Updated: Jan 20, 2021
What a year 2020 proved to be! No sooner had we finished the avocado harvest in early January (see the previous avocado post, dated May 20) and started pruning the trees, the country (and most of Europe) went into strict lockdown.
Whilst it's true that nature cares not for silly man-made laws and curfews, it's quite another matter when you can't get agricultural help to harvest crops or to prepare the land for the year's planting or daily maintenance.
I was away from La Bonita for over half the year as I was unable to travel across Europe, and so I managed the farm via phone and zoom. Thank goodness for the internet and reliable farmworkers.
We also had to cancel all our scheduled art retreats, farm tours, and visits, and plans for future meetups were put on the backburner.
Instead, on the enthusiastic advice of a friend who used to own a vast farming company, I opted to plant sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and corn as a way of diversifying during this unusual period.
It seemed a good idea at the time -- a sort of pandemic experiment in planting land that usually lies fallow and instead use it to grow a range of vegetable and root crops. Indeed, what could go wrong? Food is food, right?
Meanwhile, I would keep the citrus and avocado trees watered, fertilized, and looked after as per usual -- that's what I've learned how to do over these last nine years. The idea to grow a small number of cash crops and if successful, repeat it the following year whilst continuing with the usual farming activities seemed interesting and worth a try whilst keeping the farm going.
Things, however, did not turn out as planned.
No one could have envisaged the devastating effect the pandemic would have on the economy, certainly not in the spring of 2020 when we decided to plant (by hand) a 4000m2 area of land with horticultural seedlings and plants. We prepared the land, cleared it of rocks, put down chicken poop fertilizer, and made it soil perfect to plant.
Having thought that prices would stay the same for fresh produce I was surprised to discover that by mid-summer the price per kilo for produce, such as tomatoes, had plummeted.
This meant that our experimental sweet potatoes and several varieties of veggies were returned to us, unsold, in crates, as were the onions and watermelons, along with almost everything else we'd planted in the spring.
Over the summer and autumn of 2020, the usual buyers (call them middle-men if you like) didn't want corn, peppers, or aubergines; many small farmers ended up having to throw produce away. The only type of farming that was seemingly unaffected was monoculture farming, the type that is so environmentally unfriendly that it's destroying our countryside and biodiversity but has pre-agreed high-volume sales via supermarket chains. These big corporations weather the storms small farmers can't.
Luckily, lemons were, and still are, something that people want, as are avocados, so those harvests were safe. Consequently, my freezer is now full to bursting with some of the fresh horticultural produce that I was unable to sell and ended up cooking instead. The rest went to friends and other farm owners whose livestock was going hungry or ended up rotting. I have certainly eaten my fill of onion quiche and gazpacho this year! I openly admit that I totally misjudged the food production situation during the pandemic -- I guess you live and learn.
So why did this happen?
The reason for the disruption in the food supply chain was the drop in demand for fresh produce.
And that's because the European tourist and restaurant business was decimated this last year.
By end of summer 2020, it was looking pretty horrendous -- businesses were shutting all over Spain and the rest of Europe. There were very few tourists, either local or international, and office workers were working mainly from home. Small bar owners and cafés couldn't keep going with the little amount of trade they were doing; restaurants reliant on a brisk business in summer had hardly served a meal let alone made a profit. And this had a knock-on effect on other businesses, on logistics, and of course, on the demand for food.
What this meant for small farmers like myself was that food planted back in the spring had nowhere to go in July and August. Supply far outstripped demand. Agricultural news stories were depressing -- farmers having to kill animals because they could not feed them, others leaving crops to rot in the soil because there was either no one to pick the produce or prices made it not worth harvesting. And all the while, the prices in the supermarkets were just as high as always -- just goes to show how distorted our food system really is.
So, it's been a tough few months in the farming sector. Luckily for us, our lemons and avocados were, and still are, a commodity that people continue to want. And as these fruits grow on trees, we don't need to plant them every season. But let's see how things pan out in 2021 -- it's anyone's guess what lies ahead.
On a lighter note, La Bonita was featured in the American Society of Botanical Artists magazine, thanks to Jeanne Reiner who had visited us during a retreat with Shevaun Doherty in 2019.
It's wonderful to see my vision for an art retreat community becoming reality. Let's hope that 2021 allows us to restart our program of artists in residence again.
Our other news: in 2020 we planted lots of young sapling olive trees (we had the time as we had no visitors...) and had a bumper crop of pecan nuts and pomegranates, which we did sell, thankfully! These fruits are highly prized when organically produced, so we found a buyer for them, even during Covid. We also had a fabulous olive harvest which produced over 300 litres of extra virgin oil. Even though a second lockdown was in place, we were able to transport the olives to the mill and have them pressed within 48 hours of harvesting, so the aroma and the flavours are excellent. Our white grapes also ripened on the vine and we were able to make our Moscatel wine as we do every year. It's all bottled up, ready for visitors in 2021!
In some ways, 2020 was a logistical nightmare, in others, a challenge that we managed to successfully overcome (sweet potatoes and tomatoes debacle apart...) We also had our best lemon, mandarin, and bacon avocado harvests to date. And our La Bonita family has now expanded to include six hens and a cockerel, plus three cats! Let's see what awaits this coming year...