Living off the land

Going back is the way forward, at least when it comes to farming. Ditch the pesticides and the heavy machinery and work in harmony with nature like they did centuries ago. Organic agriculture is popular again, also in Portugal, where more and more people make a change from supermarket-bought to home-grown. Enjoy the Algarve investigates and visits Chris Lewis at Várzea da Gonçala. 

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine January 2017

Pictures by Kyle Rodriguez


You are what you eat. No, that doesn’t mean you’ll turn into a codfish when you try out all of Portugal’s 365 bacalhau recipes, it means that in order to be fit and healthy, you need to eat good food. And with that, we’re lucky in the Algarve, where the rural lifestyle isn’t yet forgotten. We’ve got the Atlantic Ocean for fish, the mountain range near Monchique for porco preto and various vineyards for wine. Plus, as least as important: plenty of land for fruit and vegetables. Because when growing these yourself, there’s no need to buy them in the supermarket, where they’ll have been A) wrapped in plastic, B) transported halfway around the world, C) sprayed with pesticides, or D) a combination of the above. (Probably D).

Living off what you grow on your land isn’t new; it’s how people kept themselves alive for centuries when there weren’t any factories, ready-meals, microwaves and supermarkets yet. Lately, organic agriculture has become more popular again, also in the south of Portugal. Based on environmentally friendly production techniques, organic farming in its most simple form means that nothing toxic or harmful such as pesticides or growth hormones is used in the production process. (A more extensive definition can be found on the website of Agrobio, Portugal’s national organic farming organisation). Were there only 73 organic producers in Portugal back in 1993, this number has increased to 2603 in 2011.

Apart from this growth, also the sharing of knowledge has expanded. From asking organic communities on Facebook about what to do with a few square metres of garden (cultivating fava beans or making sure you have plenty of fresh mint for mojitos?) to exchange programmes such as Work-away and especially WWOOF, where volunteers help out on organic farms and get food and accommodation in return. Currently, the Portuguese section of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) counts 138 hosts, over a quarter of them located in the Algarve. Organic farming goes hand in hand with permaculture, the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. The permaculture worldwide network has 79 projects in this country.

Want walnuts? Wait 8 years.

Organic farming happens on every scale; from someone taking care of a single tomato plant in a pot on their balcony to people who aim to be self-sufficient and live completely off what the land has to offer. For Chris Lewis (61, pictured above) it’s closer to the latter. Originally from Wales (UK) where he’s studied ecology, in 2006 Chris moved to Várzea da Gonçala in the Cerca valley near Aljezur with his wife Christine, where the couple started the ‘icanfeedmyself’-project. Back then, although there were houses, the meadowland was still untouched: “It was pretty wild when we got here, almost a desert at parts,” Chris admits with a smile. Helped by various volunteers, he and his wife turned the 8 hectares of wild valley into an ecological paradise with a vegetable garden and a future food forest, geese grazing and guests staying in the onsite accommodation.

The process hasn’t been easy though. Chris: “It took me 50 years to get where I want to be. At the beginning we had some vague ideas, but no particular plans. It was hard getting through the first few years; we lived off our savings. It’s not a massive project, so it is going slowly and plans have evolved as we’ve been here.” The process, it seems, is also an organic one. Chris: “Every year the idea is coming into better focus. It takes a lot of errors and mistakes to work out what to grow where. First, I didn’t have a clue and planted some citrus trees. Three years later, they were still the same size. When I put them somewhere different, they shot up within six months. It’s also very long term thinking: with a walnut tree, for example, it takes 8 to 10 years until you get your first nuts.”

Can you feed yourself?

The ingredients of the vegetable soup that’s for lunch, -wild mustard, spinach, stinging nettles and mallow to name just a few-, all come from the garden. Complete self-sufficiency isn’t reached yet; things like milk, cheese and coffee have to be bought in the shop. Still, if a disaster would happen and all supermarkets would close, the people in the Cerca valley would survive. “There’s still a long way to go, but we’re slowly getting to the levels of self-sustainability they had here 50 years ago,” comments Chris. “Back then, more people lived in the valley, everything was cultivated by hand, the road was a muddy donkey track and only a couple of things such as salt had to be bought in Aljezur.”

“In three more years we can start making jams, olive oil, vegan cheese from almonds, and all kinds of spreads,” adds Chaym Feldman (42, pictured below on the right). Chaym, who has lived on ecological farms in his native Israel for 8 years, has been working at Várzea da Gonçala since 2014. “I think we’re about 40% self-sufficient all through the year. We cover eggs and vegetables, but the trees in the food forest are still young.” Next to the emphasis on vegetarianism and self-sufficiency, traditional Portuguese agricultural and farming traditions are respected at the project. Chaym explains: “We grow according to season (cabbage in winter, tomatoes in summer) and use techniques like flooding and direct seeding (working with seeds instead of seedlings), just like they did here in the old days.”

