Category Archives: Farming

SEASONS CHANGING

photo(8)Altitude sickness and laziness forced me to give up a night time climb of a live volcano in Guatemala once. Because, even in this desolate wild spot, there were, apparently, bandits hiding behind bushes ready to pluck watches and whatnot off passers-by, I wasn’t allowed to lie face down on the pumice and die which was my main desire, but was escorted down the scree and left with a farmer. The farmer lived in a house made of loose planks which had seven or 11 things things in it – I forget exactly but one was a girly calendar and the other was a hen. I remember the hen well, because when our conversation faltered to a stop (my fault, because I really wanted to be sick) he looked around his house for things to entertain me and settled on the hen, which he put, gently, lovingly in my arms.

Anyway, after a few more hours, I felt better and we ended up talking about farming. The farmer distinctly remembered the rainy season starting on October 1st every year. Without fail, for fifty years. You planned your year around it, he said: your planting, your harvests, your budgeting, celebrations and loan repayments. But of late things had gone haywire; the rainy season started in September one year and November another and no-one knew where they were with things. It was a complete effing mess.

It’s easy to think that change is a constant, and for nature to be so regular in its habits was a coincidence, myth or fluke. However you hear the same story around the world, and nothing but, around these parts – particularly and most recently about the unusual heat of last November and an unusual and worrying absence of rain that’s making the evergreen oaks (encinas) thirsty. The naturalist Andrés Rodriguéz says that thirty years ago, the almonds used to start flowering in the Serranía de Ronda at the end of February, but that a couple of years ago, he noticed it beginning in December, and someone recently sent him a photo of almonds flowering in early November. 

Every year I’ve catalogued the wildflowers on the farm in dilettante fashion, keeping notes of when they’ve appeared (which I will have to attempt to decipher). I do know that the time and amount of flowering has been radically different. In 2014 I had enough figs to start an international fig export industry; in 2015 hardly any – so that’s a venture that would have been a write-off. In 2015 I sold crates of pomegranates at the village shop; last year I barely had enough for myself.
And now this year it’s hard to know what to expect. The cicadas were deafening for several nights in mid-February, the orange trees are in bloom again before the fruit has fallen, but at least the almonds flowered at the right time.
Hope that old farmer in Guatemala who was harping on about change lived long enough to feel vindicated. Not sure what it all means, but I reckon it’s probably trouble.

I’m attempting to post a photo from the farm each day on instagram: 365 reasons to celebrate the challenges of a simple life @somewheresville365

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WHAT A BOAR

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It’s all farms around here: farms that incorporate forests and gorges, and, once inside the natural park proper, the Sierra de Grazalema, a series of rocky mountain peaks. So the jabali, the wild boar, can go pretty much where they want. For some reason they want to come here. Fences are a rarity, but because my neighbour has donkeys and I have a vineyard, this farm has one, and this means that in order to come in and dig, or pass through and dig somewhere else, the boars must first chew through the wire fencing. Every night since the beginning of December there has been a Mexican wave of dog howling and fence chewing as the boar families lumber their way west to east and back again.

Liberated from their lives of pampered luxury, the donkeys have been able to break out of their field and gallop through the moonlight in wild-eyed panic; my dog has disappeared for hours and come back stinking of shit, guilt and satisfaction writ large on its face. And instead of the coffee and croissant of my dreams, my days have started with dragging sheets of fencing across fields, along with coils of wire and bolt cutters, and mending various stretches of the perimeter.

I’m hoping that the wandering season ends soon. I’ve read that wolf urine is the best deterrent. It’s used with regularity in the Basque Country to keep wild boar away from country roads and reduce the number of wildlife-car collisions.

I’ve thought about it, but it doesn’t grab me as being the easiest solution.

 

I’m attempting to post a photo every day this year @somewheresville365 on instagram. Picture credit: estudiantes.info (mine arrive after dark)

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Extra Virgin Virgin

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When they crank the jolting Heath Robinson conveyor belts at the cooperative olive mill into action, the skies darken. Fact. Not sure why, but black clouds provide a dramatic tension, as does a bigger than normal jam of broken-backed trucks and trailers, lorries, dented Citroens and Seats (and Peugeots) stuffed with white olive sacks, all reversing anarchically in the direction of the grills to drop their loads. Nuestra Señora del Rosario Cooperativa is now a-buzz, the social hub, lit up at night like something industrial in America, and will be until January. You can hear it, and smell it – green, waxy, cloying, oily – a mile off.
Last year I stripped the olives from 400 trees myself using a stick which took a month (if you include time spent lying in the nets too tired to move, with a dog licking my face). This year I recruited a team and a shaker machine, and it took a week.
I was in Puglia some months ago covering an extra virgin olive oil fraud story, and had the luck to spend some days in the company of the deCarlo family. They compete to find a space for their exceptional, award-winning, artisan-produced Italian Extra Virgin olive oil in a global market awash with fake slop.
They pointed out that olive oil is a fruit juice, and should be pure, fresh, bitter, with, depending on type of olive, varying notes of grass, tomato leaves, artichoke. And they showcased the best by pouring two types of their own liberally over the best of southern Italian home-cooking during lunch at their family home.
Obviously I looked at my own fields with interest on my return. To ensure plenty of bitterness, which isn’t rated too highly locally, I was the first farmer off the block with the harvesting, picking the fruit while green and fairly hard – and far too early according to my neighbours. I sold the bulk to the cooperative (to join the rest of the area’s haul, to be crushed, filtered and bottled by them under their own label), but this year kept back 500kg, which thanks to a miscalculation was actually 830kgs, sent it down a different shoot and had it pressed separately, and bottled the stuff that came out at the other end of the system one hour later. Having 167 litres of oil for home consumption is excessive, but it’s genuinely, accidentally, very good. Getting it there is probably what did for the car suspension.

