Editor’s Note: This is part of a series showing the work of the Sustainable Farm Systems project
For the last five years, the Sustainable Farm Systems project has explored the socio-ecological transition from traditional practices to industrial processes in Western agriculture from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. This interdisciplinary work involves collaborative organization and research between five teams in Europe, South America, and North America focused on case studies in Austria, Spain, Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Cuba, Canada, and the United States. For most of the year, each team works independently, with regular emails and occasional Skype meetings between members from the various teams. There have also been many graduate student and faculty exchanges between teams, with visits ranging from a few weeks to several months. Once a year, however, members from all five teams meet in person to discuss our progress, reflect on wider goals, and plan next steps. Since the project began, meetings have been held in Bogota, Colombia (2012), Munich, Germany (2013), Guimaraes, Portugal (2014) and Montefrio, Spain (2015). Each year the number of participants has grown as new faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students join the project. From June 28-30, 2016, 41 participants gathered for the fifth SFS meetings in Mallorca, Spain.
Mallorca is the largest of the four Balearic Islands, located south of mainland Spain in the Mediterranean Sea. Roughly 859,000 people reside on the 3,635 km2 island. Mallorca features a diverse and enduring history of agriculture that includes Islamic influences that lasted until the thirteenth century, large Catalan feudal estates between the medieval and early modern periods, and parcelled allotments for smallholders beginning in the nineteenth century. The agricultural landscape also varies tremendously, from rain-fed cereal production on the plains in the middle and southeast of the island, combined cropland featuring almond, fig, and carob trees over cereal, legumes, to pasture along the foothills of the Tramuntana Mountains, and very sophisticated terraced horticultural and olive plantation plots along the western slopes. Despite this eclectic agriculture, tourism, particularly from Germany and Britain, has dominated Mallorca’s economy since the 1950s. With several project members and case studies located on the island, the SFS team enjoyed a rare perspective of Mallorca.
The location of our meetings was an old monetary, Santuari de Cura, located atop Randa Mountain with a commanding view of the plains stretching out in all directions to the sea. Although the SFS project reserved every room in the hotel for our meetings, Santuari de Cura was also very popular with tourists, particularly cyclists who climbed 548 metres along the winding switchback road to enjoy lunch and the view.
Our first day of meetings involved four sessions of progress updates. The first session featured short reports from each team, while the next three focused on longer reports from each of the three main working groups. While the SFS project is divided geographically into five teams spread across three continents, the focus of our work is divided into three research groups: energy, landscape, and soils. Each of these research working groups is responsible for developing, refining, applying, analyzing, and reporting on a specific social metabolism methodology that uses large historical datasets to help us understand how agroecosystems changed over the course of the socio-ecological transition from traditional to industrial farming. Each working group includes members from several teams who all use the same methods to study their individual case studies and then compare the results. The reports from each of these working groups is an opportunity to share methods and findings with members of the other working groups, some of whom work on only one aspect of the SFS project.
The second day of meetings involved brainstorming sessions on the links between the SFS project and environmental history and other sustainability research. As an interdisciplinary project, SFS has developed a highly refined and sophisticated methodology for quantitatively analyzing the flow of energy, material, and information through agro-ecosystems in the past. The strength of our project is the accuracy with which we can identify significant changes in farm system management from an energy and material perspective. Our interdisciplinary challenge is to take this fantastic amount of detail and make it speak to colleagues working in our various disciplines. The two brainstorming sessions involved smaller groups that broke apart the geographic and methodological specializations and brought members together based on our interest in particular research questions. Thus, each group tended to include at least one person from each team and working group, and we discussed broad questions, such as ‘What contribution can SFS contribute to major historiographical debates in environmental history?’, or ‘How can SFS findings enhance the work being done on the study of local food systems?’ The results of these brainstorming sessions both demonstrated the common themes in our various case studies and methodologies, and outlined potential new avenues of work and collaboration for the future. Our last session focused on the final year of the SFS project, a strategy for publishing our scholarly findings, and a broader discussion about accomplishing the larger goals of the project.
The final day of meetings involved a day-long field trip around Mallorca to visit case study sites and other places of significance to the agricultural history of the island. Our first trip was to Calicant, a SFS case study area in the northwest of the island. We stopped at Sos Ferrers Vell, an estate not subdivided during the process of allotment during the nineteenth century. The study of this estate allows team members to compare it with smaller farms that resulted from allotment, revealing that larger farms retained more forest and scrubland, while smaller farms made a transition to more intensive cropping.
Our next stop was Son Vell, a 55-hectare farm owned by Toni Sureda, his son Guillem, and Guillem’s wife Maria. Toni’s ancestors bought the land during the nineteenth century after an estate was converted into allotments. Son Vell is an organic farm, growing cereal, legumes, vegetables, nuts, fruits, and raising sheep and pigs. The farm also produces approximately 4,000 litres of wine each year. After our tour of the farm, we stopped for a taste of the bread, fruit, cheese, and wine produced by Son Vell.
The third stop on our tour was Raixa, an old Islamic farmstead turned noble estate during the Middle Ages. Located in the foothills of the Tramuntana Mountains, King James I of Aragón granted Raixa to the count of Ampurias after the conquest of Mallorca by in 1229. The count of Montenegro later purchased and lavishly reconstructed the estate in 1660. In addition to the extensive almond trees, carob trees, and vineyards, subsequent owners added large reservoirs and beautiful formal gardens, all built around an elaborate gravity irrigation system.
From Raixa, we continued up into the mountains to Planícia, an intricately terraced olive tree plantation 425 metres above sea level. Planícia has been a olive plantation since the fourteenth century. This entire stretch of the Tramuntana Mountains has been established as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of the extensive, centuries-old stone terraces supporting olive plantations that hug the steep mountainsides. Owners built a mill to process some of the olives, while others were carried down the mountain by donkeys. The mill closed during the late twentieth century when the olive oil market declined. In 2009, Planícia was purchased by the government of the Balearic Islands and the Spanish Ministry of the Environment, and is currently being renovated and rehabilitated as a heritage site.
The SFS project is remarkable for its ambition to bring together scholars from a number of different disciplines including social ecology, landscape ecology, agronomy, economics, biology, soil science, geography, and history to study and compare the socioecological transition in agriculture across several case studies over more than two hundred years. Our work has important contributions to make to the study of environmental and agricultural history. It seems only fitting, then, that our meetings were held in a place that reflects the complexity and deep history that our project seeks to uncover.