Dec 07

Reality kicks in when I start weeding and feeding what is to become the kitchen garden beside the house. A neighbour brings the manure in a transport box on the back of his tractor. By wheelbarrow from the village, it would take me ten trips each of half an hour, with a break for lunch it would take all day. Now, our quinta has three olive groves spread over six acres, a citrus orchard, an acre of vineyard which is not wired in neat rows, a six-acre cereal field, and fifteen acres of woodland and scrub. It is one thing to own a patch of land, but it is quite another to resurrect and transform it into a working farm. Agriculture on this scale is not veggie-garden digging; my two spades, a garden fork and a trowel seem hopelessly inadequate.

What is needed is a tractor. As I know nothing at all about tractors, we call at Agrifundão on the way home from our next shopping trip, in April. The salesman tells me that to clear around the olive trees he has just the thing, a mini-tractor will be ideal, sixteen horsepower.

After a test drive and a tour of the workshops, armed with info and a special good price just for me, only €12,000, we return to the farm and contemplate how much easier it will be with a tractor. After a week we get to thinking, at least, it will be good for working on the olives, vines, and veg garden. But what about hauling dead trees out of the burnt-out hillside north of the house? We need to consider something a bit bigger, maybe 21 HorsePower.

The previous owner of the quinta wants to set us on the right path, so in May he joins us in a trip to Fundão, where he introduces us to his agro supplier. Then we visit a tractor business started by a man he used to hunt with, His daughter M is his successor, a lovely lady and a sharp businesswoman.

No problem with a 21HP minitractor, on the right is the New Holland model ideal for you. She can do me a special deal as a friend of Don Manel. The one on the left is 35HP, much more a real tractor. I am daunted. It is Rather Big.

Back at the quinta one day in late May, as we arrived so did a sales rep from Fundão, his boss had quoted me a good price for a Yanmar tractor and he was in the area seeing another client. He said he’d like to look over the farm and discuss which tractor would best suit my needs. Two hours later and another quote (this time for a Kioti 30HP and full set of attachments) he left, promising a return visit as part of their policy of looking after clients. More a threat than a promise . .

secondhand Goldoni

Some weeks later it’s June, the plants are growing fast and I’m thinking that maybe we should seriously consider second-hand, as around £12,000 is a lot of money. So as we return from shopping we call in at two likely-looking places offering used Mitsubishi, and a used Goldoni 30HP, only done 1300hrs. It will soon be as good as new, special price to you.

Does M have any used tractors? Yes, but a used Massey-Ferguson is €7,500 and a brand new Ferrari tractor (no kidding!), the Vivid 300, is €12,500.

Well, suppose we want to use the farm to the full and sow the field with cereal? A larger tractor would cover that area in 2/3 the time, and could even move earth around more effectively in a larger rear box.

C on New Holland 31

By now I´m open to even traditional methods of ploughing and sowing!

Talking with the workers whilst having the water boreholes drilled during September, one of them suggests visiting his friend Gonçalo to look at second-hand machines. Weeks later, on the market in Fundão we encounter a man selling rotovators, his employer is Gonçalagro, and he books us in to see a used tractor at their workshops the next day.

We find the enterprise and it is huge, specialising in irrigation for commercial growers. The tractor in question is in excellent condition but only 21HP. Gonçalo asks if we have considered a new tractor. Little does he know that by now he´s the only tractor vendor in Fundão that isn’t on first name terms with me! He sells tractors up to 200HP.

The smallest tractor he does is 35HP, bigger than I want, but “please to have a look.” Well, love at first sight! I decided not to even sit in it or I´d buy it there and then! Nice machine, German design and look at the size of the fields they have. Good ground clearance, designed to run up slopes like those on our farm with decent-sized front tyres and 4-wheel drive. Double set of auxiliary hydraulics. He gave us a price only €3,000 higher than the 16HP Yanmar I originally looked at.

