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Portugal: organic cork oak forests provide new jobs

by Redaktion (comments: 0)

For centuries, the people in the south of Portugal lived from the cork oak, whose cork bark was harvested every nine years. Now the price of cork is falling, because natural cork is being replaced by plastic corks and press stoppers. What is called for is the development of ecological strategies for preserving the valuable old stands of cork oaks by exploiting them in new and innovative ways. Alfredo Sendim has found a new concept to do precisely that. He is creating an amalgamation of vital nature conservation and new marketing ideas, and on his organic farm Freixo do Meio he has met with nothing but success. (Picture: Turkeys eating a lot of grass under cork oaks)

“We use 10 % ground acorns in our bread,” says the 46-year-old - to the surprise of his visitor. The bread is pushed by an employee (picture) into an ancient wood-burning bake oven. Every week, he sells 35 loaves in his own wholefood shop and other shops in Lisbon, 100 km away. And the very tasty biscuits Alfredo Sendim (picture) offers me are – you can hardly believe it – made 100 % from acorn flour. To produce this flour, he roasts the acorns, then removes the hard outer layer, and the rest is ground up. He points out that “in the old days too acorns were used for human consumption.” He took over the 400 ha farm from his mother. The key word for the new and at the same time old idea behind his eco-revolution is “montado”: Alfredo’s intention is to supplement the value gained from the land in the traditional way with sheep, cereal cultivation and cork oaks by means of other usage, whose products can be profitably marketed and at the same time create diversity in agriculture.

Alfredo, the fifth generation to run the farm, has already implemented many of his new ideas, and others are still waiting to be put into practice. The basic idea of eco-intensification helps not only to increase soil fertility in a landscape characterized by long summer drought but also to create jobs in a country with a chronic shortage of employment. Since he can’t bear the risk in all areas of activity on his own, he offers newcomers the possibility of using the land for 20 years rent-free. Houses can be rented at low cost. The basic condition is, of course, organic cultivation and reaching an agreement on production. Thus he has already implemented 9 micro-projects, as he calls them. These involve beekeeping, fruit growing on 8 hectares, poultry keeping, growing herbs, cake making, pre-processed frozen products and sewing eco textiles. A project for making soup and also a cheese making facility have not for the present been realized. Two families and four individuals have settled in the area because of these projects. Still only a few new jobs, but it does show what can be done.

There is plenty of space in the complex of buildings (picture) that was erected in 1890 by Alfredo’s great-great grandfather. “Over a hundred years ago, about 200 people lived and worked here,” he explains, even though they must have endured cramped conditions. In those days, a whole family lived in one roughly 25 m² room that had a hearth near the door.

As well as having the wood-burning oven, Alfredo Sendim, who employs 11 people, operates an ultra-modern small abattoir and facilities for manufacturing jam, juices, preserving mushrooms and vegetables, packaging pulses and other dry goods. All this is in addition, of course, to his 3 hectares of agriculture and vegetable cropping. Three hectares of vines have been planted to increase diversification. He also keeps 600 turkeys, 80 pigs, 200 sheep and 20 goats (picture). The animals live all year round in the open in an area to the south-east of Lisbon. There is no frost here, and in winter the climate is mild and damp. Frequent rainfall in winter makes the meadows round the cork oaks a lush green, reminiscent of those you see in Wales and Ireland. The temperature can reach 40° C in summer, even though it is actually a temperate climate on account of the proximity of the Atlantic.

The major part of production is marketed via Alfredo’s wholefood store that he opened three years ago near the entrance to the market hall Mercado da Ribeira.  Every year, 800 turkeys, 150 lambs, 100 cows and 80 pigs are sold over the counter - in the form of joints of meat or sausage. In the 44 m² shop (picture) you see two meat and sausage counters (plus some speciality cheeses) and a freezer cabinet with glass doors that contains frozen meat and hamburgers. The whole product range of about 300 articles, including fresh fruit and vegetables, is on sale in a shop that consists of two separate halves. Between them runs one of the passageways to the market hall, which means that a large number of people pass by. “Despite the current economic crisis, turnover in the shop is rising slowly but continuously,” is the good news reported by Joaquin Caixero, the butcher in the shop.

Under consideration and at the planning stage is the creation of a zone for eco-tourism (picture). Farm holidays could be a an ideal way of supplementing income since there’s a great deal to discover on the farm, located as it is in a lovely setting and, above all, there is much for visitors to learn regarding the protection of nature. Not only can the montado agro-forestry system with the 200 to 300 year-old cork oaks be studied as a subject in its own right, but people can also become involved in other activities relevant to nature conservation, like bird watching or a wild cat project. This is why Alfredo works closely with nature conservation associations, who he invites once a year, together with his customers, to an open day on the farm. Several thousand people regularly turn up for this event. At the end of April 2012, he had about three thousand visitors, plus a good 20 organic farmers from nearby who set up stands and provided people with information.

A big function room (picture on left) is available for up to 150 people to have parties or hold other events, and this is something that Alfredo Sendim would like to promote more effectively in the future. A holiday let and a camp site with an impressive compost toilet are already being used, and he is thinking of extending the infrastructure, although at the moment there’s not enough in the kitty. He would be pleased to hear from anyone offering any kind of support.

Contact: Alfredo Sendim (he speaks fluent English):



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