In the vegetable garden, all plants are thought out in advance. Chaym: “We try to be as holistic as we can; growing crops for nutritional as well as for medicinal reasons. Hippocrates already said: let food be your medicine. Before planting we consider which crops will provide vitamins, minerals, fibres and protein.” Mulching and self-composting are important, the manure comes from the stables down the road, and instead of chemicals and pesticides, effective microorganisms (EM) are used. The surplus goes to guests staying in the guesthouses or is sold on the Saturday market in Aljezur. Chaym: “Eating as local as possible is way healthier: no packaging is needed, no food miles are involved and there’s still a lot of energy in the plant if it’s eaten directly after picking.”

Portugal’s organic evolution

In the last few decades, more people have started to think like Chris and Chaym. There’s been a rise in environmental awareness and bio-shops. Portugal’s first organic farmers market was held in Lisbon in 2004 and between 2000 and 2009, the organic area in Portugal grew by 214%. (Want to know more about organic farming in Portugal? Read the report in the side note in the original article). According to Eurostat, in 2015 the total organic area in Portugal was 241,375 ha (which, to be fair, still isn’t a lot when seen in a European perspective). That this increase is almost worldwide is a no brainer: chickens that wander around free will be happier –and healthier- than their sisters kept locked inside small cages. Not using pesticides won’t pollute the ground water and thus make for better water quality. Home-grown food is, quite simply, healthier food.

But to Chaym, working in the garden is way more than ensuring he’s got something nice on his plate three times a day. “It’s about reconnecting to the soil, the vegetables and the trees,” he explains. To Chris, this connection is so important that he walks around barefoot. “I like the feel of the Earth under my feet.” One of the volunteers who’s helping out on the land insists that the garden and food forest supply inspiration, a connection to people, and even work as a form of therapy. It’s an alternative way of living, especially compared to sitting in an office from 9 to 5, but don’t expect a bunch of hippie solely-chia-seed-eating-health-freaks. Chaym laughs: “I’m not giving up my galão and pastel de nata every morning: it drives my day!”

‘You can make anything work’

Plum, olive, hazelnut, fig, walnut, Portuguese oak, cork oak, almond, pomegranate, grapefruit, chestnut, cherry, orange, clementine and carob are only an example of the trees you’ll find at Várzea da Gonçala. Diversity, it seems, is key. Chris explains: “The more diversity you have, the more resistant the ecosystem is going to be. Monoculture, in anything, will encourage the pests. Nature is a balance between species.”

Seen in winter time, the lush green valley seems like an ideal place to live off the land, but, Chris reveals, it was actually surprisingly hard. “The rain stops towards the end of May and starts again end of September. That leaves you with four almost entirely dry months, which made it a greater challenge than I guessed. Especially on the hillside, there isn’t a single native tree that I haven’t tried growing. However, there are people doing this Africa and China, which is way harder. Even deserts can be made productive. Actually, you can make anything work”. Last winter, they put in irrigation ponds. Those work with a tube that runs from the ponds up the river, all the way towards the end that has year-round water. In summer when the ponds get filled, the barriers are taken away and the entire area is flooded. The invasive river bamboo that grows abundantly along any stream in the Algarve, a nuisance to many farmers, is turned into something useful here. Chris puts it on roofs, makes barricades that catch the silt in case of overspill and marks the plants with it.

The result of all this work is a place where you instantly feel well. And that’s not just because of the idyllic tree house. Or because it looks like a scene of the movie The Beach and you could imagine Leonardo DiCaprio chilling in one of the hammocks. It’s because the air is unpolluted and you’re living in harmony with nature. Because the project isn’t for monetary profit, but for taking care of future generations by creating a rich and diverse ecosystem. And that’s exactly the reason why Chris does what he does: “It sounds a bit cliché, but the connection with nature is so important. It’s basic to all life, we’re inseparable from it. In logical terms, here we’re only one step away from the soil and eat the plants we grow. We’re totally connected to the environment; it’s as simple as that.”


Interested in organic farming? Chris writes a blog about the project on his website. Want to learn more? From 24 March to 4 April there’s a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) at Várzea da Gonçala and 8 to 13 April there’s a Holistic Gardening course.


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine January 2017

Posted in Features, Food, People.