The Last Farmer Standing- An Interview from ‘Empty’ Spain (Part 2).
In the first part of Miguel’s story, we learnt about rural life in Teruel, known for being as Miguel described ‘un rincón perdida de España’, a lost corner of empty Spain. He led us through tales of the struggles of his village, the realities of his life as a farmer and also the surprising adventures of the bohemian artists of the past who made Calaciete their home, many years ago.
This time we get down the crux of the matter- exactly why is it so difficult to be a farmer in Spain? From dodgy village co-operatives and political divisions to the fight to survive in an industrialized agricultural model, Miguel explains it all and gives us some food for thought about our own lives in the process.
Bohemian tales continued...
Thinking about what Calaceite must have been like in 1983, only 8 years after the death of the country’s former dictator Franco, I wondered what the locals thought about all these artists and bohemian foreigners that had suddenly come and set up shop in the village, and if the new residents from afar incorporated themselves in village life.
“Very little”, Miguel says, “very few integrated with the locals. But we didn’t offer ourselves to them either. People looked at them strangely, as outsiders”.
He notes that perhaps this was due to lack of a common language and also because the local people felt, in Miguel’s words ‘too much respect for them’, to the point of being fearful of them. I wondered if this was in part due to the local people seeing them as being better in some way since they didn’t need to work the land to make a living.
But Miguel says it was more that they saw them as being ‘bichos raros‘. Strange people doing strange things. Their customs and way of life were different.
Pueblo Pequeño, Infierno Grande
Spanish expression: small village, grand fire)
“They all lived together in the same house”, “he explained, “and of course, the older people couldn’t understand this. Then they saw one with one girl one day, and another with another girl the next day, and they wanted to understand but they couldn’t get their heads around this. So their response was ‘¡Cuidado!'” Be careful with those foreigners!
Although he does recognise that for the younger generation it wasn’t so much the case, and even says that he got involved with them a little bit. Even some of the older people joined in with the association and in Miguel’s words “¡Lo pasaron una maravilla!”. They had an amazing time!
I loved the image of a quiet, traditional rural village suddenly having a burst of life, disrupting the patterns and ideas of some but bringing more richness and diversity to others.
It seems like this small village of Calaciete is a microcosm of the world at large.
Luckily, Miguel says that now people are more open. Thanks to the changes of the modern world, people are more connected.
Now he says he has realised that what happened before wasn’t right, and just because someone is from a different country, it doesn’t mean that they are strange.
“It costs very little to say hello to someone”, he says. “Now we communicate more”.
However, he does offer a caution: “Yes we communicate more but maybe we actually understand each other less. But at least we have dropped the barrier a little bit”.
So returning to the theme of the farmers, I wondered how their work had changed over time now that Spain is no longer the mainly rural country it was 30 years ago. What are some of the difficulties faced by the farmers? And how does he see the future of his village?
Without missing a beat, Miguel says: “Here it is total survival. There could be a solution but the older people don’t want to spend the rest of the time they have left talking about these things…it’s laziness, the abandonment. They want to wash their hands of the matter and don’t want to make any effort to try and improve the situation.”
“But this is a disaster because the young people leave, and the people who know how to work the land don’t want to talk about it, they want to forget about it. And here I am wanting to go for it and try and save what we have, but it’s impossible when other people don’t want to make the effort”.
Meaning that all that knowledge gained and passed on from one generation to the next comes to a halt. What will become of places like Calaceite in the future?
Miguel wasn’t so hopeful:
“Calaceite is going backwards. And I don’t think we can blame anyone else, I think the fault is ours. For not thinking for ourselves and coming together more. We are very divided. Even though we all know a lot- or think we do- we don’t know how to work together to defend our village. It’s your home, your work, your life. The life of your parents and that of your grandparents”.
Large-scale Industrial Farming
For someone from the city, it is difficult to understand what the problem is for Miguel and the rest of the farmers. They have land and olives to sell, right? So why have so many up on rural life and headed to the cities?
The easy answer is that there simply isn’t the industry in the countryside now to give them jobs and the city seduces with its promises of corporate success and modern lifestyle. Not to mention the desire to catch up and become as modern as the rest of the Western world has become.
