Organic Farming Past and Future

By Tracy Burton

After four decades of neglect and decay, a dilapidated, ivy-smothered convent has been given a new lease of life.

The transformation from ruin to Convent’bio – an ambitious organic farming project – is down to the passion and determination of a small team, led by agricultural engineer and bio enthusiast Fátima Baiona.

After losing her previous project to fire in 2016, she was encouraged to take a look at the decaying convent by local businessman José Vitorino Pina (who now owns it).

“He told me, ‘I have the perfect project for you. Come and see it’,” she recalls. “So, I came and when I saw the old convent, I fell in love. Convents were usually built where the land was fertile, so our soil is naturally good. And the land had been left many years without being farmed so it was very green.”

From the outset, she was determined everything grown at Convent’bio and sold in the shop would be 100% organic. But before anyone could plant or sell a single vegetable, there was a lot of hard work to do. The convent was founded just outside Lagoa in 1551 by the Carmelitas Calçados d ‘Alagoa; however, it was abandoned after being seriously damaged in the 1722 and 1755 earthquakes. The long-neglected fields had not been farmed for over forty years, so while a construction team focused on the restoration of the buildings, Fátima set about clearing the land.

An unexpected bonus was the discovery of a century-old blueberry tree, which had all but vanished in the undergrowth.

“Her beauty had disappeared, but we didn’t want to cut her down because she was in production and we don’t often see blueberry trees in Portugal. Now, when it has all the leaves and the berries, it’s really something. You can see so many birds on it. The fruit is so fresh. If you export, you have to pick the blueberries earlier. Here, we pick them at the stage where they have more sugars in them and there’s a lot of juice.”

The back-breaking work is paying off and the fields once irrigated by the monks are again producing fresh fruit and vegetables for local people. There are two hectares each of asparagus and avocados and row after row of coriander, red cabbage, spring onions, kale, celery and onions. Strawberries and cherry tomatoes are grown undercover.

Fátima is keen for people to learn more about the benefits of organic farming. One misconception, she explains, is that all bugs are bad and need to be eliminated. Pesticides might kill the insects you don’t want, she explains, but they also kill those which are beneficial to plants.

“People think ‘oh there’s a bug, let’s spray it’ but many of them are helping us,” she says. “Ladybirds, for example, are angels sent for agriculture. I had a plague on the asparagus, but I had so many ladybirds I didn’t have to apply anything, they sorted it for me. Most of the time, nature does all the work, we don’t have to do anything. I used to say we don’t have three people working on the land we have millions because they are helping us.”

The team at Convent’bio is equally enthusiastic about selling and cooking high-quality, healthy organic food, including vegan and vegetarian products.

The shop – which has been allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic – is an Aladdin’s Cave for foodies, offering lots of enticing products, including loose herbs and spices, pastas, wines, plant-based milks, eggs, sweets, savouries, and even a good range of organic meats. There are natural toiletries and cleaning liquids, with customers encouraged to bring their own bottles for the latter. If not grown at Convent’bio, every item is sourced as locally as possible, e.g. oranges from Silves, lemons from Monchique.

When the fresh organic bread – cooked on-site by baker Rui Leal – hits the shelves at 5 p.m, customers arrive to form an orderly queue. This is wholegrain bread at its best and the way Convent’bio is likely to win the hearts of local people.

If a customer cannot find what they are looking for, deputy manager Marco Águas will do his best to stock it in future. “We say the shop is not finished because it’s the clients that make the shop,” insists Fátima.

There is a restaurant on-site – the Farmers Restaurante – run by Cidália Cruz and her husband – where you can eat vegan, vegetarian and bio. Cidália has, in fact, written a vegan recipe book called Mais Sabor, Menos Desperdício (More Flavour, Less Waste) which encourages people to use roots, stalks, seeds and peel to create tasty dishes instead of tossing them in the bin.

The Farmers Restaurant has launched a takeaway service and is currently expanding its outdoor seating area to maintain social distancing when it reopens.

Convent’bio also delivers fruit and vegetable baskets. (details on the website).

There is a good-sized upstairs space, which is available to rent for groups, meetings, conferences, etc. Yoga classes are planned.

The old church building is structurally sound but is missing its windows and needs future restoration work. It is currently rented out for concerts, dinners and even the occasional film evening.



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