Letter From The Farm | Cooking With The Lights Off – Ingredients of Rural Resilience

Sunset in the countryside around Granada. Photo: Matteo Metta

We’re back on Cortijo El Manzano in Campotéjar, rural Andalusia, with another letter from ARC2020’s Matteo Metta. This agroecological farm has been building resilience collectively since 1986. After his experience living and volunteering on the farm in February, Matteo reflects on what El Manzano can teach us about some key ingredients of rural resilience: housing, labour and energy. 

Rural housing

Fixed or mobile, rural houses tell so much about our human civilisation and history. The many rural ruins around Campotéjar, but also the vulnerable housing conditions I experienced at El Manzano have sparked so many questions in my mind about urban privileges, but also about the vacuum left by policies at all levels, from Brussels to regions like Andalusia. Of course, I came across stunning traditional houses and well-kept viviendas rurales, but overall, I recognised that many problems of today’s rural areas in Spain and elsewhere are related to poor housing.

In El Manzano, but also elsewhere in my previous research, I noticed how infrastructure such as housing and roads is such a significant factor in farmers’ livelihoods, yet it receives a paltry budget line in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), or none at all. With good rural dwellings, farmers and agricultural workers can save money on fuel by living on the farm. They can provide accommodation for workers and volunteers in exchange for labour. They can install solar panels for the energy they need in order to process food. They can enjoy quality of life and have long-term prospects for their families and compañeros.

Ruins at Cortijo after a fire outbreak. Photo: Matteo Metta

So, in the ongoing debate about the future of CAP and other European policies, where is the space to talk about the massive support needed to restore small and medium-sized dwellings on farms? Should farmers’ housing continue to be largely excluded from public rural support simply because it is seen as ‘non-productive assets’ within this rural modernisation paradigm? How is the EU coordinating the regional and local efforts to adapt the urbanistic law for small and medium-sized dwellings on farms, be they fixed or mobile? If the EU cares about revitalising rural areas, shouldn’t we start by supporting the basics: our rural homes?

At El Manzano, I learned that precarious farmers, especially but not only young farmers, and families, with little or no liquidity at all, can never afford to co-finance public investments from EU or regional funds. At the same time, investments in agritourism and other business diversification projects have become the ultimate gateway to access public funding. This is because, in the current framework, rural houses are seen as economic assets to serve the ‘clients’, rather than essential infrastructure for farmers to be able to live, work, and prosper in rural areas. There must be a different package of actions, from regulations to engineering innovations and fair funding models. An example could be a better managed and more targeted ‘super bonus scheme’, like the one adopted in Italy to modernise the structure and energy use of many houses.

Sunset over Andalusian olive groves. Photo: Matteo Metta

Rural labour 

Directly connected to the issue of housing, at El Manzano, I experienced some of the rural challenges and solutions around labour. Cheesemaking, herding, milking, carpentry, growing fruits and vegetables, animal husbandry, cooking, and many other artisanal competences are needed in rural areas, yet these demands are unmatched. Compounding the lack of qualified workers, many farmers cannot afford to offer attractive earnings for workers. Rafa, like many farmers, works non-stop, even during the weekends, and he is deprived of wages, training, or paid holidays for himself.  

Over 40 years, many workers and volunteers have come and gone at El Manzano, which is normal for many businesses. However many workers and volunteers impressed me by their solidarity with Rafa, who could be referred to as the ‘farm manager’. I learned that boundaries between farm manager and workers (and the administrative burden that is today created to ensure fairness in this regard) can be reduced when the farmer is able to offer an inspiring and fulfilling life to agricultural workers, beyond the pay packet. Such arrangements can succeed when conditions allow workers to live from their earnings, and when they have common cause with the farm manager, as well as sharing meals, accommodation, and values.

In this case, the distance between employee and employer becomes a symbolic one, and goes beyond monetary argumentations. The workers I met at El Manzano were not watching the clock to claim overtime. They knew that other jobs could offer more money for less effort, but they felt no oppression about what they were doing. Most of the pressure they suffer stems from two sources: the dominant agri-food actors that place all of the human labour burden on farmers and workers, while removing the means for them to have better prospects; and a lack of institutional arrangements that would allow these same farmers and workers to better regularise and distribute agricultural labour. Many French farmers, for instance, make up for this institutional shortcoming by paying themselves a wage through labour cooperatives called GAECs (Groupement Agricole d’Exploitation en Commun).