Clive on Agrokid 35

I considered a John Deere tractor which is top-of –the-range, but as the price of the 35HP Millenio was €4000 higher than Gonçalo’s I rejected it.  A week later a phone call “Its your friend from Fundão! When are you coming over to see me?” I had to explain to Gonçalo that we live on the other side of the country, but would call in on our next trip, which was a week later. By chance(?!), the market salesman was passing when we next went to the quinta. He looked over our land and priced the attachments we would need.

Clive's tractor with front loader

Sr Gonçalo came to our quinta in mid-November. We agreed to buy the Deutz-Fahr tractor and a plough,a scarifier, a rear box, a chain brushcutter, a rotovator, and a seed-sower.  The tractor will be modified to take a front-loader with a bucket, so after brush-cutting I can clear roads around the quinta. He agreed to spray-paint all the accessories green to match the tractor, nice . . . !  It’s a big investment, well over €20,000, but a necessary one.

Delivery will be in the first week of January.

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We returned last Tuesday to the quinta.  It was a hot day, the dry land and heat haze reminiscent of Arizona, or the centre of Spain in summer, which is almost where the land is located so I suppose the strong sun should not be surprising, but in November, it is. We had João an electrician come over and discuss how we could make provision to connect the quinta to the electric mains. Two days later I hired a neighbour, Joachim, and together we built a wall section on our south boundary. A few days later, Robert came over. We walked the land discussing solar photovoltaic panels. On the next day (Thursday) we met with the electrician who possibly would install the boxes needed for connection to the national grid. We considered laying a water pipe and electricity cables up the same deep trench to the house.

We have discovered a man who has a JCB digger, João José. JJ the JCB digger man came on Friday, we discussed the project with him, along with other ideas. He told us that since it has been dry since July, the water level in the well is at its lowest and now would be a good time to clear it. It was now late afternoon when the sun is less fierce, so I set up our pump, and managed to start the motor, which is as cooperative as the mule it replaced. Our tenant shepherdess, Manuela, was passing through that field with her flock. Intrigued and eager for something different she helped, but before long she pulled the 2” diameter suction pipe out of the well. Inspecting the valve on the end, she told me that it would never suck up the water, as a part was missing, certainly taken by the old boy who sold it to us. At 6pm we drove to a local garage and bought a new valve assembly. Next day I fitted it and happily (eventually) started the pump. Four hours later along comes JJ, it should be pumping twice as much water as now. The pump needs repair. His brother runs a garage and can do it, but not until Monday morning, as he doesn’t work on Saturday afternoon or Sunday.

08.50 Monday we search out and arrive at his brother’s garage – there is JJ waving us in. Half an hour later we’re off again and at 10am a few kicks and yanks and off goes the pump –WOW water gushing out! By 11am it’s far too hot to stay out, but as the electric man is back again, we don’t have to. An hour later the distant note of the pumps rises a tone, so I leave Janet to finish our business with the electrician whilst I go to sort it out. The water has stopped, the well is nearly dry. So am I, so shut down the pump, it’s time for lunch. Sit at table and am grilled in the sun, no shade from the vines over the patio because they have lost their leaves. I’m ravenous and scoff my cool salad in ten minutes; just as well because here comes JJ in his big JCB, straight up to the well and digging the sides away! End of lunch, take lots of pictures whilst he and his uncle(!) deal with the well.  There are two huge trees growing in it, probably ten years old or more. Whilst drawing water at the pump Janet met our friend Maria Luisa, whose parents were tenants on this quinta for many years, and she grew up here. Janet suggested she might like to see inside the well. In the mid-afternoon M-L arrived and thoughtfully inspected what was going on.  She said in a matter-of-fact manner that her dad dug this well.

By 5pm he’s dug out all the mud and the cleaning is finished. I ask him to lower me into the well so I can walk on the bottom. The walls are lovely big granite stones, and the source has granite slabs arching over the spring, just a trickle until the weather breaks. What a pity the stonework won’t be seen again for many years.

