Return to Transcripts main page


Former Fast-Food Executive-Turned Sustainable Farmer

Aired April 14, 2013 - 14:30   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Until we get to this spot, everything that the tourists have seen is nice. It's nice. It's beautiful. Here they realize that they're sitting in front of a whole bunch of -- of decomposing stuff, but it's not -- it doesn't stink.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: The compost bins, all 12 tons of it, is just one stop on the tour of Costa Rica's Rancho Margot.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There is something for everyone here.


GUPTA: Part luxury resort, part science lab, it's a sprawling 400-acre experiment in sustainable living.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's like living in a place where everything is interconnected and every plant has a purpose, every function has a purpose.


GUPTA: The mastermind, a former fast food exec.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So now he has to say, OK, look, I made a mistake. Now I'm going to show the world how to do things differently.


GUPTA: His name is Juan Sostheim. He's a man out to prove the secret to a productive future is in nature itself. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and this is THE NEXT LIST.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JUAN SOSTHEIM, OWNER/FOUNDER, RANCHO MARGOT, COSTA RICA: Sustainability is basically using resources, but not compromising them for future generations. We as a human race have not been very sustainable. Hello, everyone. My name is Juan Sostheim and I am the owner and founder of Rancho Margot.

EDUARD MULLER, PRESIDENT, UNIVERSITY OF INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION: Rancho Margot is actually an example of how to do all of the things you have to do in your daily life in a way to prolong life on earth.

SOSTHEIM: It's a living university in so many ways. Basically, we produce our own food, we make our own furniture. We produce our own energy, electricity and cooking gas. We make our own soaps from residuals from our kitchen. We compost waste and heat water with it.

MULLER: People who come here, they don't have a carbon footprint. They actually have a negative effect because they are actually fixing more carbon than what they are releasing.

SOSTHEIM: At the same, we produce a luxury environment for people to come and enjoy themselves. We have beautiful bungalows where people can relax and be part of nature.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Also if you're into more rugged outdoors, it's like a playground.

SOSTHEIM: You have pools here. You have yoga, you have massage, you have horseback riding, and it's all within an environment that you just say, wow, I can't believe I'm not doing any damage. I can't believe I'm actually doing some good. So slowly but surely, we hope that people are going to start coming here. Not just the Ranch Margot, it's the whole area.

We have over 15 universities that come here. We just had the master's program from the University of Utah here. It is sustainability, sustainable engineering, in fact and they just said, you know, this is where it all comes together.

I came in here. I didn't want to be holier than the pope. I know that I wanted to have a certain type of life. I wanted to grow my own food and I wanted to live off the land. I knew I wanted that.

And when I got here, I fell in love with this. I obviously was inspired to do more. At this moment, I have about 50 employees. It goes from 40 to 55 employees. Most of them are from the local community. We take on volunteers here for a minimum of one month. What kind of person we want? Well, all sorts.

TAYLOR RUBOTTOM, VOLUNTEER, RANCHO MARGOT: I wake up in the morning and I work for three hours on the farm, and I work with the vegetables. We harvest first thing in the morning and take vegetables to the kitchen, whatever the cooks need, and whatever is ripe and whatever is ready.

SOSTHEIM: So we got lots of things growing. What do we grow? Everything that we possibly can. I don't eat a lot of things that I don't grow, and I'm much more conscious today than before about the things that I'm eating.

On the other hand, I can't pass up a good whopper. So where is the innovation in all of this? What we do here is we close the circle. We basically make it easy for people to understand that there is an ecosystem behind everything that is being done.

If we're going to disturb it, we should know where it's going to lead. My father thought I was nuts for taking the job, but I took a job working at Burger King.




SOSTHEIM: In 2002, I had a small heart attack and the doctor said to me, you know what? You can become one of my good patients so you can change the way you live your life.

And I'm thinking this on the way out, and as I get on the elevator, on the inside of the door when it comes out, it says, life is what's happening while you are making other plans, the John Lennon quote, I said, you know what? Yes. That's true. So I decided to sell and get out right then.

I was born and raised in Chile. My parents were German-Jews emigrated from Germany to Chile at the last minute, so I was born there. I went to a university in the states. I graduated from University of Florida in 1973.

Some of my best experiences were there. I left the state in 1974. My father thought I was nuts for taking the job, but I took a job working at Burger King. I became operations manager and director of a Burger King in Europe.

MULLER: Juan, he's coming from a very strong corporate sector, and he says he's now paying for his sins. He's trying to recover all the damage he did because he did work for a fast food chain and opened the whole European market for this fast food chain.

SOSTHEIM: We're talking about billions of hamburgers eaten. There were no castles there, you know, concentrated animal feeding facilities that came later. Everything was top class, first quality above anything.

I'm not saying that is an excuse, I'm just saying that that's the way it was back then. We didn't give things much thought in terms of sustainability. I ended up going into clothing. I ended up going into construction during the course of my life.

In the early '90s, I ended up going into the chemical business. I invested in a patent in hydrogen peroxide development. It was a hydrogen-based disinfectant. I activated hydrogen peroxide disinfectants for agriculture use, for water systems.

In putting the product on the market, I just kept seeing, you know that all these companies that were supposed to be our target market for this product had no interest in limiting chemicals in the soil. They had no interest.

So that was a very frustrating thing for me to realize because I had been already a couple years involved in all the damage that was taking place. This is a good place to start. It's a good indication of what this place was actually like when I bought it.

First of all, it was pretty much all clear. To me, it looked beautiful, but the truth was there were no trees. But at the same time, I just kept saying, you know, this property. I just have to get it.

And I got it and I ended up saying, OK, how do I go ahead and make out of this something that I'm going to be proud of? What I'm doing today, basically, is the sum of my experiences.

