Going to ground | Monocle

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There’s a seductive, mythological side to Ibiza. Readily embraced, earnestly retold, many of the stories have a self-fulfilling sparkle to them. The multitudes gathered to gaze at the rocky islet of Es Vedrà, for example, say that it’s magnetic. Another much-loved maxim claims that Ibiza accepts or rejects people according to their intentions, while others quote the probably apocryphal line from Nostradamus: “Ibiza will be the final refuge on Earth.” Indeed, every time the world seems to teeter on the brink, the island welcomes waves of second-lifers seeking a fresh start. Lately the seeds of change are coming from a resurgent interest in agriculture, uniting people from all walks of life around a more balanced future.

The aforementioned folklore doesn’t seem to be on the minds of the workers assembled for the morning meeting at Ibiza’s largest certified-organic farm, Terra Masia. It’s 07.45 and the sun is drenching the 56-hectare property in a golden hue. Folded over the island’s northeastern plain, wisps of dissipating mist are giving way to the scent of orange blossom in the early morning air.

Ticking through the order of the day is head farmer Philipp Gandler, a young, mild-mannered Austrian who moved to Ibiza in 2017. Twenty faces – mainly European, some hailing from Ukraine, another from Africa – sip coffee, exchange playful banter and listen to the morning laundry list before hopping off for an honest day’s work. “I was fed up,” says Gandler, of his past life working in a Michelin-starred kitchen and as a private chef for a princess. “There was so much waste.” Seeking a more sustainable lifestyle is a common island concern. Visionary farming projects like this one have become the locus for talking about – and toiling for – real systemic change. 

Talking us through his 18-month journey to enrich the farm’s soil using terra preta, fertile anthropogenic soil found in the Amazon basin, there’s a glint in Gandler’s eye. “Since we switched to biodynamic, it’s almost as though the animals know,” he says, highlighting a tenfold increase in rabbits and birds nibbling and pecking at the crops. “Avoiding pesticides and using untreated seeds makes our daily battles harder but we’re determined to prove that this farming model is the future.”

Supported by Dutch investors and a Scottish DJ, Terra Masia’s harvest – taken from 3,000 fruit trees, countless vegetable plots and greenhouses – is sold to island restaurants. Eco-conscious islanders can visit too. A wooden market stall sells vegetable boxes with aromatic bundles of rosemary, white sage and bay leaves. Terra Masia also offers seasonal farm tastings that enable more people to get a taste, smell and sight of farm life in the warmer months.

Returning from her morning check of Terra Masia’s 10 hives, resident beekeeper Amandine Massot seems worried. The bees, she says, are getting more aggressive but no one knows why. Massot relocated from France in 2020. “There’s more space here,” she says. “Ibiza feels far away yet still connected. Nearly everyone comes from abroad. We bond over wanting something better.” With 50,000 perturbed bees per hive, workplace discord still appears be a live issue, however. 

Leaving the unsolved mystery of the belligerent bees behind, we travel northwest to Terra Viva, another farm with a big vision – and plenty of happy hens. Co-founder Andrea Abad has just waved goodbye to a group of schoolchildren learning how to make flower bombs – an innocuous germination technique that consists of seeds rolled into balls of clay, championed by late Japanese natural farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka.

An energetic 34-year-old from Barcelona, Abad once worked in marketing for an oil company. “Every time I sent an email, I felt like part of my soul died,” she says. It was a talk by activist Satish Kumar in London that prompted her to resign and foray into permaculture. Terra Viva’s focus is syntropic farming, which mimics the complexity of a forest. “We want to prove within five years that we can grow without external inputs such as water, fertilisers or pesticide, nourishing the soil with just tree clippings,” says Abad. The farm’s 20 hectares were secured as a part of the Association of Organic Farmers of Ibiza’s land bank. The founders – an Israeli film producer, an Italian documentary-maker, an American offering new-age palliative care, a Colombian farmer and Abad – signed a 25-year lease for just €1,500 a year. “When I pitched the project to investors, I went all in,” says Abad. “I asked them, ‘Are we going to be regenerating systems and working practices too?’” As a result, everyone, including the chief farmer and landowner, were made equal partners. Turning her professional communication skills to a cause she truly believes in, Abad has built friendly alliances with Ibicenco farmers for training and knowledge sharing. There are plans for Terra Viva to become a centre for EU certification for regenerative farming practices too.

In an example of how the farm improves on standard industry practices, Terra Viva’s nifty moveable chicken tractors (like coops on wheels) ensure that the birds have access to fresh food and pasture, and are protected by several Pyrenean mastiffs. Feeding off the land means that the farm’s 2,400 healthy chickens grow to three months with 21 per cent less saturated fat, triple the omega-3 and more vitamin A, K and D than standard hens, with no antibiotics or hormones. Judging by their serene mood, the birds might as well be at a clucking day spa.

When a neighbour complained about the taming of his once wild view, Abad responded with articles and videos to explain the vision. “One day he wrote back, ‘Now I understand. Empty land is dead land. I want to help.’” He’s now the project’s biggest financial backer. It shows that there’s a more wholesome side to the amount of capital pouring into Ibiza; a neighbours’ squabble can suddenly become a collaborative investment in the future.