But the not so easy answer is that the system does not support small farmers. As large scale industrial agriculture has become the main agricultural model across Spain and indeed the rest of the world, more and more small to medium-sized farmers are forced to sell up or, as in Miguel’s case, take on more and more land in order to survive.
“The big corporations drown us out”, Miguel says. “Soon they realise that it still isn’t profitable for them, since the price of the olives gets lower and lower. But by the time they sell up, the small farmers have all disappeared”.
At the time of writing, Miguel tells me that the going rate for a kilo of olives is 40 cent. To make 1 litre of extra virgin olive oil you need 5-6 kilos of olives (5200-8000). Which means that Miguel would earn around €2.40. In the supermarkets you can find a litre of extra virgin olive oil for anywhere between 5-10 euros, depending on how it’s packaged.
If we take the average price to be around 5 euros for a litre of olive oil, earning €2.40 may not seem so bad. But the cost of the machinery and extra people needed to cultivate olives on an industrial scale is so high that it eats away at a farmer’s earnings.
And it does beg the question, who is that 50%-75% profit going to? And is it fair?
Just this January the news in Spain reported that the price of the olive has dropped to historic lows, yet the price is the supermarket has soared. If prices for olive oil in the big supermarkets are rising, then why are the farmers that grow the olives getting poorer?
With this situation only looking to worsen, it is understandable that people have decided to cut ranks and make a new life in the city.
“Isn’t there some kind of co-operative where the local farmers can join forces?”, I ask.
And as it turns out there is, and it was Miguel’s uncle that helped to form it, 40 years ago.
Miguel explained to us that the original co-op was formed with the coming together of two groups- the left and the right. In his words, the poor on the left and the rich on the right.
“However”, Miguel cautions, “they had to work the same. The difference was their ideas”.
This is the same co-operative that is still running today and Miguel was part of it until recently. And despite being a small village where you may think that people work together more towards a common goal, what you have is a co-operative where, in Miguel’s words, “everything is manipulated”.
“All you have to do once you join is say yes to everything”, he says. “It’s all already done-you just need to go along with it. And in the beginning, how are you going to object to something that seemed good to start with?”
“Has there always been this kind of manipulation?”, I ask.
Miguel is clear- ‘Sí, sí’. It has always existed. People who are more intelligent always have known how to manipulate the president. It’s all buying and selling. That’s why they need a president’.
It seemed that what started off as a casual chat has become a lesson in capitalism and modern-day politics.
Miguel explained to us that one of the main problems with the way that the cooperative functions is that the farmers don’t get paid when their produce is sold as we would normally expect when doing business. They usually have to wait perhaps a whole year to receive their share of the earnings from the cooperative. In the meantime, the bank manages the cooperative’s money and when the time comes they finally get paid.
But this makes it difficult for the farmers to make ends meet because the industrial scale of the olive groves requires machinery, which requires upkeep, and perhaps employing someone to help out too, which is another salary to pay.
“Now it’s difficult to make your money stretch to the end of the month because the tractor breaks and that’s 1000 euros gone. Then something else breaks and it’s another chunk of money gone. Here you can never get ahead. You’ve got to search for the money”.
So Miguel, tired of this situation proposed to the co-operative that they share out the earnings from each product sold, as soon as it is sold. Thereby bridging this gap between paydays and making it easier for the farmers to get by during the year (and consequently -and most importantly- reducing the amount of capital sat in the bank).
And what was their reaction?, I asked.
“Alta! Alta!” he laughs. There was uproar!
“That’s when I told them that I wasn’t going to bring anything else to be sold through the cooperative because they didn’t pay me for them!”.
Now Miguel sells directly to a local supplier. He says that others also do it who are still part of the co-operative, even though it is on the sly.
“They are left with no other choice”, he said.
Miguel also had other reasons for leaving the cooperative. He told us tales about how the cooperative has many times tried to swindle him into paying more than he needed to for certain products or even charging him twice and hoping that he doesn’t notice.
“Once could be a mistake, maybe twice too, but 3 times, 4 times, 5 times? Now there is something going on.”
He tells me that he began to make sure that he always got the receipt and made sure his paperwork was in order, so as to be able to prove that he had already paid.
Needless to say that Miguel soon got very annoyed about the whole situation and that’s when in his words “they pitted themselves against me”, (or he reflects “me against them”) and he caused a huge stir by speaking his mind to the whole co-operative in one of the assemblies, which resulted in him having to leave.
