The Happy Farmer: Catalunya, Spain
Happy Farmer is a mixed media essay about a weekend spent on an eco-farm in rural Catalonia, Spain. Article by Chauncey Zalkin. Filming and Editing by Peter Crosby (video at the end of post).
Oveja. Pronounced Obey-ha. Sheep. Ovella in Catalan. Cal Pauet: Eight hundred sheep dotting receding pastures. Fields of dozens of varieties of wheat and grain blowing in the breeze surrounded on all sides by rising crests, rock formations and the foothills of the Pyrenees. We get to L’Espunyola at 10am. We’re offered breakfast by the farmer’s wife, the sixth generation of Bover family who’ve run the farm. They live in the main farmhouse. Our voices echo as we enter the stone salon. We decline breakfast. We’re eager to get out into the morning light.
Our hostess looks perplexed by our refusal. It’s something she’s done for fifty years, take care of a farm, the people who come and go, suppliers and other farmers – some with chickens, others with vegetables, they all share – and this includes breakfast. There’s a small fireplace in the corner of the kitchen where she later cooks us a lunch of lamb chops, potatoes, salad and loquats for dessert. After a quick coffee, we’re out the door following the scent of earth and fresh country air up the muddy road to the pasture.
10:30h – The sky is dramatic. Light bursts through dark clouds. The younger son answers questions, closes and opens gates. A blue sky in the distance approaches slowly, not making any promises. It makes the grass vibrant, articulated. The density of the fleece, typical of the Ripollesa breed, appears grey and sopping. The smells here are pungent but comforting. The sheep bray in chorus as they walk over to get a look at our dog. Their copper bells ring in accompaniment. Most of the flock take their place in the background while a row of six or seven sheep inch forward forming a row of curious linebackers.
10.45h As they amble toward the far fence, we notice something protruding out of the back of one of the them. It looks like a painful meal trying to pass. The farmer points and says in Catalan that she will give birth soon. How soon? Within the hour, més o menys. We look closer and realize what we’re seeing are hooves.
11.00h We wait in the quiet. Patches of sunlight warm our backs for a few moments then pass. This becomes our introduction to the sheep farm: Peter standing still leaning over his tripod, me squatting in the grass hiding Niji against my back as to not spook the birthing mother. She camouflages herself in the middle of the pack. In the next pasture, lambs graze, eating around the spelt that will make the bread at Barcelona Reykjavik, the bakery that spawned our trip.
Finally the ewe can’t wait any longer. The others clear the way as she awkwardly stands for her final push. When I see her again, the bottom half of a fully-grown animal has appeared out of her backside. It looks like a two-headed sheep. The little one drops now, covered in placenta and kicking her legs around on the ground. The mother turns to clean her and then walks a few steps away for the lamb to stand and follow, stops, and then returns and brays, but the newborn is still too unsteady. The two of them, sheep and lamb, wait in the wind.
We meet our host Pep, the older brother and farmer at the helm of the business. We are his pupils over the next forty-eight hours. He articulates with forceful gesticulation so illustrative that even though he speaks to us only in Catalan – and we don’t speak Catalan – we understand almost every word. He doesn’t let us get away with not understanding. If he senses we don’t get either the message or the force of his belief, he finds a way to viscerally enforce meaning. We learn quickly that something happened twenty years ago to change the direction of Cal Pauet. Fed up with the consequences of industrialization, the automation of everything, quantity trumping quality, the damage done to land and people, they became an eco farm.
15h – He takes us to the sheep shed. Tractor parts and bales of hay line the wall on one end. In the center, there is a partitioned pen. Goats, known for producing milk aplenty, are paired with lambs whose mothers don’t produce enough milk. They make funny couples. One goat looks put out as her foster lamb circles underneath trying to latch onto a teat. Twins sit side by side in another corral.
In the enclosed part of the shed, the sheep push against each other to get more of the grand variety of grains that the happy farmer grows and threshes. The curious lambs run around between them but this is not their feeding time. Adjacent to the mad feeding frenzy, newborns sit with their mothers in a quiet corral where they’ll be until they gain the strength to join the party next door.
15h30 – He takes us to a container of grasses and grains and prepares the container to move it to the threshing machine. He thumbs through the grains speaking about each one. Xeixa is an old variety of wheat, extinct in many places, but thriving here. Old seeds, he explains, persist where industrialization came later. (If you Google “xeixa” and “harina de espelta” (spelt flour), a picture of a bag of flour with the words Cal Pauet shows up as the 2nd image.)
16h15 - Pep pulls up in a massive tractor. He takes us into a garage where he switches machine parts hitched to the front and back.
He emphasizes that technology is good if it respects the earth. ‘We learn from our industrialized past. The father teaches the son. Without this teaching, evolution isn’t possible.’ He points to the heavens and toward the dirt, considering distant galaxies and the earth’s core in equal measure.
He reverses the tractor and brings out a huge wrench covered in grease. Machines that disrupt life inside the earth have far-reaching affects on the heavens, he tells us. The contraption he now connects to the rear of the tractor shovels the earth with rounded blades rather than pummeling with sharp edges or a pounding motion.
