Preventing food waste and shortening the food chain from farmer to consumer is the driving force behind a sustainable Crowdfarming project in Valencia. The brainchild of Gonzalo and Gabriel Úrculo, who found themselves with a semi-abandoned orange farm just outside Valencia, has been so successful, they are now at the forefront of an agricultural revolution in rural Spain.
Food waste is a colossal issue. In Europe alone, it is estimated to be around 88 million tonnes per year. On inheriting the Naranjas del Carmen orange grove, the Úrculo brothers knew that without rethinking cultivation and business practice, the viability of the estate would be in doubt. The new farmers found their way. They dismissed long established methods, instead making a decision to farm without pesticides and aiming to reach new markets by investing in online technology. In doing so, they have been able to meet sustainable development goals for the farm and secure its financial stability.
Not wanting to rely on a business-to-business sales model, selling oranges by the lorry load for a meagre return, it dawned on the duo that there was more to orange production than just fruit. They settled on marketing online from the farm direct to consumer. And here’s the good bit – they offer up trees for adoption. From root-to-fruit, you might say. A customer (or ‘crowdfarmer’ as they are called), commits to buying an annual subscription for a tree’s upkeep. This attracts a much higher premium than selling just fruit. In fact, ‘the financial gain is five times higher than selling oranges wholesale,’ explains estate manager, Gemma Ferrandis. Any new saplings are planted according to crowdfarmer demand. Still, a young tree takes time to establish itself. In fact, it takes up to five years for a tree to produce a full quota of 80 kilos of fruit. So, while new crowdfarmers anticipate their trees reaching maturity, the farm makes up any fruit shortfall from their own mature orchard.
When the orange season begins, around sixteen tonnes of fruit will be hand-picked by local agricultural workers and shipped to customers on the same day. Holding fruit in industrial refrigeration units is not part of the crowdfarming philosophy. Picking, packing and shipping within one working day, eliminates the need for expensive cold storage chambers. (According to Ferrandis, a high percentage of fruit and vegetables are lost during the storage process, and she claims this figure can be as high as 58% on traditional orange farms.) Working in this way, stops unnecessary picking (which creates surplus and drives down market price) and helps to bolster the zero-waste, pip-to-plate cycle.
Still, there are limits. There is only so much land. The Naranjas del Carmen orange grove has some 10,000 trees and is full to capacity. Time for another rethink: the duo wanted to help potential crowdfarmers secure trees. So, they invited other growers to join them, bringing together a community of agricultural partners across Spain. Offering not just oranges, but olives, almonds, pomegranates, goat’s cheese and Valencia rice.
As well as the oranges, the bee colonies dotted about the farm are critical. They play a vital role in supporting the farm’s biodiversity. In springtime, the bees swarm across the groves, pollinating the blossoms. ‘The collective hum of their flight is hypnotic,’ says Ferrandis. She goes on, ‘Adopting a hive protects the bees in their natural habitat, allowing us to farm organically. There’s no need to use detrimental chemicals on the soil. The crowdfarmer benefits by receiving jars of either orange blossom or mountain honey throughout the year.’ In the height of summer when temperatures edge upwards from thirty degrees celsius, the bees are moved, driven in convoy overnight to the cooler mountain air of Burgos, in the north-eastern province of Castile and León. The bees spend the summer buzzing amongst heather and wild thyme, darting purposefully towards oak trees, where they settle until the orange blossom bursts open once more – and they are returned to the estate.
In late spring, when the last of the oranges are harvested the estate continues to flourish. Selling honey, fruity olive oil, local red wine, zingy marmalades and orange conserves made with locally grown agave, blushing apricots, melons and summer Valencia tomatoes. This doesn’t come cheap. Produce is more expensive than what’s on offer in the local market. Why? Here, the fruit and vegetables are tended to by a dedicated team of agricultural workers, picking produce to order – and by hand. Still, the lack of affordability in accessing food is a serious issue. This begs the question whether adopting an orange tree or beehive is an indulgence, an affluent luxury available only to the few? Yet, after spending time amongst the oranges, it is clear why people want to nurture this project. Crowdfarming is about making a choice to support a community on multiple levels. It opens up an alternative trade route benefitting both farmer and crowdfarmer without the need for intermediaries. A fair crop price is achieved, ensuring running costs are met and most importantly, food waste avoided.
Crowdfarming is gaining momentum in Spain, opening up new ways for customers to buy Mediterranean staples through annual sponsorship. Not only does this help sustain farms financially, but it encourages agritourism too. Understanding provenance and being able to visit a farm where you sponsor a tree, goat or beehive, forms a connection to the land and a nurturing bond. It’s educational. To see, first-hand, where food comes from, and how the soil can be nurtured is vital. Adopting trees and buying seasonal produce in this way encourages communities to come together. Maybe, then, this is the future of farming and an alternative way to buy food – as a community. Neighbours and friends linking together to share a seasonal crop is a welcome idea, with orange blossom and the spirit of the beehive truly thriving.