Now I want to use the knowledge that I gain and give it to others, so I'm creating this living university here so that people can come enjoy themselves, and by osmosis, if nothing else, we can come and take over everything that we know.

This heat, if you could get it all that is generated from one ton of compost, that's about 4,500 kilowatts of electricity. That's an enormous amount of power just from one ton of compost.




SOSTHEIM: Here in Rancho Margot, we try to use everything. Waste is not anything, but another resource. For us garbage is what has no more use for us. So this has plenty of use. Here you have cow manure, absolutely fresh cow manure. We put in pig manure.

We put in chicken and horse manure. If you're feeding your animals well and you have a clean digestive system, you're going to end up getting excrement that is nutrients in smell. Is it a smell you like? That's a different story, but it doesn't stink. So everything that's vegetarian, organic type of waste goes into this pile.

Once it's mixed up, we go ahead and use it to take to the compost ovens to heat the water. We have here six bins, approximately 20 tons of compost. Each bin is changed out every 12 weeks. So what we do here is we heat water.

In these the coils you see behind me we have water circulating all the time. The water is heated by the decomposition of organic matter. We add thermophyllic bacteria from volcanic rocks so that we get more work at higher temperatures. And our purpose here is to get as much heat transferred from the compost through the coils through the hot water. Now, you may think that is very little, but the heat, if you could get it all that is generated from one ton of compost, that's about 4500 kilowatts of electricity, 23 million BTUs.

That's an enormous amount of power from one ton of compost and here there's 12 tons. This is what it starts out like. Twelve weeks later it comes back as this and then it gets worked here another two to four weeks, and we can go ahead and use it back in the coil.

RUBOTTOM: Before we even start planting, we add fresh compost to the soil, and as the plants are maturing, we add more and more compost around the baby plants and as they grow older.

SOSTHEIM: You have food production on the one hand, food production that requires elements, requires carbon, nitrogen, potassium, calcium, all these things that are taken out by the plants.

You have now the plants going back into the process and putting all that it took out back into the soil. And you're creating an ecosystem that is a loop. That is closed.

Eventually, we complete the circle in many ways as I've said and what happens here is with the underground tubes that lead from the dairy, for pigs sty, we get all the liquid that has been separated and let pass through that comes out here and goes into these three biodigesters.

Each one of them has the capacity of over 45 cubic meters of volume. So we basically use this liquid, which still has a lot of organic matter in it. This goes in there and inside it's deprived of oxygen.

You have anaerobic bacteria that will eat that organic matter and that process will create methane gas. And what comes out is a very nutrient rich biofertilizer for our pastures.

So it's a way of, again, closing a different loop than we do with the heating of water. We create another loop in which we reintegrate all of this material back.




SOSTHEIM: I know the new green word is sustainability. In fact, I hear it here often that it's, you know, a fad. Sustainability is absolutely not a fad. It is a necessity. It's an urgent necessity that we start looking at things in holistic ways.

Today's meeting was a meeting of the Biosphere of Water and Peace. It's the UNESCO biosphere. We had six representatives here for the assembly of Costa Rica. MULLER: The biosphere program from UNESCO, which is about 40 years old. Actually, it was 40 years last year. It has 580 people globally right now recognized by UNESCO as sites for the demonstration that sustainable development can happen together with conservation and with education and knowledge.

SOSTHEIM: The word "reserve" raises up a lot of tension in people. It means another restriction to do what I want to do. And that's not the case. And we have to make people, especially people in government. We have to make them eco-literate. I don't want to stop the development. I just hope that the focus of that development goes more to a sustainable type of development.

RUBOTTOM: Juan has an incredible ability to realize a vision, and in this case with Rancho Margot, he has taken this dream of creating a sustainable farm and actually made it come true.

SOSTHEIM: We're creating an intentional community. I mean, that's really what we're trying to do, dedicated to teaching, dedicating to our teaching sustainable principles with permanent culture of development. Now what does that mean? We have 400 acres. On 400 acres, if I put a hundred homes in clusters, they're not even noticed. In the process of doing that, we want to set an example for other communities to follow.

MULLER: So Juan has that entrepreneurship stubbornness that is required because these projects are not easy. If I want to do a factory to produce plastic, I'll get all the bank loans I need. If I want to do a holistic development, the bankers say, what did you smoke? You're dreaming. So it's very difficult.

SOSTHEIM: I'd like to see here maybe at one point 100 families living on the property. So the idea is to get people that want to be here, that want to teach arts and crafts, that want to grow food, that want to participate with the community, community-sponsored agriculture. There are so many things that they can do to teach people how to make lemonade if all they have is lemons.

MULLER: The thing is we don't have too much time for pilot projects. We need to have lots of people doing these things in their homes. So I think the question is, how do we convert this example into a global movement, a global trend?

SOSTHEIM: Costa Rica started a lot of these processes. They were the first to trade carbon credits. They have more area under protection than any other country in terms of percentage of their land. They've done so many things. They need to go ahead and take a leadership position in this because it's an important issue.

The success of what I do here is for me is something that we all have to aspire to. It's not Rancho Margot's success, it's us. It's all of us. We all need to be part of this. We all need to think differently.

This is what we try to tell people that come here, and you know what one of the most wonderful things about doing what I'm doing here is, is the fact that I get to meet so many people that know so much more than me that I keep learning. I've never been happier in my life doing what I'm doing.


GUPTA: Rancho Margot isn't the only sustainable farm in existence today. It's not even the first, but what Juan Sostheim does better than most is create that "a-ha" moment when you say, yes. I get it, the cows, the pigs, the plants, and the compost.

We're all part of the same cycle, the same circle of life and that's what earns him a spot on THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for joining us. We'll see you back here next week.