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Merging Tradition and Innovation - Agriculture in the Algarve Region, Portugal
The traditional agriculture common in Southern Portugal’s Algarve region is very different from the intensive agriculture that is known in The Negev. When we toured the region during the Project Wealth convention, funded by the ENPI CBCMED, it was interesting to see traditional agriculture take on an innovative twist, with farmers making use of the relative advantages available to them and adapting to the demands of the marketplace, yet without relinquishing their local values!

The convention was hosted by CRIA – an innovation center in the University of Algarve, Portugal. While visiting CRIA"S premisses, where we were told about the research and development currently under way in the field of agriculture, of innovations in the processing of ‘agro food,’ and of additional supportive measures to connect between research and practice, connections that pertain to issues of research and development, attaining business licenses, grants to encourage entrepreneurship etc.

In that line, the tour of Algarve introduced us to several agricultural initiatives that connect between the traditional and the innovative, between research and practice, and lastly – between the world of agriculture and the world of tourism.

António Rosa – of whom we have already spoken in our discussion of the challenges of economic development in Aljazur – is the owner of an organic farm, and a trained agronomist who grows peanuts and specializes in creating peanut butter for ‘refined palates.’ Once a week he takes his product and sells it directly to the finest restaurateurs and chefs in Lisbon. Over the years, Rosa has learned to nurture his list of clients, and to meet their special orders for “agriculture by personal request.” To do so, he has joined forces with other organic farmers and begun to distribute their produce in exchange for a mediation fee that covers the depreciation of his produce and his travel expenses.

Rosa’s house is situated at the heart of the farm, and includes both his own residence and guest rooms. When we asked him whether his guests also work on the farm, following the rising popularity of the WWOOF movement (tourism that includes sleeping and working on a farm), he answered categorically, “no. They just eat, drink and sleep.”

Unlike António Rosa, however, Rosa Dias - the energetic woman who runs the organic farm Quinta da Fornalha – does offer her guests the option of ‘wwoofing,’ as well as much, much more. “I’m always looking for more ways to boost my traditional business, and to deal with the harsh realities brought on by globalization. The massive import of fruit has not left much room in the market for Algarve products. Global crises have led to a big crisis in traditional agriculture. Many farms have been abandoned and destroyed, and like other farmers, my family has been hurt too. In the ‘90s, my father was one of the first farmers in the region to start producing organic food, but even that was not enough for survival. When I joined the business, I understood that in order to make it I would have to develop a holistic model.”

“We think outside the box and work without marketing budgets, so we have to use every possible resource to generate the farm’s economic sustainability. From every existing product, we try to make a new and unique product that utilizes the raw materials in the best possible way.” The farm’s display center offers visitors a wide range of products, including jams, liqueurs and dried figs. “We export whatever we can, like organic products to France. At first we worked through a distributor who took a fee, but later I managed to track down the organic farms that buy the fruit and contact them directly. That’s good for them and good for us.”

“I can talk about my figs all day. They have advantages you don’t get anywhere else. First, the climate in the area is good for growing figs, which makes the fruit very sweet and delicious. Second, the trees bear fruit twice a year! In the first harvest season the fruit is juicy, and we sell it fresh. In the second it’s smaller, so we dry it out on the trees. If I were thinking traditionally, I would try to cut costs and boost my output, but I don’t want to push my trees. I work with and draw my inspiration from nature; I’m not trying to drive away the birds or spray the worms that damage the fruit. Rather, I’m learning to use the tree’s yield in the best possible way. The nice looking produce is packed, while that which has holes in it becomes dough, from which we make truffles with chocolate or liqueur.”

Another product that Dias sells in her store is salt, gathered from the region’s salt pools. She also works with the sea-salt production cooperative ‘Terras do Sal.’ The cooperative began with several small producers who gathered together and formed an association, which grew into a cooperative which today includes organizations from several European countries. The cooperative packs and markets the products. “The salt we produce has a lot of magnesium, so it’s much healthier than the regular salt sold in stores. But in marketing it we’ve had to contend with the public’s common belief that salt is not a healthy thing. After exploring the subject in-depth we discovered a university study that shows that birds eat this salt and it does them no harm. Following this study, we discovered the optimal conditions for gathering the salt so as to conserve its high levels of magnesium. With this understanding, we developed a new, high quality product, rich in magnesium and geared towards athletes and pregnant women.”

“We have volunteers on the farm, and they’re a significant part of the work force. More than two hundred volunteers have passed through to date. As part of living on the farm, they get to enjoy its produce, and we also have an organic vegetable garden, chickens that lay free range eggs, and I always say everyone is welcome to slaughter themselves a chicken, though none of the guests has done that yet…”

A creative initiative connected to rural agriculture is that of the ‘In Loco’ association, which makes contact between local food producers and consumers. Ana Arsénto works in a local association that is trying to develop local commerce in the Algarve strip. The project began in 2010 and revolved around two main objectives – first to help small producers reach clients, and second to encourage the consumption of local foods. “We worked with producers and consumers simultaneously. We worked with producers on awareness of using eco-friendly materials, and had workshops for improving product display and on the importance of varying the contents on offer. For the consumers we worked to raise their awareness and their preference for high quality local produce.”

“Clients place their orders in advance over the internet or by fax, and once a week the baskets are delivered at a set time to several sales points in the Algarve region. We try to encourage farmers to create produce baskets together, and naturally some are more active, taking initiative, going to the website and seeing who they would do well to collaborate with. Later we made contact with a cooperative that puts together the baskets.”

As a result of this project, local produce is now sold without mediation gaps, in contrast to the previous practice of selling in Lisbon, which carried high distribution costs. Some of what is sold is also organic produce, the market price of which is much higher than the price of buying directly through the cooperative.

“As far as the association is concerned, our involvement in the project has come to an end. Today when I buy, I try to be a responsible consumer, and if I have comments I make sure to pass them on, because as a client it’s important to me that the service meets very high standards. The next stage we would like to see is organized planting and coordination between the farmers.”

Processes for making direct contact between manufacturers and consumers are gathering momentum in other parts of the world as well. In Israel, for instance, the “pepper protest” arose in the last month, following a clip put on youtube by a farmer in the Arava, which shows him destroying (Dryer) large numbers of peppers because the large networks refuse to buy them and then sell their products and exorbitant prices. In a short time, this video led to protest markets, which joined additional initiatives for selling directly from farmers to consumers.

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