A Calf Among the Cows: Profile of Organic Farm in Portugal

June 30, 2011 at 2:14 pm Leave a comment

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© Slide show by Margarida Correia.

This is one in a series of posts on my 10-day experience as a volunteer farmer in northern Portugal.

Rosa had finished drinking from the giant tub when Mila and Tangerina approached to get their fill of water.  They should have known better.  Rosa swung her big horns to chase the younger cows away. 

“She’s asserting her status in the hierarchy of the cows,” said Filipe Antunes, co-owner of Cimo de Vila, a 30-acre organic farm in northern Portugal. Rosa, a nine-year-old cow, was one of the oldest and biggest in the herd of 15.

Queuing up for water were the herd’s lowest-ranking members:  tan-colored calves with small developing horns.  They would be last on the water line.

As I watched, I couldn’t help drawing an analogy between the cows and Portugal’s agriculture system. I compared Rosa, Mila and Tangerina to the big food growers — mostly outside Portugal — supplying the country’s hypermarkets and supermarket chains.  These super-sized food producers and distributors are making it hard for agriculture’s calves — small organic farms like Cimo de Vila — to compete. 

But the calves shouldn’t despair.  They can’t be bossed around forever. 

Small organic farms in Portugal have reason to be hopeful.  The number of organic farms and the area of land dedicated to organic farming have increased with rising demand for organic food over the last several years.  According to AGROBIO, a Portuguese trade association for organic farmers and organic food consumers, more than 494,000 acres of land were managed organically in 2005, up from 123,000 acres in 2000.  The number of organic farmers also jumped.  In 1993, there were 73 certified organic farmers.  By 2005, there were more than 1,500.

“I believe that it has good prospects,” said the farm’s co-owner Isabel Teixeira of organic farming, adding that the supply of organically grown food in Portugal does not meet market demand.  She explained that doctors are increasingly recommending that children drink and eat organic products.  “Parents see organic food as being healthier for their kids,” said Teixeira.

Still, organic farms face huge challenges.  It’s difficult to find people willing to work on small farms because agriculture has a negative image in Portugal.  “It’s associated with the way our grandparents practiced agriculture and seen as too laborious,” said Teixeira, adding the people prefer 9 to 5 office jobs.

Distribution channels for organic food in Portugal are also limited, creating additional challenges for beginning organic farmers.  Cimo de Vila Farm developed many contacts and relationships as a result of a local food coop it established more than 10 years ago.  Today, the farm sells its products at a weekly organic farmers market in Porto, a major city an hour’s drive from the farm.  Its products are also sold at organic food stores and gourmet shops in Lisbon and Porto.

“It’s not enough to buy a Ferrari or even a Jeep,” said Teixeira, “but we do OK.”  Profits, she said, are reinvested into the farm to buy tools and equipment.

Cimo de Vila benefits from several revenue streams. The cows are the biggest revenue producers.  The meat is sold to consumers through a sales agent.  “There are waiting lists for the meat,” said Teixeira.

It also runs a healthy business making essential oils and floral water from the lavender it harvests on the farm.  Last year, the farm harvested roughly 330 pounds of lavender, enough to produce and sell 159 gallons of lavender water and 6 gallons of lavender oil.  It also harvested enough roses to produce more than 53 gallons of rose water this year.

In addition, the farm sells herbs, plants, and flowers, all grown on site, and a variety of byproducts — teas, jams, dried flower sachets, for example — under its label Mimos d’Arnoia.

The farm is eager to scale up production and is actively seeking a partner to help it grow.

“We have so much to do we can’t do more,” said Teixeira.  “With a partner, we would have more things to sell.”

For related posts on Cimo de Vila Farm, click here and here.

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Entry filed under: Food Dilemmas, Global Issues. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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