This morning we bid farewell to Beja, in South Central Portugal. Last evening we were warmly welcomed to the city by the robust and endearing local residents. They eagerly invited us into their late night restaurants to partake in their conversations and celebrations. In this small city (10,000 residents) they were eager to converse with the visiting Americans. A ruddy sort of folk with hands callused and minds engaged by their natural trades- farmers, doctors, builders, accountants, and shopkeepers all gathered without social class differentiation in the same establishments- and all had a keen interest in our presence. Language was a barrier, sometimes crossed with broken words and sentences of part English and part Portuguese, othertimes by warm gestures and reciprocating smiles.
After sunrise we left from the outskirts of the city (maybe a village by European standards), and traversed through the remaining countryside of Southern Portugal on our way to Andalusia (the Southwestern part of Spain. Rolling hills with Savanna type cork tree forest was intermittently broken by the occasional field of wheat or rye. Cattle herds and sheep flocks looked on as our coach cut through the rural landscape. As we ascended toward the border of Spain, the landscape looked a little harsher, a cross between the foothills of Appalachia and the high sagebrush desert of Idaho. Then, crossing into Spain, the terrain softened and abruptly burst open to reveal a cornucopia of fruit and vegetable production- almonds, potatoes, olive trees, peas, raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries. Our farm visit would focus on strawberries, the principal crop of the area, referred to once by our guide as “red gold.”
Flor de Donana is a moderate sized strawberry producer in the area that was a giant in their niche, organic production. Strawberries are a hard crop to farm organically, but Flor de Donana had been refining their practices for 16 years. Solutions had been developed to replace chemical applications with beneficial predator insects, natural additives, and organic fertilizer. From 100 acres of intense strawberry production, they annually market 4 million kilograms for produce, to all parts of Europe. Berries were hand picked and placed in crates that would be offered to customers in grocery stores as far as 750 miles away within 24 hours of being plucked. Nearly a hundred local workers pick the strawberries everyday of the production season- from December through June. July through October the temporary hoop greenhouses are cover crops are planted in the production fields. After that time, the rows are reshaped, the greenhouses are rebuilt around them, and the next year’s plants are placed- all plants used are annual varieties. Interestingly, all strawberry plants need to be started in greenhouses in the North of Spain, where they must receive exposure to cold to be programmed correctly. The whole system seemed to be managed very efficiently. We were able to pick and sample some of the produce (all we wanted actually!) and the taste and freshness was excellent.