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Landscapes, rural live, and (a lack of ) collaboration

Who stops the decline?

· Farmers

This week was a relative 'farmer poor' week. I speeded up my pace a bit, longing for the better weather promised by the forecasts in the south of Spain. I stayed in a variety of places but not with farmers unfortunately. Although I get along in Spanish, with many gestures and mimics, I get lost in translations quite often. It is not easy to have an in-dept conversation about the ‘PAC’ (=CAP= European Common Agriculture Policy but in Spanish (and French) acronyms are often turned upside-down). Local accents and fast talking don’t help either. Ans sadly, the chain of farmers that introduced me to a next one is broken, and appears difficult to repair. But that doesn’t mean my farmer focus is gone!

So if I see a modern looking 50-year old man next to an old Toyota Landcruiser in a field studying his grass-like, 5 cm high crop, I get of my bike and ask if he is satisfied. He was not. He told me that his (winter) wheat and barley should have been 20 cm now. Unlike in France, here in Castilia & Léon they had no rain this winter. ‘But that’s life’, he concluded, not making it dramatic at all. He told me that he had 130 ha in total. I asked if that provided him with a living. He said ‘No’ again. ‘We live of my wife’s teacher’s salary and EU-subsidy (PAC). The revenue of the crop alone wouldn’t provide me an income. My father had 20 ha and 8 cows and made a better living’. ‘And your children?’, I asked. ‘Not interested, and I think they’re right. Look at these villages. Young people don’t want to live here.'

 

Those plains of Spain northwest of Madrid are treeless, slightly hilly and about 700-900 meters high. No tourist goes there. Certainly not in winter. Everything feels deserted. Wikipedia statistics confirm that the villages and towns, many with 500 year old churches (!) are rapidly losing their populations (halved in the past 40 years). I lunched in Madrigal (3 courses plus a bottle of wine for 10 euro!), ta once beautiful town where notably Isabella I of Castile, who financed Columbus voyage, was born. There live fewer than 1500 people now, while in 1970, 3500 people called it their town. You see the rich heritage of city walls and churches crumble down.

Some 40 km south of Salamanca, nearing Extremadura, I was struck by a sudden change of the landscape. With -for me - no obvious reason the depressing, treeless rolling fields changed as if there was an invisible line, into abundancy, with old trees (oaks) and grazing cows, sheep, goats and even roaming pigs. Stone walls and fencepoles made of granite complemented the gorgeous views. Why, such a huge difference in the same climate, the same soils and the same economic system? It occurs to me that it is not just about aesthetics, but a landscape that is cared for and invested in. 50-70 year old trees, mean that at least 3 generations decided to not cut them down.

All Spain was once covered with forests, a Spanish pilgrim told me one night in an ‘Albergue’ on his way to Santiago. Charles V (16th century), he said, had cut down most of the forests to build ships for his warfare. The now desert-like arable land appeared to me as a the last convulsion of a throw-away landscape, where no-one choses to live or invest and in fact the only short-term return is made by heavy machinery, scale and subsidy. The only ‘investment’ I detected was an outdoor gym. Not very much used…

During the week I talked with farmers in bars along the road. ‘Struggling’ was the most commonly used word. And they often added, ‘We cannot collaborate’. It seems to me the right observation. And it holds an opportunity: collaborating is something anyone can do!

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