Malaga growing is getting greener

2016-02-18 06:00:00

Noa runs barefoot through the vegetable plot, finds a fig and eats it with a clear delight that would surprise many town-dwelling parents. Noa is nearly three and figs are one of her favourite fruits.
“Children love growing up in the countryside. They learn to be patient, that they can eat these three strawberries which are red today, but if they want more they’ll have to wait until tomorrow,” says Noa’s mother, 37-year-old Cristina Lucas, who until three years ago used to live and work in Seville, as did her husband, who was an engineer for Renault. They both felt the call of the countryside, if not the wild, when Noa was conceived, and they have ended up in Coín, where their vegetable plot makes them self-sufficient, and they organise courses in ecological farming (
Cristina and Juan Luis don’t feel out of place in the Guadalhorce Valley. They are not the only young people to have moved from a city to the countryside, the opposite route to that which thousands of rural residents have been taking for decades.
They were seeking personal change, as the founders of Caña Dulce did 15 years ago: Caña Dulce, also in Coín, is devoted to permaculture, a philosophy of life which covers everything from sustainable agriculture to bioconstruction and yoga.
However, in the increasingly popular ‘eco’ lifestyle in this region of Malaga there are other profiles, too: people who want an alternative type of self-employment, those who decide to use a family plot as a source of extra income and farmers who have been converted to the idea of ecological production because it is more profitable.
The so-called ‘garden of Malaga’ is becoming green again thanks to the increase in ecological production, which has boosted the economy and the self-esteem of an activity which had lost its popularity. Two facts point to this: at least 70 people attend every course for professionals, and plots of land in this area are selling again.
The head of the GDR Rural Development Group, Sebastián Hevilla, quotes the case of a farmer who has been buying up plots and then renting them out: he now owns more than 40.
Sebastián also stresses that this type of agriculture boosts other businesses. There are now more suppliers, fertiliser companies and industries which make bread, preserves, olive oil, cheese etc. in the ‘eco garden’ of Malaga province.
Joining a cooperative
One indication of the volume of business is the Guadalhorce Ecológico cooperative. It was formed by the association of the same name, brings together about 20 producers and provides work for five people in its premises in Alhaurín el Grande. The president of this cooperative, Miguel Angulo, says both production and consumption have grown in recent years and that this ‘eco revolution’ has had a dynamic effect on the area.
“Small producers were previously in the hands of intermediaries or wholesalers who set the prices and kept all the added value, but they are now selling their produce directly to the point of sale or the consumer. They are regaining control,” explains Miguel.
But that is not all: “Native varieties are being recovered and their quality is extraordinary, such as the ‘huevo toro’ [bulls balls] variety of tomato; this type of production has created jobs and it is training young people in agriculture,” he stresses.
Sebastián Hevilla mentions a factor which is no less important: self-esteem.
“This whole boom is creating excitement and in the end that’s what makes the difference. People see that they can stay here, that there is a future. I remember that when we first organised a training day at the rural development group, the only people who attended were elderly. Now most of them are young,” he says.
The recovery of traditional agriculture has also achieved something spectacular: consumers in Malaga have finally become enthusiastic about buying local produce. Anyone in the world of agriculture knows how important that is and how difficult it must have been, because Malaga has never been a good market for quality fruit and vegetables.
“Our best products have always been sent elsewhere because people in Malaga were only interested in the price,” explains Sebastián.
In the beginning, ecological products from the Guadalhorce region were also exported abroad or, at least, were sent to northern Spain.
That has changed now, though, and much of the credit goes to the farmers’ markets organised by the Guadalhorce Ecológico association, which has been gradually raising awareness among consumers in Malaga.
These markets, which now regularly take place in six municipalities in the province, started in Coín nearly ten years ago. Between 15 and 22 producers from the region participate.
“The markets are very important because they bring consumers face to face with the producers and they then understand how this tomato or that cheese which they are going to eat is produced,” says Sebastián.
These markets have also led to something else which is new for Malaga: home deliveries of organic seasonal fruit and vegetables, either by individuals or through associations or consumer groups.
“This is something which is spreading through word of mouth. People are now organising regular deliveries to their places of work, for example,” explains Sebastián.
“It has become much more popular in Malaga, although we are still a long way behind the Basques and the Catalonians, who consume much more ecological produce,” adds Miguel Angulo.
Worried about health
There are various reasons for the increasing popularity of organic products, including health concerns, an increasing interest in gastronomy and the work done by chefs from Malaga in stressing the quality of local produce. Price is also a factor.
“It is not true that ecological products are more expensive. We did a study in Malaga some time ago which showed that the fruit and vegetables our farmers sell are no more expensive than in the big stores,” insists Sebastián Hevilla.
Ecological agriculture in the Guadalhorce Valley is growing so fast that some of the more veteran farmers fear that it is vulnerable to opportunism.
Pepe Urbano is one of them. He and his family set up the first ecological chicken farm in the province on a two hectare site in Coín.
As well as producing free range eggs from what Pepe calls his “happy hens”, the family grows pecan nuts. “Ecological produce has become fashionable, but it isn’t just a matter of the label. You have to believe in it,” insists Pepe.source surinenglish