In May, Kate’s sister Anna Fairtlough came to visit the farm with a group of colleagues who are working together to develop positive practices in community, relationships and organisations. Over the course of the week the group exchanged their unique skills and knowledge, holding workshops on bird language, plant identification, community development tools, how to survive a war and more.
Anna is a social worker and professor and her research explores ideas of reciprocity and distributed leadership, and how these can be embodied in progressive social work, educational and organisational development practice. Below is an interview which Anna carried out with Kate about reciprocity on the farm; between people coming to work or stay on the finca or attend events run by La Burra Verde, between La Burra Verde and local and wider communities, and reciprocity between La Burra Verde and the non-human living and natural environment.
Anna: When and why did you first go the finca?
Kate: I came to the finca more than 20 years ago. I wanted to have a go living in Spain and being somewhere completely different to London. I think it was a desire to do my own thing – to have freedom. So I created a job for myself and it’s just gone on from there – it’s metamorphosed into its own thing. It was never planned long term and has just evolved over time.
Anna: What was it like when you first arrived?
Kate: When I first arrived the finca had been basically abandoned for eight or nine years. Just olive treesthat were very dry because they hadn’t been watered for years and a tiny three walled ruin.
Anna: What have been some of the key milestones of the project?
Kate: First, I guess building a house that I could live in as a home. My neighbours helped me renovate the ruin (now called the ‘casita’). It was very basic – four walls, a roof, mud floors and a single window. Really, I was just camping. I cooked on a fire and dug a hole for a toilet. There was no electricity or running water. Then we built what is now Casa Parra, and then the straw bale house where I currently live.
Another significant stage was when I first started having volunteers, rather than doing it all on my own. Then having long term people living and working on the finca. The donkeys were there from the beginning and were vital to getting the building work done. Then we got more donkeys and chickens and cats.
Getting mains water was an important step. At the beginning, I didn’t even have solar power. Now there are six different houses or huts that we have built or renovated. There is a yoga studio and the two yurts. All the houses have solar panels. We have a swimming pool that uses natural rather than chemical means. We have put in composting toilets and solar hot water systems. The latest house has a flush toilet. More recently, we have started to let two of the houses for people to come for eco-holidays.
Anna: What is the relationship between the finca and La Burra Verde association?
Kate: They are a bit merged but they are not the same thing. Maybe this is something to work on in the future. The aims of the association are to promote eco-living via workshops, courses, work experience, and research. It is very similar to what we do on the finca because that is our practical work but it’s about taking the ideas more out into the world rather than just doing it.
Anna: How do you see reciprocity – defined simply as mutual giving and receiving – embodied in the relationships between people on the finca and in the association?
Kate: I suppose it makes sense to me in terms of the biological concept of symbiosis. I tend to think in terms of biology, ecology and nature. The volunteers do work on the finca, and sometimes with the association too, in exchange for accommodation, food and the experience of being here. They learn different things, depending on what projects we are working on, the season, and the skills they bring or are needed at any particular time. They come for the whole experience, to be here in this environment, in this special place as well as having opportunities to learn new skills. They live in the middle of nature, not surrounded by other people, buildings and cars. They experience as far as possible a self-sustainable life.
Anna: Is it the same for people who attend the courses?
Kate: It is similar in a way because if they are staying on the finca they will also learn about life on the finca. They will see how the solar power, cookers and hot water systems work. And obviously they are also learning about the particular focus of the course. In the case of the yurt-building course, the finished yurt is going to be donated to a refugee charity in Lesbos, so that is another way in which reciprocity is involved. They experience the feeling of community with each other and with other people on the finca.
Anna: Obviously they learn from you but also from each other?
Kate: They learn practical things from me – they don’t get the living together experience from me. The social interactions in the group, that’s something they get between themselves.
Anna: How do you respond to people who express an interest in coming? What is your role on the finca?
Kate: There is a lot of interaction and communication before people show up. I try to be very clear about what they will get and what they are likely to experience before they arrive. It’s also important to be equally clear about what they will be expected to give in return. As the owner of the finca I have overall responsibility for organising the work and keeping the whole thing going. But I’m wanting to find ways to share this more with others in the future.
Anna: I know sometimes it doesn’t always work out as hoped. The reciprocity is sometimes disrupted.
Kate: Sometimes that does happen and then from my point of view it doesn’t feel like a fair exchange. We had an experience like that on a recent course where someone negotiated not to pay the full fee because he was bringing particular skills. In the end, it was clear what he was going to get but not so clear about what we were going to get. We’ll learn from that in the future – to be much clearer about mutual expectations.
Anna: What is daily life on the finca like?
Kate: A lot of it is based around food! Routines are also based around the tasks – like getting the donkey out and taking him to where he will graze. The jobs are seasonal so volunteers join in with what is happening at the time. There is a clear start time, which varies throughout the year. In the summer, this is early because it gets hot. In the winter, it is later as it is dark and cold in the mornings. There is a mid-morning break. The lunch break is the end of the working day. It’s important for the volunteers to know when they are going to start, what they have to do, when they are going to eat and when they will have free time. I usually cook the lunch so there’s a giving there. The volunteers really enjoy the meals. It is a time to come together to relax, socialise, reflect on the morning’s work and plan the activities for the next day. There is normally a mini fiesta the day before volunteers leave. That spontaneously happens amongst the group and they tend to organise it themselves. I might be more involved if someone has been there a long time.
Anna: How do you see reciprocity between the finca/La Burra Verde and the local community and wider communities?
