Finding Paradise at Yerba Buena Farms & Guest Cabins Jamaica
Heading from Montego Bay towards Annotto Bay, with very accurate directions you’ll eventually find Strawberry Fields, a Jamaican village in the St. Mary parish – population 100 or so – that features an undeveloped coastline flecked with fishermen and farms.
Away from the ever-growing hubs of Kingston and Ocho Rios, sits a certain collective of three farms – one by the sea and two in the hills. These farms produce a bountiful harvest – everything from bananas, plantains, and a variety of other tropical fruits to medicinal herbs, oyster and shiitake mushrooms, and honey. Enveloped by river pools, secluded beaches, and views of the Blue Mountains, this place is nothing short of paradise. And paradise has opened its doors to travelers seeking a tropical escape from their everyday lives back in their everyday homes.
“We’ve always had guests come from the very beginning 18 years ago. Our friends, family, random friends of friends…,” says Agape, the lady of the farm. Offering three guest cabins and the chance to reconnect with nature, the Yerba Buena Farms & Guest Cabins Jamaica is a sustainable retreat where guests can experience the best of rural Jamaica.
I first came across this rustic hideaway years ago while scouring through TripAdvisor reviews in preparation for a return trip to Jave’s homeland. While I have yet to stay at Yerba Buena, I was captivated by the idea of a quiet, bucolic stay off the radar of the beaten path. I recently caught up with Agape to find out what life is like for a married mother of a handful of boys who, with her husband Kwao, runs three farms, guest cabins, and works on a variety of projects including mushroom growing, natural pest protection, and top bar beekeeping. While their work seems to be a neverending ‘to do’ list, their reward is great – a sustainable agrarian, Rastafarian lifestyle on their own terms, on their own land…in paradise!
Where are you guys from?
Kwao is from right here, born and raised on this land. I’m from San Francisco. We share a godmother, who brought all of her godchildren together to spend summers at her beautiful place in the Berkshires, in Great Barrington, MA. So, we spent summers together for most of our childhood.
What happened to the original houses that Kwao grew up in and why did you guys decide to build guest houses where Kwao’s childhood homes once stood?
At one point, Kwao’s family decided to go to America, and they moved to Vermont. The houses that his family lived in, being totally organic, made of bamboo and thatch, went back to the ground. When we came to Jamaica as a young couple in our very early twenties, it made more sense to put our new houses on the old foundations rather than to put new foundations where we could put gardens, trees or flowers instead.
Which beach do your guest houses sit on?
We have our own little beach that’s like a protected little pool. There are so many beautiful and deserted beaches in our area – really, there’s one to suit any mood. Our neighbor has a lovely beach that’s big enough for real swimming.
What type of experience can your guests expect to have when staying in your guest cabins?
We welcome interns and guests. Our interns want to learn natural beekeeping and to get as much hands-on experience as possible. They come for a minimum of one month and spend their time building top bar hives, inspecting and managing the hives in our apiaries, building hive stands, capturing wild hives, and just generally being immersed in our natural beekeeping project. At the same time, they get to experience real family life in a rural, coastal Jamaican village.
Our guests are tourists who also want to experience real life in our beautiful area. They want to go for a hike around our area, led by half of the kids in the village. They want to go to the market with us as we do our weekly shopping. They lend a hand as we rebuild our outdoor clay oven for the third time (!) and as we go up to our hillside farms to pick mangoes.
For those who don’t know, please explain what a Rasta lifestyle entails.
A Rasta lifestyle is different for every person, as Rastafari is not a religion. There’s no book that Rastas all have as a guide book for their beliefs. All Rasta books we have ever read have made us gag. Rasta even means something different for Kwao than it does for me, which is fine. If anyone wants to really understand Rasta, all they need to do is start asking and keep asking what Rasta means, and the answer will come and come. Other than that, if you’re here and we’re all in the mood, a Rasta talk is always nice over a cup of ginger/lime/honey tea after the kids have gone to bed!
How did you guys get into beekeeping?
We’ve been interested in beekeeping for so long, we don’t remember when or how our interest first started. Right now, our focus is natural, treatment free beekeeping in affordable, simple top bar hives. It’s economically and environmentally sustainable beekeeping! We are developing our apiary, which is the biggest top bar hive apiary on the island, and we’re providing natural beekeeping training to novice and professional beekeepers around the island. When this honey season starts (there was no honey season for us last year because of Hurricane Sandy), you are welcome to come taste raw honey harvested bees that are tended with care, not treated with miticides or antibiotics, and who live on clean combs.
