Siobhan and a few of our volunteers travelled to Almeria for a week at an Eco Farm: the Alter Natives, a family run venture that uses sustainable technologies to grow organic vegetables in a part of Spain that is more famous for its semi-arid desert and western movies than the unexpected fruit and vegetables.
By Siobhan Carleton-Green
In the south of Spain within the province of Almeria lies a small eco farm: The Alter Natives where some of our New Environmentalists were fortunate to spend a week. This farm was founded by and is run by Jackie Smart, a woman with a dream to live sustainably in a world that is driven by consumerism. Rebuilt using traditional methods after having been abandoned for many years the farm is now home to Jackie’s family, an extensive collection of pets, geckos and off course the occasional travelling volunteer eager to help where they can. The house is powered by solar panels, the inhabitants fed by what is grown in the garden and the extras that need to be bought in (fuel for the car, clothes for the ever growing kids and of course chocolate as carob just doesn’t quite hit the spot) are funded by organic vegetable boxes that also come from the garden.
Almeria like much of the south of Spain is semi-arid desert which means that growing crops is not without its challenges. Fortunately Alter Natives eco farm is located by the only flowing river in the area and with the help of an old Moorish irrigation line water can be brought up to the terraces where Jackie grows her fruit and vegetables. At first the main method of irrigation to the terraces was by flood irrigation (the beds have shallow ditches between them so that water directed to the area that needed to be watered), however as demand for Jackie’s organic vegetable boxes grew a more efficient way of watering was needed. Flood irrigation has the tendency to compact the soil making the turnover of crops more laborious as the beds needed to be dug each time to loosen the soil. Drip feed irrigation has now been implemented for most of the crops, only the fruit trees, spinach and alfalfa now get the flood treatment. In order for the drip feeders to work as efficiently as possible the water must be put under pressure via a pump, in order to be as environmentally friendly as possible a solar panel is used to generate the necessary energy to run the pump, a simple car battery stores the excess electricity to be used when there is not enough sun (not a common event in Spain!) and also to run the wild boar defence at night (as much as all wildlife is cherished at Alter Natives the wild boars tendency to bulldoze through the entire garden has made having an electric fence a vital ingredient to sustainable living).
Other challenges that face the eco farm are the ever decreasing rainfall (the barley crop for the chickens was severely affected due to lack of rain), the water table dropping as more and more developments sink bore holes to suck out water (the former government approved several golf courses to be built which of course need a substantial amount of water to keep green) and pests that have grown in number in the recent years. Due to the neighbouring plastic greenhouses importing seeds and plants from South America the notorious pest Tuta absoluta has become an increasing problem in the area especially for the organic growing community where using pesticides is not an option. This pest has become widespread throughout the south of Spain and much of southern Europe. Now it is very difficult to grow tomatoes (and more recently potatoes also a member of the Solanaceae family), the eco farm is doing its best to protect its crops with netting but they are fighting an uphill battle as it only takes one or two to get though and the whole crop can become infected.
Despite all the challenges Alter Natives continues to grow and develop its methods for effective crop production and often welcomes visitors from the neighbouring project SunSeed, who come to watch and learn what the farm is doing to be successful. Our volunteers certainly enjoyed their stay and hope to return soon to help with more weeding!
To find out more about Alter Natives contact Siobhan on scg(at)newenvironmentalist.co.uk