Sonia Torres Boned
Sonia Torres Boned: "Agriculture creates the landscape: tourists will stop to take a photo when they spot a carefully tended farm"
[Sant Antoni. Farmer. She runs the Ecofeixes cooperative.
And she farms the organic enterprise Can Blai-Sant Rafel- together with her partner]
When was the seed first planted that grew into Ecofeixes?
It was a request to the group Leader for a project to develop organic farming that came from a group of local farmers. It was back in 2011. I was the driving force behind this initiative, and I accepted the task of speaking to local farmers. There seemed to be a general concern about the difficulties in marketing their products. The costs of putting their produce on the market were high. Farmers wanted to get on with growing and harvesting, but having to deal with orders, deliveries and invoicing customers took up an important part of their precious time.
Is that how you first became interested in agriculture?
I am an economist by training, and I came from working in a bank. I wanted to change my life, and so I returned to Ibiza and started to develop sectors alongside tourism. One young farmer with whom I spoke during that period of innovation and development asked me what I took home with me when I finished work at the bank. “I don’t know… a headache?” I answered. “Well, when I go home, I take a box of vegetables with me. And I feel good, knowing that I am providing healthy food to a group of people on the island” he told me. Now, those words really resonated with me, especially having small children. Even the chickens that we eat and that we use to make our own broth are home reared. At that time, seeing that neither my father’s land, nor these fields, which belong to my mother-in-law, were being cultivated, my husband and I decided to start farming and stop bringing headaches home with us.
And how long did the romantic idealism last? Because a farmer’s life is a hard one. Your work is under threat from so many things that are beyond your control.
Of course, not everything in a farmer’s life is positive. You have to work whatever the weather, rain or shine. This farm was one of those affected by the last hailstorm we had. The income that we were expecting from quite a big artichoke crop went down the drain. Little by little you start to see those difficulties coming, but also it is true that when we were twenty somethings and we said that we wanted to farm seriously, at least our families were there as a huge support. Here, we are never short of a helping hand. Of course that was after they had said that we were crazy because we had professional careers, and we could have done something else [she laughs].
For your parents’ generation, your choice must be like a return to their youth, to a Sant Antoni where not everyone worked in tourism.
Of course, they are the first ones to love the land. It was my father who inculcated in me the idea that you should never sell a piece of land, because you might be hungry one day, and then you could always sow the land and produce food.
In Sant Antoni and in other districts on the island there is a new bunch of people of the same age with similar interests and lifestyle How important is the generational factor?
It was fundamental in our coming together. Almost all the members of Ecofeixes are university graduates. This means that we have lived outside Ibiza. That time spent away from the island helps considerably in keeping an open mind when you return. Believing that what you are doing is the best for yourself, your loved ones, and the people who will live there in the future, helps to keep you determined and enthusiastic which is essential when times are hard. Bonding was very important, because hardly any of us knew much about the primary sector. Working together was one of the ways that we gained that knowledge. We had skipped a generation, because our parents were not farmers.
A whole series of secrets had fallen by the wayside?
Exactly. The talks that we had during the initial years about what we were achieving were essential for us to improve, because this job is not as easy as it looks. We always say this to any new Ecofeixes members when they join.
How would you explain organic farming to someone who knows nothing at all about the land?
Basically, what marks us out is the range of products that are used: we don’t use chemicals, only natural resources. This influences how you work the land. Because precisely because of the products that we can use, if a disease or plague attacks one of our crops we can’t do anything about it. That is why organic farms must prevent rather than cure. In fact, organic farming hasn’t invented anything new. Before the green revolution, there was no such thing as herbicides. Now they are used prior to growing potatoes, and then you eat them. Conventional agriculture has to battle with prices much more than we do, as their costs need to be low and their production high. An organic certificate ensures that products are farm fresh: that differentiation gives us a certain margin to play with price.
Another feature of your farms is that you have recovered local varieties of fruit, vegetables and salads that had been lost because of their lower yields. They weren’t profitable enough.
This is an idea that is gradually gaining ground. I don´t think that you have to dedicate all the crops that you grow to traditional varieties, but I do think that it is one way for us to stand out from the rest. Pebrera blanca, ceba vermella, síndria ratllada, meló eriçó, tomata de penjar… Increasingly people are recognising and seeking more varieties like this. Restaurants are also asking for our produce. Some people would love to serve meló eriçó, for example, all summer long, but it is not possible because these varieties usually have a shorter season than more conventional products. This is why I always tell restaurant owners that these are “limited editions”. Also, it is a kind of selling point [she laughs].