Do you sell honey? If so, where is it available for purchase? If not, do you have plans to offer your honey for sell online?
We’ll sell our excess. Our household consumes around a five gallon bucket of honey every month. We’ll just sell locally, so you have to come to Jamaica to get it.
Are college students required to receive credit/units for their internships? How long do your internships last?
Our internships last from one to six months. We host mainly college students, most of whom receive credit for their experience here, but we also welcome seniors, couples, gap year students and anyone who is genuinely interested in our projects and has the time to commit to being here.
Do you accept short-term volunteers apart from interns and are your cabin guests able to volunteer? If so, what are the requirements and what’s the minimum time commitment?
We aren’t really set up for short term volunteers. We definitely aren’t interested in hosting work/trade volunteers such as WOOFers. If someone wasn’t interested in bees, but has at least a month to commit to being here, that person is welcome to come as long as they come as an intern. That means that they pay their room and board and are ready to work!
What is the best part of running a farm and guest house in rural Jamaica, and what’s the hardest and/or most challenging part?
The best part is living and working in an amazingly beautiful, natural situation that offers us so much freedom. The hardest part comes out of that blessing: we are constantly pruning, clearing, cleaning and repairing, fighting decay and the forward march of nature as she comes to take over what little cultivated and groomed space we have.
How do your children like living and working on the farm?
Our kids are mainly happy, although they want to travel more than we’ve been doing in the past two years. They want to sled in the snow and enjoy sitting around a woodstove in a Vermont winter. The grass is always greener…
They love the community life here – knowing all the personal details of the private lives of everyone in town. They love picking fruit from the trees, riding their bicycles around town and having the freedom to choose their own interests day-by-day. They want total freedom, and even homeschooling is too restrictive for them. They say that they want their minds to be free!
What is a typical day like for you and your family?
On a typical day, we get up really early, start working and keep working until it’s dark. Then, we get the boys in bed and do computer work. We are building two new buildings, planning trainings, caring for bees, starting a new apiary, trying to grow food in the garden, and trying to get the laundry off of the line before it rains. We like to see the kitchen table piled high with fruit, so we pick it ourselves and buy it from our neighbors. The yards need weed-whacking, and the mushroom house needs a couple of boys to chop the vines off of it with their cutlasses.
Do you provide meals for your guests? If so, do you offer non-vegan, non-vegetarian options?
Yes, we provide vegan meals cooked by Jessica – our friend and neighbor – in our kitchen. We also arrange non-vegan meals cooked and served at different places in our community.
Where do you guys travel to when not in Jamaica?
We haven’t left Jamaica in the past two years.
What do you guys do for fun when not working?
We laugh a lot, visit with friends who drop by, enjoy the occasional newspaper, read, take naps sometimes, cook things we love to eat, play with the boys, get irritated with the boys, pet the dogs/cats/goat babies, and enjoy the colorful Christmas lights strung up year-round in our kitchen. Kwao does big jobs with the boys and they enjoy feeling manly and comparing barely visible but developing six-packs. I like to ferment fizzy water kefir juices and Kwao and the boys love to drink it. I’m making tempeh with garbanzo beans soon. No more eating suspected GMO soy! Kaat, our intern, is inspired as she paints beautiful designs on hives she built. We hunt fruit and swim in the sea. Suzy, one of our two dogs, is hugely pregnant, so we look forward to cute puppies. The bees are doing great and are ready for the honey season to start. The box full of passionfruit we bought from our neighbor Kesar, are sour, but we are eating them anyway and making juice with them. My mom wants us all to move to San Francisco, which we are supposed to know is the nicest place in the entire world. If we aren’t there, we are really missing out!
To learn more about life at the Yerba Buena Farms & Guest Cabins Jamaica and to learn more about their projects, visit their website. If you’d like to be a guest or intern, e-mail Agape at yerbabuenaja [at] aol [dot] com or call 876.788.5154.
*All photos provided courtesy of Yerba Buena Farms & Guest Cabins Jamaica.
Do the Yerba Buena Farms & Guest Cabins Jamaica look like a place you’d like to retreat to?