The topic of rural labour is delicate and can contain many bright and dark aspects (slavery, mafia infiltration, human trafficking, abuses, etc.). One farm does not represent all farms: many large, medium or small-scale farmers are very far away from the precarious yet convivial working situation at El Manzano. And yet, realities like this, from the ground at El Manzano, can inform policy makers around CAP social conditionality. Real-life reports can help sensibly steer effective targeting, without compromising the genuine solidarity and complex relationship between workers and farmers (housing, values, daily life) as a key ingredient of agroecological and rural resilience.

Workers and volunteers eating together at Sunday lunch, El Manzano. Photo: Matteo Metta

Rural energy

When I arrived at El Manzano, the cloudy sky over us told me we’d be cooking with the lights off. 100% of electricity at El Manzano is sourced from solar panels. Gas is used for cooking and local firewood for heating the house. Some solar energy is stocked in batteries for the cheese storage facilities. But for the rest, having no sun meant no energy for pumping our water, charging electronic devices, powering light bulbs, and so forth. The same situation occurs every night at El Manzano and here I learned how lower quality olive oil can be used as a source for renewable, locally sourced candlelight. 

Coming from Italy, a country that is praising food sovereignty in words, but recently subsidising large-scale hydrogen and solar panel projects over fertile rural grounds in action, my attention was caught many times by the installation of small-scale solar panels scattered among the olive groves, sometimes almost hidden, and usually placed either over or right next to small rural dwellings in Andalusia.

Small-scale solar panel installations among olive trees in rural Andalusia, Campotéjar. Photo: Matteo Metta

It is often true that the environmental footprint of producing, shipping and installing solar panels can go beyond their actual savings. It’s also true that many factors linked to sustainable energy depend not so much on the technology or energy source per se, but on how we use the energy, who needs it and for what, who controls and owns the infrastructure.

However, if these examples of small-scale installations were to become more widespread for European rural housing and energy self-autonomy, I think this experience from Andalusia is a good practice to invest in our common future, especially in the South of Europe where sun is abundant and solar energy can offer a great contribution to reduce fossil fuels. There needs to be an extra-mile effort to transform the current system with many good practices that exist in the field, but are unfortunately only deposited in EU archives, catalogues, databases, or one-off awards.

Sunny and shady February afternoon at El Manzano. Photo: Matteo Metta

It goes without saying that farmers and rural dwellers should not be pushed into debt to buy solar panels or, worse, made to sell or rent their valuable soil for large-scale installations. Is renting out for large agri-solar projects the best agricultural investment for their land at the moment? These situations are unfortunately happening.

To prevent the negative effects of pushing renewable energy at any cost – even compromising food sovereignty, access to land, and energy decentralisation – the EU can and should do much more. The empty ‘do no significant harm’ principle that is embedded in much “sustainable finance” legislation is not sufficiently filtering sustainable investments. In fact, it is providing a legal pathway to many unsustainable investments funded by state-aid support or NextGenerationEU.

In the third and final letter in this series, Matteo Metta explores why, for El Manzano and many other small farms, rural digitalisation remains a hard sell.

More letters from the farm

Letter From The Farm | A Flamenco Approach to Rural Resilience

Letter From The Farm | Learning from a Campesino Family in Cuba

Letter From The Farm | Winter Health Czech for the Herd

Farm to Forms – the Epicness of Trying to Establish and Run a Farm in France

Letter From The Farm | Wandering In Quest Of Balance

Letter From The Farm | Restoring Nature, Improving Productivity

Letter From The Farm | The More-Than-Human Magic of Transhumance

Letter From The Farm | Looking Beyond The Farm Gate

France | Growing Vegetables, Seeding Values – Part 1

France | Growing Vegetables, Seeding Values – Part 2

France | Change Is In Our Hands – Part 1

France | Change Is In Our Hands – Part 2

Avatar photo
About Matteo Metta 25 Articles

Matteo Metta is CAP Policy Analyst at ARC2020. He is specialised in agriculture, food, and rural development policy and evaluation. Matteo is a researcher on the digitalisation and its impacts on agriculture, forestry, and rural areas.