Incidentally, Extra Virginity, The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by the helpful and affable Tom Mueller is a superb, shocking and entertaining read.

THE FUTURE IS OLIVE

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I’m now a signed up socio, along with around 700 other local farmers, of Nuestra Señora del Rosario cooperative olive mill. It’s a great Heath Robinson type affair, and since taking these pictures has once again become the bustling centre of all activity, lorries and vans getting all snarled up around the entrance gates, much back-slapping and high-fiving, and catching up. I’ve sent around 600kg of olives up the conveyor belt so far, but have around another 1400 kgs to pick. So I’d better get on.

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Pomegranate Porn

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I can’t tell you how much I love my pomegranates. Last year they split before they ripened, so this year I gave each tree plenty of water, day and night, from July onwards. It was extremely hard work which required me to lie in the dappled shade on a lounger, doing an occasional whip crack of the hose, directing it to a new trunk. I read several books.
Late August, the birds came, Hitchcock style. It’s clear now that they came from the adjacent vineyard, having depleted the stock of grapes. They got through almost every fruit on the far side of the furthest tree before I discovered the desecration. I agreed to let them have that one, and focused my efforts on the rest. I hung coat hangers with dangling CDs and tin foil from the branches, and when I wasn’t crouching underneath the trees ready to jump up and clap, kept a watchful eye over them from my desk, interrupting work and work calls to rush down the hill waving my arms.
Anyway, even taking into account the birds’ portion, the harvest has been big, wondrous, and exotic – they are Persian in origin, after all. The fruit is scarlet, inside and out, and huge. Bite in, and the juice pours out.
Every Saturday I flip out the seeds from a great pile of them, listening to the Rev Richard Cole on R4, and most mornings I eat a bowl of them (not the size of the one shown, I hasten to add) with Sonya’s goats’ milk mint yoghurt. There’s about 40kg in the freezer, and I’ve dropped off around 50kg at the local shop where they’ve sold well under a ‘granadas del pueblo‘ sign. Next I’m going to make sorbet.
They are ranked high among the wonder foods – currently – beating avocados, cranberries, blueberries, and spinach, and so forth, full of anti-oxidants, and a top tool in the battle against high cholesterol and heart disease.
There’s about another 60-70kgs left, dangling from the trees like hefty baubles. Thank you trees. More water for you next year (depending on what’s left in the well).

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WHINE

DSC05004Transpires the reason there were more, and fatter, birds around this year, is that they’d been gorging themselves in the vineyard. And once they’d tapped a hole into every grape, the wasps moved in. Maybe it’s the other way round, or they work in tandem. Anyway, beyond a few rows of photogenic grapes, there were five rows of dessicated raisins, sucked dry over a hot summer spent in virtual privacy. On the plus side there were less to pick.
I’d always associated grape-picking with romantic assignations. School friends would go grape-picking in France and come back dressed pretentiously, and get letters from French boys for one or two weeks which they’d read while smoking a Gauloise on the roof of the school building. I wasn’t sure what they did over there in the vineyards of Normandy, but it certainly wasn’t the crawling along dense tangled tunnels alone, covered in burrs, batting away buzzing things that I’ve been doing here. The fact I only had about six sackfuls at the end of it was fine by me.
I have no idea of the weight of six sacks other than heavy, my measure is man hours. It took me three man hours to pick the grapes, and a further four man hours to pick off the woody stems as we don’t have a machine to do it. I was helped at that point by two friends who really chose the wrong time to arrive. We used a wine press borrowed from Fernando – a barrel with a heavy plate you wind down (and down and down and down, and then up and up and up and up), and pressed the grapes three times. Last year we made around 85 litres – although some was lost during the famous Spill! of the filtration process, but this year I reckon we produced the grand total of around 20 litres, which equates to 3 litres per man hour. Artisan.
Ready-made local wine is available from down the track for about 85 centimos a litre. Still, I don’t want to leave the fruit withering on the vine and all that.

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