Diversity and similarities in Europe’s food production: lessons I learned in Spain
Photo: food forest to be
If I had had more time to spend with every person I meet, I would have tried to create a portrait of everyone. I would describe their approach to farming, eating and life in general. But travelling as we do always creates a kind of pressure to move on. There is always more road ahead and more places to go. Truth is, I don't take enough photos and sometimes I even forget to ask someone's name. But the farmers, bakers, loggers, food lovers, and winemakers we have met along the way each left lasting memories. The problems that they see are very similar: the climate is becoming warmer and dryer, the soil less rich in nutrients, and the costs of their enterprise higher. We met a farmer in Surrein, Switzerland, and he complained that he has to bring his cows to higher Alpine pastures each year because the lower ones dry up. In Biskaya, infamous for its rainyness, farmers struggle to keep enough water on their farms.
On the other hand, there much positivity that connects all the food producers we met. In one word: passion. Always when talking about their enterprises, sparkles appeared in the eyes of the people we talk to. They taught us their own ways to farm, opened the doors to their supply chain, shared their visions and their solutions to the climate problems. Ecological farmer Johanna in Germany specialised in directly selling to consumers: she installed a tap for raw milk and loved having guests over on the farm. Other focussed on nature based education, cheesmaking or teaching some city folk how to milk a goat.
That was us. We learned how to milk a goat and I think Felix found his calling. Thus, I stood with my boots in the Toledan dust for a month. In the stretched plains of the Spanish Plateau, far from cities, we worked on a small family finca: finca Los Aljibes. The owners are former city people themselves, but have a passion for permaculture. By inviting volunteers, they bring in knowledge and use travellers as co-producers. With only two years of experience, I think they came a long way.
Photo: goat milking station
Realising that it takes more than only passion to make a sustainable farming initiative work, I found the second important ingredient: attention. Without paying attention to the processes on a farm, ideas don't always come out as intended. A farmer we met was manually digging a well in the hills of Cantabria, but after six meters, still didn't find the water bubbling up. It's a bad idea to have chickens without observing and respecting their pecking order. It's so important to closely look at what nature needs and provides, regardless of the farming method used.
Attention encompasses more than only studying trees and animals, but is also social. In the small Spanish agricultural communities, everybody cares for each other. Neighbours help in each other's harvest, bring around excess harvest and loan out all machinery they have. Even we became part of the community. And, within moments from arriving, were invited to the local migas competitions and found ourselves with plates of food and glasses of wine in our hands.
Photo: different approaches to vineyard management
The elder people dominating these villages always have a lot of knowledge. They have sown, pruned and harvested in the same way since forever. The old ways are extra apparent in the Sierra de Gredos, with a wine tradition since Roman times. Even in fragmented vineyards of the new Cebreros D.O.P., different visions exist: some farmers remove all other plants surrounding the vine bushes (they eat away valuable nutrition and water!), other leave the plants (they provide more soil biodiversity!). But the Gredos shows that tradition isn't always good. Young wine makers start coming to the area and bring unique ideas. One of them creates a different product with every plot of land he harvests. Because he listens to the vines and let them lead him and not the other way around. The attention he has for his products result in some very special wines.
I think that sustainable farming is a mix of things: passion and attention, new and old. It is responsive of new developments but also keeps traditions in mind.