During our whirlwind 5-day tour of Spain a few weeks ago, which included Madrid and its surroundings from Rioja all the way to Salamanca, we did a lot of driving. To balance that out, we reached out to a few WorkAway projects to try and visit a small-scale farm in order to get a better feel for what the soil is like, whether there is a community around sustainable or organic small-scale agriculture, and other such critical details we could factor into the big decision: Portugal or Spain?
Kahlyn and Ramon, from Conciencia Grows, welcomed us to their home just 30km outside the capital. After meeting in Cadiz and traveling around Africa and Eastern Europe and back to Cadiz for two years, in 2013 the couple decided to come back after a short break in the United States (US). They decided to head back to Ramon’s home and work on some land his father owned. When an abandoned neighboring property got ransacked by gypsies, they decided to take custody of the bricks and mortar and expand their operations.
Kahlyn is originally from the US and is an expert in bees (interestingly, she chose bee-keeping as a specialty to bring together her interests in development, sustainability and community), managing a handful of hives on the property and also using bees in therapy. She is also studying alternative medicine and running a bee-keeping project in Ethiopia that she travels for about twice a year. I don’t think she ever sleeps.
Ramon is Spanish and his background is primarily an occupational formation in landscape and environmental management techniques, with additional experience in farming (mostly when he was young), alternative medicine and acupuncture, coaching, and probably a few more trades. He emphasized the usefulness of management and coaching techniques to make sure their work, while constantly evolving, continued to reflect their priorities.
Today, their farm is an impressive project on its third year of production that falls into the “commercial small-scale organic farming” category. In other words, they are following best practices to enrich the soil as they go, living off their produce and selling the significant extras to organic restaurants, eco shops, and at markets in Madrid. They are also part of an initiative whereby they receive food waste from a few schools every week, to compost it – all motivated by the European Commission Milan 2020 food waste management agreements.
We were only there for 30h or so (a Wednesday late morning through to Thursday afternoon), which we put to as good a use as possible by helping out with weeding, transplanting young leeks into the fields, and pouring cement (yes, that was all Francois). Along the way we also got to collect fresh eggs, help catch runaway chickens (unrelated to the egg collection), and pick new potatoes for dinner.
We learned about biodynamic farming, some of the benefits and challenges of small-scale organic farming in Spain in the Madrid region specifically, and the incredible vision Kahlyn and Ramon have for their farm. I won’t go into detail – suffice it to say that they have plans to expand living quarters to better be able to house volunteers, want to test the impact of a green roof, are interested in aquaponics, and are planning to actively expand the small-scale sustainable farming community (and voice!) in Spain.
As for biodynamic farming, they base themselves on the annual farmer’s almanac – which exists by country/region – to see when is optimal to plant seeds, transplant young plants, harvest, and have flowers bloom. This is all based on the positions of the planets and the lunar cycle, and while it may sound a little crazy, they tested it and the seeds they planted following biodynamic principles grew faster, more, and healthier than any others! Yet another example of how everything is connected.
And even if you don’t believe in any of this, given how much there is to do on a farm just having a calendar to follow is useful, and will make it easier to keep track of things too.
I am not sure we will end up in Spain, but I look forward to staying in touch with the inspiring Conciencia Grows team, watching how their project develops, and visiting again when we need organic seeds from a certified source (or are ready to learn more about bee-keeping!)!
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