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.


“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


“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

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
Velez de Benaudalla,