Vale da Lama, or as it translates into English ‘The Valley of the Mud’
is, well.. it’s many things. I first heard of them when The Portugal News got an email letting us know about a ‘Farm to Fork’ event they hosted in December. I loved the idea of a place where you can go and eat what they grow, and the very well put together website showed a birds eye view of the quite vast and impressive farm. Words like ‘Syntropic Agroforestry’ and ‘Planned Holistic Grazing’ jumped out at me, and even though I had missed the opportunity to get their food on the end of my fork, I just had to find out more.
Just before I got into Odiáxere (heading towards Lagos) I turned left towards the coast, and drove until I saw beautiful homemade signs urging me to turn right, which took me off road and led me to the ‘Casa Vale da Lama Eco Resort’. I was ‘warmly’ greeted at the reception - quite literally, as after I was shown through the beautiful serene building and into the cool kitchen and dining area (think ‘woody’ with guitars lying around) called the ‘Cozinha do Vale’ where all their vegetables are regularly cooked up into healthy, nutritious and I’m sure delicious meals, I was sat in the sunshine and given a nice hot cup of herbal tea (freshly plucked from the garden).
Here I met the couple, Walter and Nita, whose place this is. Nita is Portuguese, originally from Lisbon, and is a social worker who moved to Canada when she was younger and met Walter. In 1987 she brought him back to Portugal on holiday and Walter, who was born in New York and considers himself an ‘Urban refugee’, loved it so much that they started to dream up ways that they could live here.
From what I understand, Nita came first and Walter would come and go.
Nita started a summer camp in Monchique in 1994, which unfortunately burnt down 10 years later. Luckily though, they had already bought the Vale da Lama farm and Nita’s ‘Projecto Novas Descobertas’ or Project New Discoveries (PND for short) moved there. Here they run much more than just summer camps, and all through the year school buses roll in with students eager to learn about nature, see some farm animals, do some handicrafts and learn how to grow vegetables. But as Nita said, while we sipped our tea and I tried to retain all this new information, “That's a whole other story”, and I think she may very well be right. Stay tuned, I’ll be back one day.
One thing was clear though, Walter and Nita are clearly a very dynamic couple with their fingers in lots of pies. Speaking of which, Nita had to rush off as she had to teach a class, but before she left I managed to catch a quick snap of them chuckling together next to the chicken coop. Chickens, Walter told me, are a very important part of having a farm, not only do they provide you with nice fresh eggs, but their poop is fantastic fertilizer, not to mention how they can’t help but make you smile.
After Nita had left, Walter and I set off for my tour around the farm, and I was very excited to find out just where I was. Walter knew that with this ‘ReNature’ page we are interested in finding people with ideas of how to help nature in Portugal, and took me down the road to show me one of the most notable ways he's doing this.
He explained that when people normally cut their trees or clear their land they usually have a big bonfire and the messy piles of wood and organic matter all conveniently disappear in a puff of smoke. But the thing is that this isn’t very good for the world, as all this does is release the carbon stored in these things back into the atmosphere and does it’s little bit to warm up our planet, and what we really want to do is to get all this carbon back into the ground where it belongs - and where it can be useful.
To that end, Walter has diggers collect all the dead wood and cuttings from around the farm, and even goes so far as to have other peoples organic ‘litter’ brought in. Then, with the use of a shredder (and he even mentioned renting a bigger beast of a machine), they cut everything down into a much more manageable, and critically more decomposable size, so that over the course of a few months it will break down and turn from ‘woody waste’ into a very rich and healthy looking soil, perfect for spreading into Vale da Lamas ‘Organic Market Garden’, and indeed, all around the farm.
All this ‘organic matter’ works wonders on Vale da Lamas clay soil giving it good structure and helping it retain water and microbiology.
This all helps everything grow up big and strong and when the trees need to be pruned, the cuttings can once again be chopped up and turned back into soil, thus creating a nice little circle where all you are really doing is accelerating the natural decomposition process ensuring the carbon doesn’t escape, and just goes back into the ground to help the plants grow.
This is the natural way, Walter explained, of keeping your soil healthy and he said that using artificial fertilizers are the equivalent of you and I being put on an IV drip in the hospital. Sure, this will keep us alive, but it will stop our tummies and guts working the way they should. Our bodies are complicated and rely on a whole host of things working in harmony with each other, and it's the same with soil, plants and trees. You need the bugs and you need the decomposing soil and you need plants that are ‘nitrogen fixers’ planted near ones that are ‘nitrogen greedy’, and you need big trees that create shade and rootspace to help their ‘little buddies’ to grow. It's a complex dance where everything helps out everything else in mysterious little ways we are only just beginning to understand. This is what I think is at the heart of big words like ‘Syntropic Agroforestry’ - learning how to grow lots of different species together harmoniously, just like they do in the natural world.
Later Walter showed me their ‘Syntropic Forest Garden’ which did indeed have a very diverse set of trees and plants living happily together, and apparently it’s a big hit with their interns. Did I mention they have interns? Vale da Lama runs an internship where for 6 months at a time up to 5 people can come and help out on the farm and in return they get food, lodgings and plenty of ‘down to earth’ knowledge on natural farming techniques, and leave with a diploma and hopefully the desire to implement and share what they have learned with the rest of the world.
And eager interns are pretty handy to have around as there’s always lots to do. This became obvious when we eventually got to their Organic Vegetable Garden. There were lines of carefully tended vegetables: carrots, peppers, potatoes, broccoli, lettuce, celery, leaks, onions (basically everything you can imagine except tomatoes, as it's not the time of year) with which they not only manage to feed themselves, the hard working and ravenous interns, the people and retreats that visit the Eco-resort, but also they have reached a scale where they can afford to sell them at Lagos market on Wednesdays and Saturdays too.
Another thing they do is called ‘Planned Holistic Grazing’, they have a flock of 20 sheep that are really helpful for managing their land. They are, as Walter says ‘natural lawnmowers’ and as long as you don’t leave them in one place for too long (that's where the ‘planning’ bit comes in) and fence them into different sections at a time (they have a portable electric fence) then they cut your grass for you, which not only keeps down the risk of fire, but also (with all the stomping about) they lightly ‘plough’ your soil and leave in their wake a trail of the most fabulous fertilizer. (They have 2 delightful donkeys as well, just FYI.)
Basically, they are up to a LOT on this farm and I can’t possibly tell you everything, and obviously at the moment it's hard to say what will be on or not, but if you are interested in retreating or staying in the wonderful Eco-resort, becoming an intern or simply coming to do a tour, see the place and try their famous ‘Farm to Fork’ food, then for details on upcoming events (as well as beautiful farm photos) then follow them on Instagram and Facebook, or simply Google their site Vale da Lama and find out more.
Vale da Lama
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