Brokers turned bucolic warriors are becoming a bit of a trope in Ibiza. It’s the latest chapter of a long saga of wealth and wanderlust that has altered the relationship with the land. But Ibiza’s new farming movement, conscious and collaborative, feels like a course correction. Many of the generational farmers are welcoming this renewed interest. Traditionally, sons of farmers inherited fertile fields while daughters were relegated to less- precious allotments along the coast. Tourism turned the tide as demand for property with sea views brought newfound prosperity for the women, while men chased fortunes in hard-slog service industries such as taxi driving. This might have fed the folklore about the island’s divine feminine energy but the collective thirst for easy money also left much of Ibiza’s arable farmland abandoned.

In 2022, 3.4 million visitors passed through Ibiza (up 8.3 per cent from pre-pandemic levels). For a 570 sq km island with only 161,000 permanent residents, the trample of tourism often favours a myopic mindset. Island elders recall waterfalls pouring from the aquifer but today parts of the water table are sucked dry during the peak of summer. There’s more island mythology about this too, according to which Ibiza is a microcosm for how people treat the wider world.

Christian Jochnick is telling us his grand plan. Trailing a herd of 120 goats in the fields of a disused dairy farm, the Swedish lse graduate and former investment banker bought the property a year ago to be the epicentre of his Juntos Farm project. “What’s happening in Ibiza is unique,” he says, attributing the surge in nature-conscious investment to a wake-up call resulting from the pandemic. 

Tipped to be a €40m development, Juntos Farm will combine the essence of a food market, co-op and what Jochnick calls “a regenerative theme park”. It has the ring of a boardroom pitch but the idea is about creating an experiential destination grounded by the spirit of sharing. There are plans to strengthen the island’s production capabilities by offering open-access facilities such as a transformation kitchen and processing plant, helping small-scale farmers to add value to their yields by producing oils and pickling and fermenting.

Over the past 20 years, Ibiza has lost 56 per cent of its agricultural land, Jochnick tells us, while only 2 per cent of food consumed here is grown locally. “We want to bring a sense of ceremony and celebration to the land with a focus on interconnectedness,” he says. Christian has recently been supporting an initiative that replaces diesel-powered tractors with mule- and horse-driven vehicles.

“I was living a perfect life in London but there was an emptiness,” he says, as we walk past a trio of women adding seedlings to the keyline crops. “Like many, I was asking myself, ‘What am I doing? Where am I going?’ ‘Juntos’, which means ‘together’ in Spanish, is about responding to the modern malaise by offering greater purpose, connection and the promise of deeper relationships.”

Thinking about personal potential is a recurring theme in this Balearic idyll. Inside Elaine Groenestein’s canister-laden kitchen, a strong sense of playfulness is baked into the process too. “Telling people that I farm is a good way to avoid conversations about the stock market,” she says, laughing. “Ibiza made me redefine the meaning of career.” The Dutch-Tanzanian founder of Labritja Botanica, Groenestein transforms her own farm-grown chillies, herbs and berries into face oils, spicy salt, fruit preserves and wine. Living between Amsterdam and Ibiza, she juggles a clutch of passion projects as an angel investor and art curator. Adding to the daily fun at her 600-year-old restored finca is a gang of six feisty rescue donkeys and a sheep. 

The line between farming and hospitality is blurring in the Balearics. Set to open in June, Aguamadera, the island’s most anticipated new agroturismo, is a 12-room rural hotel, restaurant and crop-revival project, co-founded by Pablo Fernández-Valdés and Iria Urgell, daughter of the founder of superclub Pacha. Today, two Mexican farming consultants, recently arrived from Yucatán, are overseeing a delivery of enriched soil. “In Mayan culture, you ask permission of the energy of the land,” says Tomás Gómez, a dancer, who with husband David Robertson swapped city life to make a difference on the land. “These small rituals are important because they cultivate reciprocal respect with the environment.”

In the tiny town of Sant Mateu, at a table filled with plates of roasted broccoli and beetroot butter, Monocle meets French-Canadian former recruitment director Sophie Daunais. As the owner and director of delightful restaurant Juntos House – affiliated with the Juntos Farm project via a previous marriage – she believes that many people come to Ibiza to build something new. “In Montréal there’s a saying: ‘Don’t dream in colours.’ This warns people not to follow the crowd. Living in Ibiza has taught me that being a leader is important.”

Alonso Colmenares’s The Farmers Club is about connecting the well-intentioned dots. A farm-design consultancy combined with services such as soil analytics, it has grown 22 projects so far. The Madrileño advertising consultant’s own property, The Farm, is run with Chilean wife Francisca Muñizaga, who ditched the music industry to become one of the island’s most sought-after florists. “We all know each other in this new farming community,” says Colmenares, passing through his grove of 500 pomegranate trees. “Here, it’s more about collaboration and communication than competition.”

It all comes down to how people define progress, says Jochnick, when quizzed about his farming project’s philosophy. “For me, it’s about biodiversity, better water, nutrients in the soil and insects in the air – more life.” Perhaps it’s the small-island dynamic but plans to revive the world seem to carry more promise in Ibiza. Once a place to unplug from the ether, the influx of money has rewired the island, making it a place where ideas, intentions and influence are backed by a spirit of collaboration.  

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