“This place used to be home to 150 people. Seventy years ago, you would have found a church here, a school, even a hotel.
“This place has always had water and it has been an important stopover on one of Spain’s internal trading routes for 2,000 years.”
We are listening to Yanniek Schoonhoven and Alfonso Chico de Guzmán, who are telling us the story of their Lighthouse Farm at La Junquera, which is located inland in the west of the Murcia region in southern Spain.
And what a difference a century makes.
When our team travelled to the farm last November, the red soils resembled a landscape on Mars, rather than the Mediterranean image we had had in mind.
Yanniek explains: “The farms here used to be terraced, to hold on to the water. But when tractors arrived, the terraces were taken out, for ease of tilling. The land no longer held on to the water, and in fact the soil itself started to wash away.
“When it does rain here, it rains big – last year we had 200mm (>7.5 inches) of rain in two days. But more often now, the rains arrive late, or don’t arrive at all. We should have sown our cereals last October, but it hadn’t rained for three months.”
As the land desertified, the people deserted the land. There was literally no one left when Yanniek and Alfonso took on Alfonso’s 200-year old family farm 10 years ago.
An uphill battle
This is not unique to southern Spain, it is a process we witness all around the world. As the land is degraded, people move to find fortune elsewhere, mostly in cities.
We see this unfolding from the west of Ireland and the lowlands of Latvia to the highlands of Ethiopia.
In many places, this rural abandonment can turn into a vicious cycle – when the land is no longer managed, it loses more of its functions, its fertility, but also its social fabric.
So it was against all odds that Yanniek and Alfonso started their journey to bring 1,100ha at La Junquera back to life. In Yanniek’s own words: “We wanted the best of both worlds; to use tractors, but at the same time conserve the soil.
“That is why we started with regenerative practices, to build up our soil fertility, our water reserves. In practical terms, this means contour ploughing, adding compost, digging ponds for rainwater conservation. In winter, we invite our neighbouring farm to graze our land with sheep. Their manure has improved our soils immensely.”
Regenerating the landscape
Regenerative agriculture is gaining in popularity worldwide. Its promise to “regenerate the land” has not been lost on the food industry, with multiple big companies pledging to source all their commodities from regenerative farming systems in future. But what is regenerative agriculture, and how does it differ from circular agriculture, nature-inclusive farming, or climate-smart agriculture, terms we have encountered at Lighthouse Farms elsewhere?
Our PhD student Loekie Schreefel set out in search of a scientific definition, and concluded: “Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that uses soil conservation as the entry point to regenerate and contribute to multiple ecosystem services.”
A bit of a mouthful, but it means that regenerative farming uses a healthy soil as the base for a flourishing farm. It will come as no surprise then that this approach is particularly popular in areas where soil degradation is the main threat, not only to the environment, but also to farmers’ livelihoods.
But while the threat of soil degradation may be widespread, solutions can only be found locally. What works for a Spanish olive farmer may be irrelevant to a Dutch potato farmer. This search for solutions is often a process of trial-and-error.
Yanniek and Alfonso have experienced this first hand: “We planted 6,000 pistachio trees, and we thought it would be a good idea not to till the surrounding soil. But we nearly lost all the trees as a result.
“Through our own research, we have found a solution where we leave vegetation strips in between the rows of trees, but we till the soil closer to the trees, and that seems to work.
“We still have to figure out the same for our almond trees. Our apple orchard is irrigated and flourishing, but here the no-tilling has created a party venue for moles.”
Rejuvenating the countryside
One of the benefits of bringing life back to the area is that Yanniek and Alfonso do not have to do this research on their own.
They have set up the Regeneration Academy to connect theory and practice.
Here, university students experience the practicalities of farming in harsh conditions, while conducting their own studies on the farm.
The ability to do this serves multiple purposes – it connects the remote farm to the research community worldwide and it also brings young people onto the farm.
Yanniek explains: “Since the start of our programme, we have hosted 500 participants. Together we have planted over 10,000 trees, and we have implemented many of the changes that students have researched and proposed.
“But equally important, it has brought the countryside back to life. The village of La Junquera now is home to 15 young people, from farm hands to young entrepreneurs, who have started their own business.
“Providing a future and inspiration to a new generation of young farmers – that is why La Junquera is a Lighthouse Farm.”
As our network coordinator Mariana Debernardini reflected after her visit: “I dream of a future where the smartest kids in class are told - you should become a doctor, or a lawyer, or a farmer!”
Learn more about the Regeneration Academy here.