Kate: In relation to the very local community…. Some of the founder members are from the local village. Some are not very active though. The very local community perhaps is not as involved as they could be. This is something that we could work on in the future. One thing that La Burra Verde does is clear the communal acequia (water channel). We started doing it every spring and now everyone just expects us to do it!
Anna: How does reciprocity work within the local currency that you have set up?
Kate: Our local currency – the ‘Algorrobo’ (Carob tree) – is starting to work on the scale of the finca involving people who offer us services or products. I’ve been to a group in Granada to learn about their local currency. It’s not just about copying what other people do though. Each individual currency should be tailored to wherever it is being used.
Just setting this up has sparked quite a lot of interest in the local town. I’ve been to meetings to talk about our experiences. We are going to have a local market – a barter market – an alternative currency that is going to be used just for that event to get people familiar with the idea. Yeah, it’s exciting, we’ll see where it goes.
Anna: And beyond the local community to the wider world? What would you like to do?
Kate: We would like to be in contact with other associations and organisations with similar aims. Maybe get people to come or give a talk – exchange ideas – run a conference. Swap volunteers – support each other’s initiatives – advertise each other’s courses. We haven’t really done as much as we would like yet.
Anna: There is also the co-operative ‘La Flor de la Alpujarra’?
Kate: The finca is part of that because it’s where we get our olives milled. I was a founder member of the cooperative. The main idea is to support organic farmers locally. To have somewhere to take the crop – to get a decent price for organic olives. It has created quite a strong sense of community and doing things together.
Anna: I know the economics of it all are hard. It’s hard to do things differently from the mega-producers. The fact that the finca is not mechanised and has no road access, I guess that makes it more difficult?
Kate: I’m not unique. A lot of fincas locally are in the same situation, but yes, it’s a lot more labour intensive than the big producers.
On the community building in Bayacas, the local village, there are tiles shown as leaves on a tree to represent local houses and fincas.
Anna: I wonder if we can think about reciprocity not only between people in the present but also going through the past and the future. The fact that the land has such a long history, you are still using the acequias that were built in Moorish times. There is a continuity of people from the past. You’ve learned from people’s experience in the past and you are giving to people to carry it on in the future.
Kate: Yeah, I suppose so. In the immediate past, there were different neighbours that I learned from, some of whom are dead now. A lot of that knowledge has been passed down to me. I was helped to learn how to manage the olive trees, the picking, using donkeys for working, the donkey tackle. I pass it down to people who are working on the finca – I don’t know how much they will use it in the future but I guess some of it will be left somewhere.
Anna: That’s interesting. How was it when you first arrived? Did the local people welcome you even though you were a British woman, an outsider really?
Kate: It helped that I could already speak the language. But I found that most people were really positive and not xenophobic. I don’t feel that I was discriminated against as a woman. People helped out by giving advice or practical help. I think two of the neighbours in particular have really enjoyed being friends with us. They were open to new things and interacting with different people. At the time, there weren’t many young people of my generation staying on the land. Most of them had moved away for other jobs. This has changed a bit since the economic crisis but then fincas were being abandoned. There was one neighbour who was worried about what I was going to do. But I just went to talk to him and said I hear you are worried about my weeds encroaching on your land, I’ll make sure I cut them down.
Anna: What languages are spoken at the Burra Verde?
Kate: One-to-one I will use either English or Spanish, depending on the person. Around the dinner table it switches between Spanish and English. Sometimes almost all the conversation is in Spanish and then there might be a period where it’s mostly in English. Sometimes I’m not happy when English dominates. I want to encourage more Spanish people to come and if they don’t speak English that can be off-putting. But mostly people are really happy to learn other languages and exchange skills.
Anna: How do you see reciprocity in action between you all and other living things and the natural environment?
Kate: What I am trying to do is to give back to the natural environment. There were parts of the finca that were in poor condition, the soil was degraded. We have made a few mistakes too. But we are trying to improve the ecology of the soil and plant more trees. It’s hard to know how well we are doing, farming always involves taking things away, you’ve got to try and give something back. In terms of how things look – on a bad year – if it doesn’t rain things don’t look good. But this year, we’ve had a bit of rain, everything looks good this year. So many different plants. It is teeming with wildlife. It’s really diverse in terms of birds, mammals, insects. It’s really noisy at the moment. There is a nightingale that is singing day and night right outside my house.
I see the finca as a kind of eco-system that needs a particular human population to function most efficiently. I don’t think we have reached that optimal point yet, which is why we are still reaching out to bring in new people. I don’t know when that will happen but I guess we will know it when it does.
Anna: What are you still looking for in terms of new people?
Kate: We are developing some new posts for people who want to stay more than a year. We are looking for people who could take on a key responsibility such as maintaining the buildings or taking care of the vegetable plots as well as sharing other daily tasks.
In return, they would have their own small house and food and a stipend of 100 euros a month. Like the other volunteers they would have afternoons and evenings and weekends off, which they could use to do some other work. Alternatively, if someone had an idea for a small enterprise using the resources of the finca (e.g. bee keeping) they could have one morning off a week, but would not get the stipend.
Anna: Then there’s also climate change. The idea of give and take in terms of the carbon cycle.
Kate: We are looking to take carbon out rather than put it in. We are probably on the + rather than – side if you take into account all the trees that we have planted. The wood for our stoves comes from the finca. Our energy sources are all renewable.
Anna: It’s inspiring how you can live that way. I guess it’s easier when you have good solar resource though.
Kate: Yes. That’s true but if we didn’t have solar but we would have to find something else, wind or geothermal for instance.