Pictured below:  Clive and Maria Luisa sitting at the edge of the well on the stonework for the picota, long gone here but which will eventually be replaced. It is an eight-foot post with a forked top, across which is loosely tied a ten-foot pole. One end of this pole has a counterbalancing boulder tied to it and the other has a rope with a bucket dangling into the water. The top pole swivels a little in the fork. In the 1940’s M-L as a girl had the job of ladling hundreds of buckets of water into the irrigation channel which linked to furrows across the adjoining field. The end of each furrow in turn was opened to allow water to run along it to the plants. In full sun and no shade it is a hot and tiring job, but it’s the cheapest way to irrigate a crop. She would have spent countless hours during each summer working at this spot.

Water is the blood of the earth.  So in bringing a new farm to life it is necessary to find a subterranean artery and draw off a supply to the surface, where live the plants, the animals, and us.  Being a scientist I know all about seismic surveys, but dowsing, well that’s an arcane art and therefore worthy of closer inspection. For our search, my money’s on the dowser!

After a few walks holding his dowsing spring (an arch of spring steel) extended in front of him, Sr Antonio suggested drilling the first hole very near to the house.  We arranged a date for drilling the borehole.

Several weeks later, bright and early, we had just breakfasted on the patio in the sun, when a lorry towing a chunky yellow trailer appeared over the hill between us and the village. It hesitated a minute before winding its way along the road and arriving at our farmhouse. The wide lorry carried drilling tubes and the trailer was a solid engine packed into a steel casing, a powerful compressor as tall as a man.

Out jumped Sr Antonio, smiles and handshakes, who said there was a corner in the village which was too sharp for the drill lorry.  It had to turn round and find another route and would be here soon, don’t worry. No surprise there, the single-track cobbled streets with sharp turns are not suitable for heavy machinery.  He walked the proposed drilling site with his dowsing spring to confirm where the hole should be in order to strike the underground stream which would yield our drinking water.

A large blue drilling lorry arrived – how ever did he get here? – and the drill was deployed. An air line was connected to the top of the drilling rig which was carefully levelled.  The impressively solid yellow machine was started and the peaceful quiet ambience of birdsong was obliterated by the roar of the compressor.

Rotation… and the drilling head bit into hard-packed soil. As it quickly sank to the rock below, the dull rumbling of its passage into the ground changed to a more pervasive “Brrrr” underfoot and the rattling of the impacts at the top of the rig took on a hard-edged metallic hammering rather like a supersized overpowered pneumatic drill, which is essentially what it is.

Early in the afternoon at forty metres depth there was some water in the powder which was blasted up through the hole by the huge compressor. The borehole yielded more water at 75 metres down. Great! Not what I’d expected, though.

I had visualised seeing water gurgling up around the drill, winching the pipes up, and a fountain of water showering around. No, nothing like! There was no water coming out at all.  The workmen stopped at six o’clock, just leaving it all as it was.  They returned early the next day.  All the water that had accumulated overnight was blown out of the hole and it was re-cleared an hour later. Disappointment, “muito fraca”. Only enough for homestead use (70 litres an hour) even with storage.

Sr Antonio walked the land with his dowsing spring and suggested drilling in the olive orchard, so the entire convoy was moved.

This second borehole was dry even over a hundred metres down.  All the land is on granite, a hard rock, so drilling is slow and expensive. Each hole takes two days to set up, bore, find out how fast the water is being produced (the caudal ),then to de-rig the drill. We now decided to line the first well as the water is of excellent purity.

Lastly they started drilling a borehole on the lowest part of our quinta and I had to return to the villa, leaving the “Captagems, aguas subterraneas” men to do their best. A day later Sr Antonio phoned to say they had struck water, estimated at 700 litres an hour and would continue to drill to 110 metres for a further source. We decided that this borehole should also be lined to enable us to irrigate crops and fill the three charcas (storage ponds) on our farm. Do we have a pump so we can start using the water? No, because we have no electricity yet.

After two years of enjoying our early retirement in a villa in the mountains of Central Portugal, we needed something more fulfilling and adventurous than sunbathing, reading, surfing the net and entertaining house guests. We had unsuccessfully tried to rent a smallholding when we were first married, being interested in self-sufficiency, and when our children were young we had two allotments at different times.  Now, with time on our hands, we thought of looking for a smallholding again. With half of Portugal for sale (so we were told many times) there would be no problem finding a small granite house to renovate, with a couple of acres of land and a water supply. I drew up a list of requirements and we set about looking. This was a pleasant task which involved spending lots of sunny occasional days with estate agent-types, some legally registered and many casual middle-men.

