Following down a lead for a ReNature story, I went to the idyllic village of Barão de São João on the west coast of the Algarve and headed up a dirt track towards the hills and windmills, before I got too lost I spotted beautiful homemade signs for my destination ‘Vinha Velha’, and winded my way down into the valley, passing some grazing horses and arrived in a beautiful ‘neighbourhood’ of picturesque houses.
I made my way to the farm café which is where I met sisters Clara and Delia and they gave me a mint tea and we had a chat. Here I heard more about the history of the farm and how their dad Hubert (along with their mother Margit and his brother Michael) originally bought this 140 acre patch of land back in the early 80’s with the vision of turning it into a self-sufficient farm. Over the years, and with lots of hard work, the dream has been turned into a reality. Hubert planted over 80.000 trees to help stop eroding soils and help create more biodiversity. He also built lakes and because ‘water is life’ they could then start to produce vegetable gardens and have animals. Sadly Hubert got sick and died in 2017, and ever since then Clara and Delia have stepped into his boots and have been continuing his legacy.
They seem to be a great team, and while Clara deals with the accounts and business side of things, as well as looking after the various houses and keeping everything organised, Delia has got her fathers ‘green fingers’ and, along with her partner Florian, takes care of the farm and the animals. The girls lived (and still do) a very off grid existence and growing up they didn’t have much electricity - and so definitely no TV.
Delia now has two children of her own and now that they do get green power from the wind farm their father helped found, I asked her the million dollar question, “Does she let her children watch TV?”. She said she does… “but only for half an hour on a Sunday”.
The farm keeps everybody quite busy, in fact, I could tell that even sitting here talking to me there were obviously lots of things Delia needed to be doing, one of them being going to collect the eggs from their 90 chickens. She asked if I wanted to accompany her - which of course I was delighted to do, and the three of us set off on a tour of the farm.
En route to the rolling chicken coops (that move conveniently around allowing the chickens to eat the weeds and bugs as they make their way around the land) we passed by various fields of a type of ‘tremoço’ (lupine) that are grown because they help put nitrogen back into the soil, and when cut down and mixed into the earth makes green compost - naturally making the soil healthy and ready for the next crop.
Delia also stopped to show me one of the projects she’s most passionate about and explained how she doesn’t just plant seeds - she actually grows them.
She told me that most people presume that organic food comes from organic seeds, but the reality is that 80 percent of organic farms and organic gardeners use ‘hybrid’ seeds.
Let’s unpack this a little, as I admit it took me a while to get my head around it. Open pollinated seeds (which is what Delia grows) refers to seeds that will “breed true”, this means that the plant will be allowed to flower and be pollinated in the traditional way (of being tickled by the bees as they collect and spread their pollen) and the seeds will then form and dry out. These seeds will then produce more plants that shall we say “take after their parents” growing up to be generally just as tasty as their ancestors. This is what farmers have been doing since the beginning of agriculture - carefully selecting the seeds from the plants that have the traits we like and thus ensuring that we can continue to enjoy these same qualities into the future.
Hybrids on the other hand are when man gets more involved and cross pollinates between two varieties, selecting in a more artificial way the qualities he wants and making, in a sense, ‘super plants’. This has the benefits, for example, of making your carrots more orange, more uniform in size and perhaps more pest resistant. But the trouble is that the children that these plants produce don’t retain the enhanced qualities of their parents and in many cases these ‘super’ plants don’t produce any seeds at all and their family line ends there.
This is why Delia is so passionate about the organic, old fashioned and open pollinated way of doing things, and it’s why she uses part of the land to multiply seeds. This summer Delia will be producing seeds for yellow beetroot (yes, that’s right, ‘yellow’), tomatoes, basil, corn, lettuce, as well as some flowers and sending them off to be processed by a company she works closely with called ‘Sementes Vivas’ (www.sementesvivas.bio/pt) which is an organically certified seed production company whose mission is to create 100% organic ‘living seeds’ - ensuring that these same plants can continue to be produced and enjoyed in the years to come.
I enjoyed seeing the flowers of the broccoli that Delia was currently growing, because since we normally eat our vegetables before they get to the flowering and seed making stage - Delia agreed it’s nice to see vegetables completing their life cycles.
That being said, they do of course eat their vegetables too, as well as selling them at a small stall in Barão de São João on Tuesdays and in the organic market Vivo Mercado in Lagos on Wednesdays.
They also sell eggs from their flock of hens, as well as getting milk from their two dairy cows with which they make yogurt and a type of curd cheese. There’s also 35 sheep that graze the land in planned rotating cycles, and all the animals help fertilize the soil, providing manure for their compost - as well as having the added bonus of eating or ‘mowing their lawn’ for them, helping to keep the forestry areas clean which helps reduce the risk of fire.
They have also recently started keeping bees at Vinha Velha, which not only provide delicious honey, but are of course essential for pollinating everything.
But quite apart from the bees, the place is usually abuzz with volunteers that come to stay for a few weeks and lend a hand in exchange for food and board in this beautiful place. They also have people coming on ‘Farm Holidays’ renting one of the many pretty houses, exploring the endless landscape and maybe even swimming in the lake when they get back.
As usual with places like this, there’s so much going on that it’s difficult to fit it all in, but if you are interested in finding out more then please do check them out at www.vinhavelha.com