(Bloomberg) -- When Derek Ferguson traveled to Costa Rica in 1998 for a surfing trip, he met a man who’d built a house there 20 years earlier.
“By 1998 he was a kind of crazy person, living in the jungle,” Ferguson says, but the man was charming enough that, after some negotiation, Ferguson bought his house and land—about 17 acres—for $250,000. “That was considered quite a bit of money at the time,” he says.
Within six years he’d come to own almost 200 times that amount of land, creating, over time, Finca Rio Oro—a ranch he named after the river that runs through the property. “I just sort of fell in love with Costa Rica,” he says, “and I fell in love with the idea of sustainability.”
At the time of his first land purchase, Ferguson was a partner at Integrated Studios, a film and sound production company in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. He’d had some experience with land management through his family, descendants and owners of the Lykes Brothers agribusiness, which has more than 575,000 acres of land in Florida and Texas. “I had some idea of what was going on with agriculture, but not really,” he says.
So when five large farms near his house, totaling more than 1,800 acres, came up for sale three years later, “I saw an opportunity,” he says, and he bought all of them.
The transaction wasn’t straightforward. There were four major landowners and a smattering of people who had dubious, if troublesome, claims. “I bought one waterfall a couple of times,” Ferguson says. “There were gold miners who had some claims to it.” A senator, several subsistence farmers, and a banker also claimed various plots; Ferguson duly paid them in an effort to “get everything up to American standards of legality,” he says.
When more adjacent properties came up for sale, Ferguson bought those, too. By 2004 he’d completed his acquisitions and found himself owner of a 3,300-acre ranch, which is roughly 5 miles wide and 6 miles long. He declined to say exactly how much he spent on the land, saying only that it cost “several million” dollars.
Fourteen years later he’s put it on the market, listing it for $24 million with Bill McDavid of Hall & Hall. “It’s priced at a very competitive number,” Ferguson says. “You can’t find anything in Costa Rica like it, much less a contiguous property.”
What He Bought
The property includes a mile and a half of completely untouched beachfront, though it’s bordered by 8 miles of beaches accessible only via his land. There’s an old airstrip, a river, multiple creeks and waterfalls, and copious freshwater springs.
More than 1,400 acres are forested, and 1,000 acres were cleared for ranch land. It abuts the country’s largest freshwater lagoon, in which ranchers previously allowed cattle to swim. Ferguson has since moved cattle away, and wildlife that use the ranch for migration have returned.
The property is located on the Osa Peninsula, which holds a staggering 2.5 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. (National Geographic dubbed it “the most biologically intense place on Earth.”) More than 700 species of trees, 463 species of birds, 140 mammals, and 25 species of dolphins and whales frequent the area.
The beach contains sea turtle nesting grounds, and the forest has one of the Earth’s largest populations of scarlet macaws, according to the seller’s brochure. There are also jaguars, pumas, and four species of monkeys.
The land, about 8 degrees north of the equator, is largely warm and temperate year-round. The ocean offers superb surfing. It is, in other words, many people’s idea of paradise, which Ferguson says has been a fairly hefty responsibility.
How It Happened
At the time of Ferguson’s purchase, most of the land was used by cattle farmers—about 1,400 heads of cattle inhabited the property—so there weren’t too many people he had to worry about relocating. “It wasn’t like I had to move a village,” he says. “The good thing about cows is that they’re pretty low-maintenance.”
The one exception was a school on the property, which took him nearly 12 years to officially move. “I had to jump through a lot of hoops,” he says. He built an alternative school in the nearest town—“the first sustainable school in Costa Rica,” he says—which was inaugurated by the country’s president. After that, Ferguson had the place to himself. Then he had to figure out what to do with it.
Initially, Ferguson purchased most of the livestock that was on the land and “in my naiveté, I sold some of them, thinking I didn’t need any of these animals,” he says. Over time, however, he learned about soil management and herd dynamics, and then returned cattle to the land. At this point the herd is diminished, numbering only about 300 cows.
He also began to grow old grain rice (he says the ranch produces about 3 tons annually) and has stretches of papaya and other fruit trees.
It takes four full-time workers to operate the ranch, along with about 15 day laborers, depending on the time of year. “A lot of this was done with pure naiveté and enthusiasm, as opposed to sound knowledge,” he says, “but the farm is now very productive in terms of management.” Ferguson says it produces a profit but declined to go into details.
Off the Grid
It’s a self-sustained operation. His water comes from springs on the property, and he filters river water with sand, carbon, and an ultraviolet filtration system. His electricity is solar-powered (though he has backup generators just in case), and his sewage system is via septic tanks.
Ferguson got phone service a year and a half ago. “Now phones work, and the internet works, and that’s been a huge change,” he says. “You can have a Skype call from out there.”
Still, Ferguson says he’s largely off the grid: “I’m my own water department, police department, and fire department.”
But even as he established the ranch, his attention was gravitating elsewhere. He had his house about a 35-minute drive away, another nearby oceanside ranch where he does equine therapy, and Osa Clandestina, a small hotel where rooms start at $350 a night.
Ferguson says he’s had offers before. A Mexican developer wanted to put two golf courses and more than a thousand houses on the property, but he declined.
Now that he’s officially put the land on the market, he’s hoping it will be purchased by “another version of me, kind of idealistic,” he says. That, or a developer interested in creating a thoughtful resort that preserves the land.
“We have an abundance of water, and the crops are doing well,” Ferguson says. “It’s really paradisiacal in so many ways, just to live down here at all.”
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