We spent three days escorted by Fernando, visiting ten properties in the Seia/Gouveia area, which borders the Serra de Estrela, very pretty countryside and granitic land. An estate agent often has to invent names for anonymous patches of land far from any village. This one had an old plough on it. . . “Quinta do Arade” (Plough Farm) was the top of a hillside, with a ruined house beside a large bare slab of stone “ideal for building a house on it”. There were several large cherry trees on this land, which were in full fruit at the time, so we took advantage of nature’s kind offer and sampled a good portion of them, some deep red, others bright red and yellow. There were no delineated fields nor crops, in fact, nothing to suggest it was a farm at all. “It has clear access to the house” i.e. no access road across the land to the bare rock site for the house. There was no electricity anywhere nearby, so it was a non-starter.

We were shown a large house with nicely terraced land and irrigated gardens, high in the mountains, having a stunning view overlooking both São Romão (a picturesque town) and a large part of Portugal. Its upper boundary was a Roman road. However, its driveway was very steep, and the trip into town was along a steep winding road. No key was available for us to look inside the place, so we moved on.

We were offered a quinta which had a substantial stream flowing through the land. Included in the sale was a Roman bridge made with five huge stone slabs about twenty feet long.

We looked around the Castelo Branco area for three days at a time, staying on its quiet and clean campsite four times. Most of the properties we were shown had a narrow access track between two high stone walls, usually only slightly wider than our car. A camper van or builders lorry would not find enough room to get through. However, one place we viewed had flat land and good access straight off a minor tarmac road. Its two storey farmhouse was in good repair, it had a big well beside the house which provided ample water, and the laden fig tree beside that supplied us with our lunch. The land area was quoted as four hectares (nine acres) but when I walked around it seemed much smaller, so I queried it. The estate agent made a phone call and said that if we came back in the evening she could get more details. As we left, a man called to us and introduced himself as a member of the family. We learned from him that the advertised land included a plot on the other side of the road which was sold some years ago, the land now for sale was two hectares and the agent’s details were wrong. The sale had not been legally registered so the agent’s paperwork was technically correct and the sale had to be suspended pending legalisation.

Another quinta had a very practical house in excellent order, although built only from breeze blocks. It had a swimming pool and springboard set in a lush garden although the pool water was as green as the irrigated lawn. The only part of house facing south was a windowless wall, as this was on the boundary of the land. Its gardens were tended by a live-in gardener built like an ox, he looked just like Jaws in the James Bond films, whose pride and joy was a very powerful rotovator. His aftershave permeated the walls of his room. Our guide said he was not very bright but he went out to Castelo on Saturdays, pulling the birds. After our first two visits the owner discussed the sale with his wife and that was the end of the sale. He sold his house in Castelo Branco instead.

Now in her 50’s, Maria ‘s spine was crumbling and her bank manager said that she ought to sell her 2-hectare quinta on the edge of a village. It included a house, an excellent range of outbuildings, a barn, and housing for her twenty sheep, lots of rabbits and chickens. The house was in superb condition, beautifully designed, nearly new and half-unused, ideal for a family of four and a granny. Her late husband had put an equal amount of thought into the excellent irrigation system for the land and the planting of its vineyard. She lived in a part of the house with her mother, an ill-natured granny, a skinny black-clad crone who sat on a stone beside the front door, scrubbing dried maize cobs together to make chicken food, complaining about her daughter Maria. The shutters of this house were always closed, keeping the place very cool even in summer. The Portuguese do not like spending money on electric lighting and it was not easy to view anything in the gloom when we returned for a second viewing. Maria insisted we stayed for dinner – she had made a stew from her own rabbits and wine. It was strong and delicious. She had not thought of a price for the quinta. It was worth about double our €150,000 budget, and we said so. She said, sincerely, we could come and live there with them until we could afford the market value! We had to pass up this offer – the granny was too much!