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‘Happy Farming’: The Circular Soil Economy

In the search for a more affordable way to farm, Francisco Ruiz Rico discovered the secret to creating healthy, self-sufficient soil, full of life. It has boosted production on his family’s olive farm in Priego de Córdoba, Spain, and regenerated the whole ecosystem. He is now focused not only on the trees but on tending the soil they grow in. Francisco calls it: ‘Happy farming’.

02 Jun 2022
EIT Food South
8 min reading time

Francisco hasn’t always grown olives. In fact, he only started at the age of 52, which is why he considers himself a ‘young farmer’. Until 2013, Francisco and his family worked in the textiles industry. “The economic crisis, alongside the offshoring of many factories in the sector meant we had to find a new business. My family already worked the farm, running both businesses side by side, but I had never taken much interest in it,” explains Francisco.

But when the factory closed, he began working the land full time. Francisco’s farm, Finca El Valle del Conde is set in a national park in an area already known for producing award-winning, globally-recognised olive oil. Francisco has immersed himself in the world of olive oil production, which had long been familiar to him, but it was quite a different matter to put into practice as director of his own farm.

The approach he developed for cultivating his own land does not follow conventional industrial farming methods. In 2019, they began the transition to organic agriculture, changing how the farm was managed and the results are abundantly visible. He prefers to use a natural, time-honoured and touch approach. His farm has come to life. And he stumbled upon the secret to his success by chance, thanks to a flock of sheep grazing nearby.

Growing value

At first, the move to organic was a financial decision. “Farmers earn very little. Even though oil is an ‘essential’ product in most family shopping baskets, the producer gets paid a very low price. So we had to look at ways to add value to the product,” says Francisco.

There are around 250 types of olive and the farm grows the Picuda variety, one of the most highly prized for its fruity taste with notes of almond. This oil is sweet and delicate, fresh and easy on the palate, Although connoisseurs may have differences of opinion, “What sets this oil apart is its exceptional nutritional value,” explains Francisco.

By changing how he farmed the land, he sought a qualitative leap forward. Francisco succeeded in producing a healthier, higher quality oil that he could sell at a premium. His oil stands out in a sector that is gradually becoming more complex, with industrial-scale producers planting new, high density olive groves, intensively farmed by machines on farmland with little or no slope.

When deciding how to begin the transition towards more nature-led farming and assessing the various obstacles, he found a problem that he had never faced before: how to manage the natural vegetation cover of the farm. With his new approach, pesticides were no longer an option.

Francisco’s 230-hectare farm spans a valley and its surrounding mountains. It has very fertile land, but there are areas where they have to contend with slopes of 30% and 40%. “Controlling vegetation cover is essential to prevent competition with the crop, ensuring the vegetation does not divert all the nutrients in the soil, so they can reach the olive trees,” he explains. Luckily, a solution that did not require machinery was close at hand.

The secrets of ‘animal mowing’

Several flocks of sheep were already grazing in the area. Francisco decided to trial using them to clear the vegetation instead of tractors, brushcutters or ploughs. By opting to use ‘animal mowing’, Francisco was harking back to a traditional technique. It solved not only the challenge of using machinery on the steep inclines, but brought about a number of other advantages as well. The technique helps preserve biodiversity, prevents wildfires and increases carbon sequestration. And, it worked like a charm at clearing the brush.

“We started with 400 head of sheep, but because of the unusually heavy spring rains, we underestimated the amount of vegetation growth. So we decided to increase the number of animals,” says Francisco. “To manage so many animals, we divided the farm into areas of four to five hectares, enclosed by portable electrified fences. The flocks graze for three or four days in each plot, before moving on to the next.”

The practice of ‘mob grazing’ was so successful, it even increased olive production. The sheep were able to reach the steeper, less accessible areas with historically low yields. These more remote olive groves are now recovering and producing more as the soil health improves. "Over time, we've seen that not only does managing the cover crop with animals work to control vegetation, which was our initial focus, but that the animals themselves are improving the soil in the process,” says Francisco.

The natural benefits of an age–old practice

What started out as a way to manage vegetation turned out to be a regenerative farming practice with more benefits than expected: "We found that we were benefiting the environment at all levels. The soil has become even more fertile, we have more vegetation and even endemic olive pests have been brought under control."

The animals have been regenerating the soil in their wake: the same soil that supports the entire food chain, from microorganisms to humans. Everything stems from this change in the way the land is worked. “Conventional farmers tend to see soil simply as a substance in which plants take root, but don’t think about the extent of the animal world underneath, beyond just the roots. It’s a complete living entity,” says Francisco. For him, avoiding the use of chemicals to take better care the soil means, “the soil will in turn look after us. And that value needs to be clearly appreciated,” he adds.