Has the rise in recent years of restaurants in Sant Antoni helped you as producers?
It is a double-edged sword. On one hand, clients are looking for that special product, and the restaurant is interested in having it in their kitchens and on their menus. But on the other hand, and speaking generally, I think there needs to be more communication between chefs and growers. It is also true that July and August are months of extremely intense activity, and not everyone has time to pick up the phone and source things. At Ecofeixes we are working extremely hard to ensure that we can provide produce on a continuous basis, and we are getting there. Restaurants that support us and buy 80% of the fruit and vegetables that they cook from us will be able to display our seal on their menus. I think that it will be a good marketing strategy for both sides. This summer we have also been affected by the same problems that restaurants have experienced with contracting personnel, especially qualified staff, as well as finding replacements when employees come down with Covid. However, the season has been really good for restaurants and that is positive for farmers, as the two sectors go hand in hand. If you are going to eat a dish that costs twenty, thirty or forty euros you want some authentic flavours and different tastes.
Now that we are talking about marketing, how do you think the fact of increased areas of cultivation in Sant Antoni influences the image of such a tourist-oriented municipality?
There are bound to be a lot of people who would not believe that our farm is in Sant Antoni [she laughs]. Many tourists who spend their holidays in the town don’t realise that the district also has its farm and country aspects, with its little villages like Santa Agnès or Sant Mateu. If we publicised it more, I think many visitors would be amazed. I am from ses Païsses, I went to school in Can Bonet, and then secondary school in Quartó de Portmany, much of my life has been spent in Sant Antoni and I think that we need to change the image that many people have of the place we live in.
Agriculture both creates and recovers the landscape, but perhaps we are not aware of the hours of work that have to be put in.
Agriculture creates the landscape. Tourists will stop to take a photo when they spot a carefully tended farm. When we began with the Can Blai project, one of the first things we did was to restore the dry-stone walls. It is not the same as driving by a farm and seeing a beautifully built wall of pedra seca as when you just see a load of stones scattered on the ground. Not to mention the danger that this poses to traffic. If we want the kind of tourist who comes to Sant Antoni to appreciate these things, we need to change our image. I’m not in favour of tourist accommodation on the farms, but I do think it would be positive to sell an experience of a few hours or a daytrip to a farm.
Like a wine cellar or brewery visit you mean.
That’s it. Visitors would learn about life on a farm, and it would be a further tourist attraction for Sant Antoni. We would have to charge an entrance fee of course [she laughs]. I think that for institutions it would be a challenge to get involved in projects like this. There is already a plan in operation, but it is aimed at school children, and it is positive, however, it’s a world that should also be open to adults.
How have Sant Antoni’s farmers been affected by Covid?
During the confinement we noted that there was a lot of interest in zero kilometre produce. And also in the work we do. It was like recognition of those of us who work the land. I think it is something to do with health. Covid has made us aware of the importance of staying healthy. And I also think that we spend more time out of doors now. We make more plans to be out in the country after so much time cooped up at home. I think all of this has led to Ecofeixes’ sales rising, and also increasing numbers of young people want to work in farming. We have to help these young country people because, as I have told you, just like us, their parents didn’t work in agriculture, and they will also have to make all their investments from scratch, tractors, irrigation systems, planting fruit trees… cooperatives are a great tool for channelling those efforts.
At the present time Ecofeixes has 22 hectares of organically farmed land. Will you take on more land?
That will be part of our future. These projects are based on three main pillars: social sustainability (someone working on an organic farm needs to earn a fair wage), environment and economics: these factors must not be lacking. If we want increased profits, we need to cultivate more terraced feixes-fields. That is the best remedy against empty fields. If your farm is already under crops and your neighbour’s isn’t, you will talk to them and, if they let you, you can increase your production in a sustainable way. And by cultivating that land, you would be preserving it, because that is what we’re all about as farmers, we are custodians of the countryside, protecting the land.
Is country life lived at a slower pace?
My recommendation would be that everyone should go out and walk in nature for an hour every day. You are just as busy here, but life is more introspective. You have time to think. You have your mobile with you in your pocket, but if you have to pick beans, you’re not going to be looking at WhatsApp. You are aware of what you are doing in the moment.