Many people doubted him and didn’t seem to see what he saw. However, now he says that people have come to him with concerns about the dealings of co-operative, feeling that they too have been cheated in some way.
“Of course!”, he tells them. “I’ve been telling you this for years!”.
“Hmmm”, his friend says, perplexed. “But how many times will this have happened?”
“¡Tú sabrás!” he says. You should know!
He says that even his wife has started to take notice. He tells me that during the quarantine she went to the cooperative to buy some facemasks, and they charged her 9 euros for a pack. As she was about leave it dawned on her that she needed a receipt, in case the police stopped her and asked her why she was out on the street.
“Ah the receipt, yes”, they said. “Oh wait a second, it’s 3 euros not 9”.
“Ok great”, she said.
But then as she was leaving she suddenly thought: ‘9 euros without a receipt and 3 euros with?! What’s all that about?’
When she got home she recounted the story to Miguel.
“Of course! That’s what I’ve been telling you!”, he said.
In recounting all of this, Miguel couldn’t help but get quite agitated. He apologied, and says that he hadn’t spoken about these things for many years.
“Well let it all out!” I said, and we began to laugh.
But his indignation left an impression on me. He spoke authentically as someone who has seen and experienced things that he doesn’t think are right and he has stood up for what he believed to be just. It’s something that has cost him friends and given him a reputation in the village as being someone who you don’t mess with. There are people who stay away from him, and Miguel likewise.
Whilst it is impossible for us to really know what has gone one- there are always two sides of the story of course- it’s clear that Miguel is no ‘Yes man’. And he clearly finds the situation in his village a difficult pill to swallow.
“The co-operative is there to support the farmers, not cheat them”, he told me.
I can’t help but agree.
Left and Right
However, not to give the impression that he is some extreme revolutionary causing bother to the conservative people of the village.
He told me that his parents and his family have always been politically on the right.
One person even said to him once “it’s strange that you, coming from your family, have ideas like this”.
But he isn’t one for labels. And he said he doesn’t know anything about politics. But he did offer us some observations about how politics can affect our relationships with one another:
“When problems have come my way and I don’t know why, I have often wondered if it is because they are on one side of the political spectrum and they consider me to be on the other, or vice a versa (…) I don’t know, but deep down it makes me think that there is still something that divides people”.
“If I speak with someone and they classify me as being left or right- pues vale– okay. I speak with everyone, and I have learnt things from everyone. But it seems to me that if you have a good idea then you must be from the left, and if you have a bad idea, then you must be from the right. Why? I’ve never been able to understand this. A good idea is a good idea. It doesn’t matter from which side the idea came from”.
“That’s why I have so many enemies as well.” he notes.
Depending on how politically engaged or aware you are, all this talk of left and right may sound extreme in itself. But this is Spain, a country that is still coming to terms with the bitter civil war that was waged in villages like Calaciete only two generations ago, where neighbours went against neighbours and families against families, all split down the political lines of left and right.
Miguels affirmed that for him ” extremes are always bad”.
With the world becoming ever more polarised down political lines, maybe it is worth remembering his observations.
Now Miguel seemed to be on a roll and enjoying sharing with us what he has learnt throughout his lifetime. Without prompting, he continued:
“If I tell someone that what they say is wrong, now I’ve made an enemy. Now I have someone against me. Which doesn’t bother me. If I’m wrong, I’ll try to correct it. Or maybe not. But we learn from our mistakes. I think things over, reflect on things and if I’m wrong I’ll apologise”.
“Saying sorry is worth a lot. More than the opposite. It’s very easy to talk about something that you have done well. Very easy. Saying sorry- very difficult. People who ask for forgiveness should be respected.”
Now Miguel changed from being a storyteller to wise grandfather. I appreciated him sharing his life lessons and found it enriching and valuable listening to him. And I think he appreciated having the space to be listened to as well.
And what he said rings true for me. Whenever I open the news all I seem to see is two sides talking about how bad the other is and how much better their own ideas are. Or what a bad job the other has done and how they would do it so much better.
It seems like some things never change- patterns seem to be repeated through time and space; across countries, across cultures and across people.