This does not mean to say that we mistreated the farm in the past, Francisco explains, The family has always been very respectful of the land, but due to the slope, it was not easy to grow olives. Herbicides (“poison for microorganisms,” he adds) had only been used in a ring around each trunk. After only two years of organic farming, we recovered the farm’s entire vegetation cover.

Letting the sheep come to graze on the land has proven to have many more advantages. They have created a plant ecosystem that is benefiting all species. “Sheep graze, ingest nutrients from the soil and leave manure as they pass, spreading microorganisms through their saliva and ‘massaging’ the soil, creating small terraces which help to prevent erosion and return beneficial nutrients to the soil. It’s a circle,” says Francisco.

“We use sheep instead of brushcutters. Sheep are the best mowers on the market,” jokes Francisco. They are still learning how many heads of livestock they need and how often the flocks should graze on the same paddock, but the true value of integrating animals is clear: what they give to the soil.

Making space for the species that give life to the soil

Soil is a living entity thanks to thousands of microorganisms and creatures that reside in it. “If you look after the soil, it returns the favour,” Francisco reiterates. The difference is the details. He stresses the importance of the species that have returned, like the endangered dung beetle, saying, “We’ve started seeing them on the farm, which is fantastic since they are excellent decomposers, along with earthworms and other insects.”

He has also noticed an increase in the number of anthills in recent months. “The population has increased which helps the soil to breathe thanks to the extensive network of tunnels they build. Ants also help to control the olive fly (Bactrocera oleae), as do the other insects that are returning to the farm.”

The sheep have also contributed to a process of reforestation, increasing the number of plant species by spreading seeds throughout the farm. And the results are visible: “There is a small yellow flower known in Spanish as ‘sheep’s grain’ (Scorpiurus muricatus). Previously it was found only in certain areas, but now it has spread across the farm.” The sheep find it very appetising and it is very beneficial to the farmer as the leguminous plant naturally fixes nitrogen into the soil. The population of ‘false yellowheads’ (Dittrichia viscosa) has also increased and as it is a host plant for the predators of the dreaded olive fly, it is helping to bring this pest under control.

The presence of more vegetation and insects is leading to the recovery of other populations. Insectivorous birds such as wagtails or bee-eaters are growing in number and the national park’s largest colony of griffon vultures can be found on the farm. Smaller bird species have even built their nests from wool taken from the fleeces of the sheep. As the soil regenerates, a diverse habitat is rebuilt that balances the entire ecosystem.

As a result, biodiversity is increasing. “Regenerative agriculture in part harkens back to the traditional farming practices of our grandparents when animals roamed freely. We are seeing how the land is behaving as it did when it held more life. This has been a revelation for us. It has also brought us closer to nature, generating a symbiosis between farmer and habitat with unprecedented results for the environment and yields that we couldn’t have foreseen just a few years ago,” reflects Francisco.

Regenerative and collaborative

The fact that the sheep were ‘nearby’ means they do not belong to Francisco.

“The flocks graze in the orchard thanks to an agreement with a neighbouring shepherd. We are not shepherds, but fortunately we can take advantage of their proximity.” And this same collaboration extends to, as Francisco puts it, “another type of livestock”: bees.

There are 140 hives spread across the orchard. Bees contribute to the repopulation of animal species and reforestation. The maintenance and promotion of biodiversity is not always directly linked to the cash crop: “Although bees do not directly benefit the olive trees, as they don’t pollinate them, they’re essential for the farm flora in general, which, in turn, benefits the sheep, other pollinating insects and the birds” he says.

The farm also makes its own compost from olive leaves. “When the client comes to pick up the olives to take them to the mill, we ask them to return the leaves so that we can use them for compost. This is a way of giving back what the land gave us.”

No looking back

Reading and studying was the first step before embarking on the journey. “That was the initial challenge,” Francisco admits. “You have to learn a lot, both about the environment and the soil itself.” And moving from theory to practice is daunting: “In the end it’s about breaking away from business as usual. We had to tell the team “We’re going to turn off the machines”. There was some push-back because it was all so new, but it’s a young and agile team and in no time they were able to adapt and learn. We quickly realized that the changes were for the better.”

And they aren’t the only ones who have noticed the improvement. Curious neighbours have commented on how much the farm has changed. “They come to visit and ask lots of questions because it’s unbelievable how the farm has become filled with new life.” That’s why he calls it ‘happy farming’.

Now he would never go back: “I would encourage all producers, who haven’t already, to take this step, because there are so many advantages. We all have a role to play in looking after the environment, no matter how small our farms. Those who try will see the environmental and economic benefits for themselves. And age is no excuse. It’s never too late to change.”

“Farmers have always been very conservative, but we need to begin the transition. The time has come for every one of us to do our part to help environment, and in doing so we will help our loved ones and generations to come, whose future will depend on the choices we make today.”

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