A conversation with Marta Cortegano, cofounder of Terra Sintrópica and one of the leaders of the regenerative agriculture movement in Portugal. Straight from one of the driest and emptiest places in Europe where climate change is hitting hard, we talked about farming in challenging conditions, syntropic agroforestry and more.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:
HOW MARTA, A FOREST ENGINEER, ENDED UP IN MERTOLA AND OVERCAME HER DOUBTS ABOUT SYNTROPIC AGROFORESTRY
Marta’s husband started growing organic herbs in Mertola, a very dry place in Portugal with extreme drought. He started to do herbs because of the challenging conditions, as it’s something that doesn’t need so much water. But after six or seven years of drought he had to quit.
”My husband is a farmer. More than 10 years ago, he was looking for a good place to start his dream of farming at the time with herbs, organic herbs. And we found this beautiful place that was a small farm from the archaeological research camp in Mertola that was abandoned.” – Marta Cortegano
”He started to look at what other solutions we can have around the world that could be possible to use here in Mertola. Because it’s quite difficult here and the climate scenarios show us that is not going to be better.” – Marta Cortegano
MERTOLA WITH ALL ITS CHALLENGES IS THE PERFECT PLACE TO START A REGENERATIVE REVOLUTION
Marta and Antonio found out there are other places, which are worse than Mertola in terms of drought and where people are using interesting regenerative solutions.
”Syntrophic farming was one of the options, but actually, we thought that was something that was only possible in the global south and more tropical areas, and not in the Mediterranean […] And then Antonio, my husband, decided that he had nothing to lose, so he would like to try a little bit. So he started this brave idea of trying to translate what syntrophic farming could be in the Mediterranean and in a semi-arid place like Mertola.” – Marta Cortegano
“In the first year, he understood that he could grow vegetables and herbs and fruit together, even in the summer, with much less water than he used to use […] So first of all, we are showing that in the same climate, but very worse soils, it is still possible to have vegetables and fruits with much less water and helping the soil.” – Marta Cortegano
MORE THAN 60 FARMERS ON BOARD
They carried out a pilot program with the idea of receiving three or four people who want to learn farming, regenerative farming and syntrophic farming, and they could spend one year there. They brought people and taught them. It wasn’t only about giving them the land, but also about giving them the skills first. And not just the technical skills, but also the opportunity to experiment to be a farmer.
“We thought that would be much more interesting if we could convince others and give some enthusiasm to other people to do the same. And we talked with some farmers in the region. They are large-scale farmers, but all of them have a place that is abandoned.” – Marta Cortegano
“We can have a nice collaboration. […] We would like to see these gardens with life again. Many of them said, ‘Okay, if we can only have baskets for my family, you can use it’.” – Marta Cortegano
“So we created a program where people could stay here for one year, learning, and experimenting by themselves. So they pass much time here working in practice with Antonio, they have theoretical lessons. Then if they pass this phase, they could experiment more in other places in the garden where they could experiment for four months by themselves, making their errors, experimenting and only after that, if they like, they could stay. They could have that partnership to have a place to really farm.” – Marta Cortegano
USING DIFFERENT TECHNIQUES TO CONNECT TO DIFFERENT FARMERS
They give the farmers the tools for learning and for testing without fear, and without any cost. They presented them with techniques, for instance, keyline design or holistic management, which they saw implemented in other places with good results.
“We see that have been used in Australia, Africa, North America, and other places that are also semi-arid regions with good results. So we don’t know much about it, it’s true that we never tried. But what if we could learn something together and test without any cost to you, just to see, what is the result […] And there were three farmers accepting this challenge” – Marta Cortegano
“We presented them with a group of farms in Portugal and Spain that are already doing these techniques […] and they chose which farms they wanted to visit. So they chose three and we went to visit and we invited also the Regenerative Association of Spain to help us here and to give training to them. But before the training, they went to do the visits and speak to farmers, not with consultants, with farmers, farm-to-farm experience, and they started to be excited.” Marta Cortegano
OTHER POINTS DISCUSSED:
Koen and Marta also talked about
- Translating tropic farming to a different approach
- What would Marta do if she were in charge of a lot of money
- What’s the biggest surprise in the field
Felipe Pasini – Trees bring water so when in doubt plant more trees and complexify
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