Selling animals to avoid losing everything, the Alentejo’s dryland dilemma

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Nuno Faustino has sold almost half of his cows, admits to selling sheep and pigs and fears that his future as a farmer is at stake, because there is no water in the Baixo Alentejo and the Government, he says, is only concerned with irrigation.

“I fear that in a very short future this type of agriculture will almost completely disappear,” Nuno Faustino tells PP, with his remaining cows behind him, waiting for the food that will arrive in a van, because the water is already there.

A farmer in the Ourique area, in the dryland area of the Baixo Alentejo and where the water from the Alqueva dam does not reach, Nuno Faustino raises cattle, sheep, some horses, and Alentejo pigs, which are fed on acorns in the final stages of breeding and sold mainly to Spain for ham.

Early in the morning, exceptionally unseasonably warm, next to a herd of cows on a dirt floor without grass, Nuno Faustino questions the future of rainfed systems, without irrigation, without structural measures to minimize the impacts of drought.

“There is no money to be made, we have no pastures, no cereals, we have no water for animal watering, there are farmers who are already short of water for animal watering,” he describes to PP. And if now he still has water, he fears that the artesian wells won’t last much longer.

And from what he is hearing from the government, from the Minister of Agriculture, he concludes: “This activity is seriously threatened. I don’t see the political will (…) to look at this problem and consider measures to support these systems.

What he sees, he says, is concern with irrigation, with canals, with reducing water costs, with improving irrigation systems, with desalination plants. For rainfed agriculture, nothing.

Due to the “recurring droughts of the last few years,” with no pasture or forage, Nuno Faustino’s drama is like that of hundreds of farmers in the Baixo Alentejo, with animals but no food or water to give them.

The drought led me “to have to reduce substantially, especially the cattle. They are bigger animals, they need more food, and the lack of pasture and hay production, with a huge reduction especially in the last two years,” forced me to “reduce a lot.

Nuno Faustino went from 180 breeding cows to 100, and says he will have to reduce more because at the beginning of July in the field there is nothing, the hay he produced was 25% of what was normal, and forage prices in the market have doubled.

“So the only solution, in the absence of any visible support to help maintain this type of activity, is to reduce staff to try to hold on, let’s see how long we can hold on,” he concludes.

But even if there is water in the ponds for another two months, it is quite possible that the continuity of the family’s animal husbandry, with drought being the rule rather than the exception, could end.

For now he has sold cows, next he will sell sheep, and the pigs will follow suit. He has 150, and is getting ready to keep only 100.

This process is not just about Nuno Faustino, nor is it just about selling the eito in Ourique.

The president of the Campo Branco Farmers Association (which includes the municipalities of Aljustrel, Almodôvar, Ourique and Castro Verde), António Aires, after giving PPa balance of the situation of drought, lack of food and the price they hit, concludes: “There are many producers to end with the herd.

And he talks about how worrying this is, because animals are what fix people in the territory, and without them what will happen is abandonment.

António Aires considers it imperative to hold water when it rains, to build a large dam, to create small irrigated areas to make pastures, “a complement so as not to depend so much on climate change.

It would be a way to stop the stampede, he admits, repeating: “there are farmers getting rid of their herds.

Nuno Faustino, like António Aires and other farmers who spoke to PP, also defends that more water should reach the drylands.

When the irrigation system “is the one that would come from the clouds, unfortunately it doesn’t come, or comes little, what would make sense is to endow these territories with small irrigation areas, to make what I call a dryland helped”, he defends.

It wouldn’t be for growing corn or olive trees but it would be a help when it doesn’t rain in the spring, watering to produce hay on a small stretch of dry land.

It would be a way to continue the activity, adapted to climate change, a help just in case it doesn’t rain. Otherwise “it will be impossible to continue”.

54059,Treelined dirt road, Alentejo, Portugal
54059,Treelined dirt road, Alentejo, Portugal

The farmers of the Baixo Alentejo are talking about the drought, which for them is already a given, they just don’t know if it will be bigger or smaller every year.

In the field of cows, take-away feed is also already a given for them. They follow the van that arrives, with a trailer and a system that intermittently makes food available while the van goes around the bare field. Breakfast is served, water is in the usual place, in a trailer that is also a cistern, and they are well taken care of.

And what about the pigs? Nuno Faustino is also president of the Alentejo Pig Breeders Association and answers: The drought affects everything, even the “ex-libris” of the Alentejo pig and its acorn finish, which gives it “enormous value.

The Alentejo pig, he explains, is threatened by the mortality of the montado, made worse by the drought. If it doesn’t rain the montado dries up or at least doesn’t give acorns, the final stage of feeding these pigs, before they are sold. In the 2022/23 campaign Nuno Faustino, due to lack of food, had to buy feed, which led to increased costs and lower quality pigs.

As there is a reduction of reproductive sows, less than 5,000 in the country, the Alentejo pig is in the highest category of threat at the level of autochthonous breeds, likely to have more support, but still insufficient, in the words of the responsible.

If nothing is done here too, the Alentejo pig runs the risk of disappearing as a breed, because if it is not economically viable they will not want it as a pet, he warns.

“We will have islands with irrigation and we will have 80% of the territory without water and without any future prospects, we will have scrubland, fires, human and animal desertification, and the desert advancing.

By then, most likely, even the take-away food cows won’t be there.

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