Oranges, Olives and Dirt: An Eco-Holiday in Andalucia

Originally in: The 2010 Olive Press Green Guide Spain

Fancy a holiday without the packaging? Volunteering on organic farms as a Woofer is a great way to travel and experience green living, writes Tom Mellors

WHEN I tell friends that I recently spent a month volunteering on organic farms in Spain, doing strenuous physical labour on a daily basis, they usually stare quizzically before asking: “What’s wrong with you?”

After all, anyone who has met me will know that I am not the most physical person in the world – or for that matter, my family – and the idea of me labouring under the hot sun tends to raise a few smiles, if not bursts of laughter.

So why would a weedy university graduate spend four weeks volunteering on organic farms in the south of Spain? I volunteered through WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – in order to find an answer to a question that had been running through my head since I first heard about the organisation: How do people live sustainably in a world which seems more and more dependent upon supermarkets, big utilities and government for everyday life?

With this question in mind I arrived at Finca Topo, my first host farm in the mountain valleys of Malaga province.

EXPERIENCE: Volunteering on organic farms is a great way to travel

The word ‘finca’ literally means ‘farm’ in Spanish, but often refers to a small country property. Finca Topo was owned by a local teacher called Toni, who lives with his son on the side of a mountain.

I knew this would be a challenging experience: Toni spoke no English and I could only speak basic Spanish, which meant we communicated through wild gesticulations of our hands when verbal language failed us.

The challenge multiplied when I learned there was no hot water for showering because the boiler was broken, and that my bedroom was freezing cold every night.

After a few days however, these concerns seemed less important. I was staying for free in a place where in the distance I could see only mountains, dotted with the occasional whitewashed finca and every night I fell asleep to the sound of the Rio Grande in the valley below.

It wasn’t all about beautiful scenery though. I was there to help out on the farm, and Toni soon had me doing backbreaking labour in the too-hot-for-November sun.

I picked up rocks on land needed for cultivation, hoed the weeds from around a grove of orange trees, and helped to irrigate the vegetable patches with plastic water pipes.

Toni had rigged up his irrigation system by collecting water from the mountains in a small reservoir – about the size of a swimming pool – above his house. The water was then fed down to the vegetable patches and trees below.

Toni’s dedication to sustainability affected every aspect of the family’s life. Almost all of the food we ate came from his farm and everything else was from other local organic producers.

The water we drank came from a local spring, and even the house was heated by a highly-efficient wood burning stove, fuelled by pruning olive trees on the farm.

Every scrap of uneaten food was composted and fed back into the earth when fertilising the vegetable patches and fruit trees.

This meant that Toni lived a virtually waste-free life, with the majority of his rubbish either being recycled on the farm – in the case of food – or sent out for recycling – in the case of paper, plastics, etc.

PAY OFF: Hard work, but I ate some of the freshest food I had ever tried

Following my stay with Toni I headed east to Granada province to volunteer on my second finca.

This time the owners weren’t Spanish, but an Austrian family living in the unusually cosmopolitan and somewhat ‘alternative’ town of Orgiva.

Like Toni, Sophia lived alone with her daughter and balanced running her small farm with a full time job as a homeopath. She desperately needed someone to help with the olive harvest and I had apparently arrived in the nick of time.

The olives were just beginning to turn and the wind had already scattered hundreds across the farm.

Before arriving in Orgiva I knew very little about olive picking, except for holding a few romantic images of old Spanish farmers leisurely plucking olives from trees.

I was in for a shock. I never imagined that it could be so hard.

“Just shake the tree with the bamboo stick,” Sophia said, “and then pick up the olives from the nets.”

Sounds easy enough I thought, but it turned out that waving a bamboo stick about in a 20ft high olive tree for six hours a day is about as exhausting as it gets.

Despite my neck, arms and back aching like I’d been stretched in a medieval torture device, I persevered until the end of my stay.

I left Sophia with 20 litres of olive oil to see her through the year.

In my four weeks volunteering on Spanish farms I worked the hardest I’ve ever done in my life, but I also ate some of the best and freshest food I’ve ever tasted.

I picked lettuce from the soil and made fresh salad, tasted the wonderful aromas of organic olive oil from trees just a few feet away, and ate exotic sub-tropical fruits which had been picked only a day before.

I also found an answer to that question which had running through my head: How do they do it?

The answer came as no surprise.

Hard work, a love for growing good food, and a desire to make a positive difference in our increasingly fragile world.

For more information visit www.wwoof.org

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