… is an old Portuguese saying associated with traditional agriculture. A farmer never uses insecticides, pesticides and fungicides, those poisonous chemicals, to kill insects, weeds and fungi. They live with them, as every living thing has its place in the countryside and in the forest and the rainwater seeps into the soil to make it fertile and healthy. In this way the water is held back so that it doesn’t flow directly down the slope to the stream and permeates the soil to give it life and allow growth in the garden.
ECO123 visited Carlos Fernandes (46), one of the youngest farmers in the Monchique mountains. Carlos was an emigrant for many years, working abroad in France and Switzerland. He emigrated because life in the village wasn’t getting better and decent work was very poorly paid.
Seeing the bigger picture.
Carlos Fernandes also remembers the things he missed most when he worked in the stress of the cities. It was the silence of his village, the sound of the babbling brook and the calmness of the work in the country done at his own pace. He followed this call of the heart and became a farmer. It wasn’t a family thing, but there was still a small plot of one hectare and 200 square metres. And this is how it began, three years ago, the work of regeneration and maintenance of the soil on land that was covered in brambles. Removing the undergrowth is hard work. He tilled the land on the terraces and mixed it with natural manure. He has a pig which like its ancestors only gets fattened from leftover food and the fruit and vegetables that Carlos cannot sell. In a few years he has created his own paradise and he sells his products locally.
The priorities in his project were, for example, the construction of a large cistern, structures to retain excess water from the terraces and the installation of an irrigation system for the entire property. “Everyone wants to have a paycheque straight away. But a farmer has to prepare the land first, then he has to sow, tend and apply ancestral knowledge before he can reap. Who wants to do this? Who knows what it means to sow water? ” He shows us a beetle eating a cabbage and pulls it out with his hand. That’s what he usually does early in the morning when he starts work.
There are alternatives to monoculture. He guides us along the narrow paths on the terraces of his richly diverse garden which has no plastic greenhouses. Everything is planted in the open: the various varieties of tomatoes, from cherry tomatoes to large tomatoes of the ‘Rosa’ variety, aubergines, beetroot, beans, herbs, onions, garlic and potatoes. He talks to us about the climate crisis and extreme summer temperatures that don’t allow you to grow certain crops. You cannot grow lettuces in high summer, because the plants either die within hours or go to seed when watered with the sprinkler. That’s why we only grow lettuce in the spring and early summer. Next summer he wants to try planting passion fruit. It’s very important to always have enough water in the soil. The first commandment is the storage of water. “Let’s look at what the situation was like 50 years ago,” says Carlos Fernandes, “When everyone here on Fóia and Picota also worked in agriculture. They took care of the earth and the plants held rainwater in the soil. And this is something you need to know and know how to do. It was a result of the knowledge and experience of the place. Only when the old people died and the young people went to the cities, leaving the terraces and fields, did the soils begin to dry up over the years, because nothing constructive was done with them. When we left the fields and the landscape, we also stopped sowing water, and the water disappeared. There is nothing that stops rainwater. When it rains, it disappears directly into the streams and goes down to the sea.
Learning to understand water.
Those who live in the city don’t sow any water, they just use it. It’s wasted whenever you turn on a tap. Fernandes says that if society can’t explain the values of traditional agriculture and pass on the old knowledge about sustainability to young people, there will be no way to solve the climate crisis. If we do not sow more water, we will not have any more water reserves to live off, or to put it another way: only if we sow water are we investing in the foundation for our survival. We cannot expect others to do it for us.
Creating water reserves is the foundation for life in the country. ECO123 asked the farmer how can young people become interested, sensitised, motivated and encouraged to leave the city in order to come and live in the countryside? It’s easy. There has to be a motivation. For example with tax incentives. This happens in countries such as Switzerland and France. He has seen it with his own eyes. And the subject of traditional agriculture must be addressed in schools. There should be practical classes in the field. Each student should take care of their own patch to understand the farmer’s craft. After training candidates who are interested shouldn’t have to wait nine or ten months for any support. There is too much bureaucracy. Portugal needs to make quick decisions.
And Monchique is one of the places where agriculture can be practised successfully. Good conditions don’t come about thanks to the Ministry of Agriculture and its engineers who have theoretical training and often don’t have practical experience. They don’t make my work easier… Good conditions are given by nature herself and the land, day to day life is good with the earth, the sun, the water – the elements. And the fact that moist soils prevent fires also doesn’t seem to have reached the ears of the Minister of Agriculture Luis Capoula Santos, nor his Secretary of State Miguel Freitas, who are responsible for Portuguese forests. If the value of ancestral knowledge about “sowing water” was understood by the Ministry of Agriculture, the latter might finally make the right decisions. We would have a Portugal with sustainable, diversified agriculture that would feed us in a healthy way and we would have fewer fires. And also: short distances between producer and consumer.
One last question to finish: Do you work legally, paying tax and social security? Do you earn enough to live on?
Yes, I work legally. But I will only be earning enough in two years time. I’m sure I can live on this in two years time. Now, in my third year, I‘ve already had some success selling vegetables and fruit to some good restaurants. And soon I will sell my products on Tuesdays and Fridays at the market in Monchique.
Thank you for this conversation.