
“But even if our plan doesn’t work out,” Kim adds, “and we never make enough money to sustain ourselves here, I feel very proud of us as a couple, that we had a common dream and took that leap. I feel very lucky to have Barry with me. Even if it doesn’t all work out, we’ll have had five years of working to make our lives better, of enjoying the little bit of time that we have in this life”