As if reading my mind, he said, “I like to meditate and reflect on things, and since I speak with everyone, I learn a lot. I’m learning with you now, even if it doesn’t look like it. Your way of being, your way of being interested in the place where you are…there’s always something to learn from someone”.
“Hopefully, you will be able to use what you learn from this conversation one day”, he continues. “You will say ‘Aquel señor de Calaceite, ¡un poco loco pero tenía su cosa!” That old man from Calaceite, he was a bit crazy but he had something! ‘.
“That’s why we are doing this interview!” I agreed, laughing
“Si, saldrá una buena entrevista!”, he agreed. Yes, it will be a great interview!
We chatted a little bit more about the process of harvesting the olives and how the olive oil is made. This has been his life’s work so he knew all steps- from harvesting the olives to the moment the olive oil appears on our tables. It was interesting to learn more about this process- so often we take the products that we consume for granted and have no idea about the process of their elaboration.
Then it was time for us to get back to work and Miguel had to get back home for lunch- “I can’t keep my mother-in-law waiting!”, he laughs.
We arranged to meet with Miguel once more before we left Calaciete. He had promised us a bottle of his own olive oil and good to his word, he brought it along with him when we met at a roadside café in the village.
Having reflected on our conversations and thinking about Max and Nick, Paul and Hermine and the other people that have come to the region to try and start a new way of life, and how they could possibly earn a living, I tried my luck and asked him some final questions:
What would you say to the people who want to return to the land and try to regenerate rural life in empty Spain?
“Tienes que ser muy valiente para venir aquí y enfrentar todo eso. Muy valiente”.
You have to be very brave to come here and confront all of this. Very brave.
“If I was young and knew all that I know now- ¡buff! Buff!” He gestures as if to say ‘not a chance!’.
Have you ever thought about stopping farming and doing something else?
“These are the fields of my grandparents and parents (…). I have spent 30 years in these fields, observing, reflecting and meditating on things. Yo me quedo aquí. I’m staying. I’m not going anywhere. Here I know what I am doing and I value what I do”.
And if one was to form a new co-operative, what would be the key ingredients? What would you need in order to make it a success?
“They would have to be very honourable people. Very honourable people indeed”.
With that we thanked him for the olive oil and together we all made our way into the village. Before we bid each other farewell he invited us into his garage to see his tractor, his work tools and his chicken coop.
“See you next time you are in Calaceite!” he says.
Then we parted ways and we returned to our trusty Ford KA, still in one piece after so much adventure on the dirt roads. Then we made our way out of Calaceite and to the Catalonian coast. With so many new experiences and things to reflect upon, it was time for a holiday!
My conversations with Miguel have given me a lot of food for thought about returning to the land in ’empty Spain’. Whilst this post is more about story-telling than real investigative journalism, it is clear that people have left the countryside and continue to leave for a reason. A good reason too- people don’t just up and leave everything behind for nothing.
If the local people haven’t been able to make a decent living there, on the lands that have been passed down through the generations, what makes us foreigners think that we will be able to?
It seems to me that the only way for villages like Calaceite to survive is if people start to organise themselves in a different way and try a different approach to rural living. What that approach may be is open for exploration, but it is obvious that more of the same old will not be effective in bringing people back to land.
Because the empty villages speak for themselves.
If there is one thing that really stood out for me about Miguel, it was his authenticity. When he spoke of his life and his village, he looked me straight in the eyes- he had nothing to hide and this showed. He wasn’t trying to be anything other than who he was. Consequently, there was a solidness about him, a personal power than one possesses when you live your life in accordance with who you really are.
That was what drew me to want to interview him in the first place. It wasn’t just because he was a farmer- there are many farmers I could have spoken to if I had wanted to. But in Miguel, I saw something more than just a farmer. I recognised that strength that people carry when they stop trying to please others and be something they are are not.
That strength is called integrity.
And we gain integrity when we stand up for what we believe in and act in accordance with our most deeply held values.
Regardless of what the content of our conversation was, this is the real lesson that he offers us. And just like the best teachers, he does so without saying a word.
Thanks so much to Miguel for taking the time to answer all of our questions and for giving us such delicious olive oil! It really does taste better when you know who has made it 🙂 It was quite possibly the best olive I have ever tasted!
And thanks again to Paul and Hermine for allowing me the opportunity to conduct this interview.
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