The way he talks about his modified German tractor reminds me of hot rod culture. He brags that it takes less carbon than anything made by John Deere. It is also the only one he’s found where you can put the windshield down and letting open air come in through the front. He taps on the odometer to show us he’s clocked over 9,500 hours. It took him a year to learn and he tries to teach me. It’s the one time I put my hand up and confess I will not understand even a shred of how to work a tractor. Not even an onomatopoeic Catalan explanation of advanced German heavy farm equipment is going to work.
As we head out of the garage and up the hill, Mozart blasts from the tractor sound system. “Primavera!”, he shouts over the crescendoing symphony opening his arms up to the sunshine now broken through the clouds.
Pep is quirky, full of personality, and his passion is infectious. He explains that in the creation of the universe, everything has a reference point leading back to the big bang. He pulls at the skin below his eye, a Catalan gesture to emphasize something one has seen. He has seen this reference point and he’s going to show it to us.
Espunyola, he tells us means push and has nothing to do with the word España or Español. All the land has been pushed up above Espunyola into five points. Es-PUN-yola he directs us to say. I say it and he says no, Es-PUN-yola. Push with your tongue against your bottom teeth. EsPUN PUN push and he shows the land around us pushed upward in peaks that form a spine. (I look up the word when I get home and push is actually encenta in Catalan but in Castillano push is empuje pronounced em-poo-hey which is closer.)
There is a line moving southwest from Pedraforca (national park) that goes through Montseny National Park and Espunyola is in its path. According to Pep, a spring flows through these mountains and becomes a subterranean river that flows under the Mediterranean Sea bubbling up in Mallorca.
We ride in the tractor as far as it will take us up the hill on the far edge of his property. We stop and get out. Up the wooded hillside we arrive at a gutted rock in a small clearing and he turns to us; ‘Pow!’ the big bang, he says in way of explanation of its hollow form. From where we stand, the land dips down in two directions. A few meters down a slope, we come to a massive lone rock formation in a clearing that lo and behold, certainly looks like a dinosaur head – maintaining every detail from the eye socket to the jaw and top teeth to the slope of the skull. Tortuga. Tortuga, he points behind us. A few meters down the other side, in another clearing, another massive rock looks identical to a turtle head. It’s his belief that the big bang created reference points in rock that influenced the creation of the dinosaurs and all animals. He believes that each part contains the whole. He is superstitious, but his superstitions keep him honest. His mission and his values are clear.
We head out into the field now where the tractor blades softly scoop the earth. Long plump worms and poppies churn with the fresh cut wheat. The music continues to play as he herds the sheep back into a field from which they’d escaped up the hill.
At the end of the ride, he gets out of the tractor, bends down and draws circles in the sawdust on the ground with his palms and rubs them together to get the machine grease off.
Over a cortado in the late afternoon, Pep, who refers to himself as a farmer-poet, shows us his journal. Though we can’t read a word he wants us to see it. We look through the page at small cursive notes written in pencil.
He takes out a dog-eared farmer’s almanac and shows us the seasons and the weather and talks to us about feeding. He reiterates a popular topic these days, that corn and soy are bad for livestock. It makes animals bigger, quirkier, and offsets their hormones. The sheep, he says, can’t conform fast enough to the fattened body. They sweat. The wool traps the sweat absorbing everything back into the body poisoning the animal with its own toxins. What you put in, stays in. What you put in, you can taste. It affects the animal. It affects you.
Then he shows us a log of all 800+ sheep at the farm. From the day a lamb is born, he tags them with numbers and colors that refer to their lineage. Each number contains a life, a story, from how the animal was born, to how it grew, to what it ate, the life of its parents, and how it dies.
He emphasizes that all animals have mothers and fathers and that it’s important to record their lives. If you kill an animal only for money, it is bad for humanity. It is his belief that animals possess a different soul than human beings. All is possible for us as human beings. We don’t know what we were born to do so we try many things. Animals, he says, they know why they’re here. Each animal needs time to live before dying.
He tells us that when he drives to the slaughterhouse he drives very slowly to reduce the level of stress caused to the animal. I wonder if it’s really to reduce his own level of stress but that might just be a projection of my discomfort and lack of familiarity with killing animals. Similar to the tractor, he seeks the least expenditure of energy possible to maintain equilibrium, which is one of the main principles of eco farming.
With all this talk about the life of the animals, I have to ask the question: Why kill animals at all? He says we are not prepared to live another way. We eat animals because we are not ready to do otherwise. He concedes that maybe it’s not necessary for our organism but for now he doesn’t know any other way.
Happy farmer. Sky. Earth. Equilibrium. These are the last notes I scribble in my notebook as we head toward the car.
According to the fibl.org, the International Association of Organic Agriculture Research, as of the end of 2009, there were 260,000 organic farms in Europe covering 9.3 million hectares of land. That’s one million more hectares than in 2008. 25% of the world’s organic land is in Europe and Spain tops that list at 1.3 million hectares. The Cal Pauet farm doesn’t sell to stores but to individuals and restaurants and even schools, places where they can afford to continue farming using ecological principles not compromised by the need to cut costs for the sake of better margins.