Organic Growth

    LAST UPDATED: 16 Mar, 2007 @ 11:03
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    by Jason Heppenstall

    Sitting behind his desk in the colourful
    interior of this former children’s nursery, Alberto Hortelano
    points a pen at the computer screen. The image shows children digging in a vegetable garden “Children
    are the beginning of change. If we get them involved with organic agriculture
    they will go home and tell their parents about the benefits.” Alberto is proud
    of the work he is doing. Since his ecological food cooperative was set up a
    year ago he now provides chemical-free produce to three coastal schools and an
    old people’s home. The cooperative, known as Las Torcas, also runs shops in
    Almuñecar and Órgiva selling fresh locally grown food.

    {mosimage}

    “This is becoming really big now,” he says.
    “A few years ago interest in ecologically produced food was confined to a few
    enthusiasts but today many more people are interested.” I look around at the
    office cum guarderia, the walls of which are plastered with flowcharts,
    diagrams of organisational affiliation and posters in several languages. Outside, in what was a former play area,
    boxes of grapefruit and lettuce are piled up around a table upon which sits a
    large pair of scales.

    “This is our business arm.”
    explains Alberto. Initially funded by the Junta de Andalucía, Las Torcas is
    more than a just a fruit and veg coop. The other arm is a foundation that was
    set up five years ago to provide education and workshops from their base in
    Velez de Benaudalla. At this moment they are busying themselves for an organic
    food fair to be held at the end of March and attended by the great and good of
    Andalucía’s organic movement. “Another thing we’re working on is a travelling
    farmer’s market moving from village to village.” There’s no doubt about it,
    Alberto is a busy man.

    The door opens and in walks a woman who introduces
    herself as Raquel, Alberto’s wife. As we talk she takes notes of the stock and
    shuffles cardboard boxes of packaged foods around. “Anyone can join Las
    Torcas,” continues Alberto “as long as they are certified as organic producers
    and are ecological in their outlook.” I had heard that the process of becoming
    certified as organic was a long and torturous process involving reams of
    paperwork. “Not so,” he says “we can do all the paperwork for people, and we
    have a technician who can visit your land and help you. After all we want to
    aid small farmers.”

    We get onto the subject of water and the
    Alpujarra. Alberto is concerned there may not be enough of it this summer
    following poor winter precipitation. Some farmers, he says, are even
    considering not planting this spring. But he is passionate about La Alpujarr
    a and says he is actively
    working to create an Alpujarra ‘brand’ of organic produce that will be known
    everywhere as a by word for high quality. “It’s to do with the soils around
    here, and the spring water. It creates a superior product that is recognisably
    different.”

    {mosimage1}

    “But what of the price”, I ask “isn’t
    organic food much more expensive than ‘factory farmed’ food?” Alberto agrees
    that this can sometimes be the case but is scathing of those who inflate prices
    purely because of the organic label. “Of course, our costs are greater.
    Production levels are lower because we don’t use chemical fertiliser (actually
    the fertiliser Las Torcas uses arrives in the form of truck loads of sheep
    dropping from the mountains around
    Granada) and
    everything is done by hand. But, and this is crucial, you will get five times
    more nutrients, kilo for kilo, if you eat organic rather than the intensively
    reared produce from the plastic greenhouses. So in that respect it’s actually
    much cheaper. People around here assume they’re eating locally grown food when
    they buy from the grocer’s shop but in actual fact the grocer will buy his
    produce on the coast and it will probably have arrived there from a plastic
    greenhouse in Murcia.”

    The phone rings and Alberto seems not to
    hear it until his wife shouts at him to answer it. As he speaks, other workers
    troop in and out. I am struck by how young and international this organisation
    is. The workers come from a mix of nationalities, notably Spanish, German and
    British.

    Alberto returns to tell me about some of
    the projects they are running. All in all they now have over 25 hectares under
    organic cultivation from Busquistar in the Alpujarra
    to Motril and Torrox on the
    coast. Apart from the individual shoppers who visit their stores Las Torcas
    supplies around six hundred people comprised of two ‘normal’ schools, a school
    for handicapped children and an old people’s home. “They all help out with
    production,” says Alberto. Suddenly my mind is filled with the image of dozens
    of OAPs labouring in the fields under the unforgiving Andaluz sun. “Apart from
    the old people,” he adds with a grin.

    Las Torcas is holding an organic food
    fair on March 31st
    in
    Velez de Benaudalla,
    Granada

    www.lastorcas.com

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