Spanish farms are revitalising their land on the hoof. Sacha Bernal Coates and Kerry Wolters explain how the herd instinct holds back the desert.
Manuel’s ranch is an hour’s drive inland from the Atlantic coast in the province of Cadiz in southern Spain. The area is known for its livestock, wine and production of cork. But these industries are on a decline, thanks to the diminishing productivity of the land due to desertification.
Manuel took over the reins of his family’s 470-hectare ranch in 2015 after his father died. With no previous agricultural experience, he was staring at 240 hectares of land that had deteriorated after decades of modern agricultural practices. The remaining 230 hectares was bare, crusty and rocky terrain on which abandoned, wild olive trees were slowly drying out. The cause: erosion in some parts and oxidised, overgrown underbrush in others.
Most Spanish farms rely on subsidies under Europe’s common agricultural policy for 30-40% of their revenues while another 5-10% comes from hunting. However, on Manuel’s ranch, wild rabbit and partridge populations have been reduced by disease and a decreasing water supply. His ranch has a two-hectare reservoir, which no longer holds water due to sediment accumulation from erosion.
Manuel wants to restore the land, bring back the flora and fauna. He aims to diversify and increase the number of economic activities associated with the land, including tourism and traditional activities. For this, he has taken a path followed by nobody else in the area: holistic management.
It involves the production of high-quality beef through a cattle management process adapted to fit the realities of his environment. The process tackles environmental deficiencies like erosion, runoff and desertification while making the land productive. “We want to see clear water flowing through the ranch for most of the year,” says Manuel.
Biologist Allan Savory, developed holistic management to use resources in such a way that desertification is reversed. It is based on the theory of rational grazing by biochemist André Voisin which moves cattle in tight herds, concentrating the grazing and manure while increasing the duration the animals are subsequently kept off that particular piece of land, to enable the soil to regenerate. To replenish the earth, add to the grazing process state-of-the-art methods using nitrogen-fixing perennial grasses, biodynamic mineral accumulators and keyline water retention earth works. Basically, the approach puts animals at the centre of any environmental regenerative process.
“The process tackles environmental deficiencies like erosion, runoff and desertification while making the land productive.”
Science and history show that desertification of dry, temperate-climate zones happened only after man domesticated plants and animals, and created settlements – not overgrazing by wild animals. Humans have failed to understand the biological cycle of grazing and its interaction with the environment that keeps soil healthy and productive. By fencing off environments, we have disrupted that biological cycle that is a key factor to the survival of the ecosystem.
Researchers have found that millennia ago, predators forced grass-eaters to move in large, compact herds to survive. The herds’ carbon-absorbing biomass was eaten or trampled back into the ground along with manure which ensured soil was covered and plant oxidisation minimised. This natural mulch allowed for maximum rainwater retention and strong regrowth.
Animal hooves broke down hard soil and created dents for water accumulation. This made the soil ready to germinate the grass seeds pre-prepared by digestion in the grass-eating animals’ manure, ensuring the continuity of grasslands. The tight herds would not visit the same areas for between three months to three years, ensuring there was no overgrazing. Lack of animal intervention leads to grass drying out and soil compacting. With the creation of hard soil, a cycle of erosion and desertification begins.
Holistic management is based on the understanding of this biological cycle.
As an outsider to cattle farming, Manuel was open to the idea of using livestock to regenerate his land through holistic practices. It also made economic sense as the animals do most of the work and reduce costs.
Two years on, there is greater biodiversity, water retention as well as quality and quantity of grasslands on Manuel’s ranch. Other farm workers have seen the results and they understand that animals play a pivotal role in regenerative processes and that the conventional model is not sustainable. They can also see that their local knowledge is vital.
But Manuel is struggling to get enough funds to build a full, innovative process. He needs to invest in water harvesting and distribution infrastructure, and diversify his livestock to include goats and sheep that are more adaptable to brittle conditions. Currently he has 150 head of cattle.
“Manuel is struggling to get enough funds to build a full, innovative process.”
It’s important to note that holistic management goes beyond cattle management; it opens doors to new economic opportunities. For instance, Manuel wants to refurbish deteriorated farmhouses to create a cheese dairy to attract tourists to the beautiful setting while educating them on how to fight desertification.
Holistic management encourages cooperative land ownership and increases the number of revenue sources to include cattle, grains, oil seeds, food crops, forestry, fishing, hunting, horse-riding, gastronomy, handicraft, and other tourist attractions. This complex, interconnected and biodiverse ecosystem that provides revenue options is a true circular economy.
With each revenue source needing a specialist, this opens up new business structures, ownership and innovation. Just as in a balanced ecosystem, the interconnected yet independent revenue sources mitigate fluctuating demand or erratic climate patterns.
And the holistic management process has a social benefit. With an estimated temperature increase of 2°C by 2030, the Mediterranean region is expected to undergo a drastic transformation, with southern Spain having the highest risk of desertification. The decline in land fertility and rising wages has decimated agricultural employment and turned land owners into feudal lords. Manuel’s story proves the situation can be undone by converting land owners into agents who empower local communities and local economies while revaluing agriculture as a vital asset.
But how many years will it take for Manuel to achieve his dream in the current economic environment? How can impact investment help him and many other ranchers keep their lands alive? With new global economic reforms on their way, investors are looking at operations that integrate environmental, social and new governance strategies. These are expected to succeed and accelerate our transition towards a regenerative, healthy and ethical economy that is fully integrated into our natural ecosystems. The rest will see their returns dwindling as companies walk towards their imminent breakdowns.