Wednesday, January 13, 2010

And Finally, a Report-Back!

After my stay in Half Moon Bay, I finally visited my brother in Berlin, where he has been living for 6 years. My girlfriend Danielle and I had never been to Europe, so we did the quintessentially American "finding yourself in Europe in your twenties" trip (even though Danielle is 30, and I think traveling as a couple may ruin the finding yourself thing). After Berlin we went to Czech Republic, visiting small historic rural towns, churches filled with bone pyramids, and the usual Prague monuments.

Mostly, though, we traveled through Spain. The trip, while a somewhat typical "tourist" jaunt, was marked by some agriculturally-related happenings.

First, in Madrid, was the largest farmer demonstration/march since the 80s, with estimated 10,000-200,000 attendees. You can read the article (in spanish) here. And images from El Pais (Spain's largest daily newspaper) here. A much more brief article (in English) is here. Some of their demands (for those who don't read Spanish) include:
1) Set "just" prices for ag products, and regulation of them instead of the dominant free market ideology,
2) Financing and re-financing of producers' debt,
3) Government support for the Cooperative organization systems emerging in the ag sector,
4) Development of sustainable rural energy sources and support for growers in the face of a changing climate.
[Something I thought was rather interesting: El Pais' coverage of this protest was so much better than any equivalent coverage I've seen in the Bay Area of other protests. The report is so much more broad, with historical context, multiple interviewees, and "facts" presented as opinions from different sources, etc. Their news makes the SF Chronicle look like a tabloid joke. For every one-paragraph fluff story in the Chron, there'd be a 3,000 word piece of actual journalism in El Pais...but I digress.]

Then there was the Valle De Jerte area of Extremadura (literally translated means "extreme hard"). This area produced the most notorious conquistadors like Cortéz and Pizarro, yet the beautiful mountainous surroundings looked like paradise to me: fruit trees terraced far and wide, small houses lining the valley, and a setting sun leading down into the hotter flatlands. I can't imagine why these conquistadores felt the need to leave, rape, and plunder...they seemed to have a nice enough scene going on!

We would've stopped and stayed but alas, we had already booked a room farther on in Trujillo (actual hometown of Pizarro). You could see the thermal transition from the topmost cherry trees (completely bare) to the fully-leaved and green cherry trees down below. Later, I looked up property for sale in Tornavacas (my ideal town)...but didn't find what I was looking for. Plus, it might be hard to secure EU citizenship as a farmer anyway...

Then there was the southern coast of Spain, traveling from Alméria's desert beaches to Tarifa, the southernmost point in Western Europe (you can see Tunisia from there). The hotter, more easterly coast (from Motríl to Alméria) is covered in greenhouses, the main crops (as far as I could tell) being (in late November, mind you) cucumbers and tomatoes. I stopped in a farm-supply (read: chemicals, seeds, and utensils) store outside San Jose, and chatted up the proprietor (Jose) as best I could. I learned the following:

1) The farmers in this area are mostly small-scale landowners (owning and operating one or two hectares), and are increasingly threatened by the low prices created by large-scale growers from Morocco and Turkey. Jose told me that Ag workers in Spain earn minimum 40 Euros a day; Morocco and Turkey don't have the minimum wage laws of Spain, so workers earn more in the realm of 5 Euros a day. Jose also maintained that these large agri-businesses are invested in and owned by Europeans, which reminds me of the US-dominated Ag holdings in Baja California.

2) The greenhouse growing relies on chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides. Some farmers use "biological" pesticides, but I didn't find out whether that entailed them to an "Ecologico" certification or what. For sure, Jose didn't think many farmers made their own compost. Some "ayuntamientos" (local governments) create a composting center where the farmers can take their crop residue instead of burning it or throwing it away, but other than that, composting is not a part of their farming practice.

Some other notes:
Spain grows a lot of olives. Portugal: a lot of citrus.

They sell fully roasted baby pigs (called Cochinillos) in restaurants. It looks gross, but at least the places that produce them (as seen from the road) have the honesty to call themselves "ham factories" not farms.
The vegetables were better tasting closer to the coast, but the pizza still sucked.

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