Jessica Dunlop, a Brit with a lifelong relationship with Ibiza, is the founder of Herbal Hay. Although she herself is new to farming, it’s something that most definitely runs in her blood. In the 1870s, her great-grandfather farmed over 400 hectares of land (half owned, half leased), growing hay to supply the London Dairy, which delivered milk in horse-drawn carts around the British capital. The hay was used to fuel the horses for their rounds.
After years of living between Ibiza and England, Jess decided to make Ibiza her permanent home in December 2019. Her career path and passion has always been related to the environment, driven by a deep interest in climate change.
Not long after she arrived on the island, lockdown happened and, having had the time to read and research as part of her role managing Apaeef’s Land Bank, Jess was inspired to create Herbal Hay.
Herbal Hay – the Reasons
In the past 10 years, 20 thousand hectares of farmed land in Ibiza have fallen into disuse. A lot of this is dry cropland.
The industrialisation of agriculture, society and the economy – plus a changing climate – are the main reasons why Ibizan farmers have stopped cultivating their land. Another key issue is that the next generation of “Ibicencos” are choosing not to follow their forefathers into farming in favour of lower risk professions. So as the older generation of farmers reaches retirement age, plots of land are falling into disuse and farms are being abandoned.
Price competition is making it very hard for small farmers on the island to continue making a living from farming, so they are having to either sell or cede the land.
At the same time that Jess was developing her project, she was also helping to look after a horse. As she began looking for hay on the island, she was surprised to discover that there was none locally produced. Rather it was all imported and not organic. The traditional dry forage crop in Ibiza is oats, but due to the decrease in rainfall there’s a degree of unpredictability in the success of oat crops, so in the last couple of years farmers have also had to buy feed for their livestock.
Although traditional livestock numbers have dropped considerably on the island, there’s a growing number of horses. In the past 10 years, there has been a 365% increase in the number of horses on the island and a current population of 806 in 2019. (Ibiza Sustainability Observatory Report 2019).
Jess started to look into the possibility of growing some climate-adapted crops, using species and varieties that could be better adapted to the low rainfall. She’s currently experimenting with different species that aren’t in use on the island to see what might work or could be a viable dry forage crop. That means that, for the next few years, she will be doing a lot of different trials. Via the Land Bank, she signed up for her first three plots (4.5 ha in total), which were planted in November 2020. She has recently taken a fourth plot measuring 6 ha, which will be planted in November 2021, giving her an overall total of 10.5 hectares. The first three plots belong to the same farm, which used to grow crops of grain and had been out-of-use for 13 years. The family that owns the land is very pleased to see the land being cultivated again. By contrast, the fourth plot of land is pretty wild as it has been abandoned for around 30 years.
What this means is that Jess is not only learning which species are suitable in order to produce a product that is both local and organic, she’s also recovering abandoned cropland and then converting it into perennial grassland to provide dry forage for horses and cattle.
She’s currently in conversations with Gabriel Artina to see if they can collaborate in order to improve his cattle’s diet and produce a nutritious local forage crop for them. In this case, part of the land that Jess is cultivating will be given over to legumes to provide forage crops. and specifically for Gabriel Artina’s cattle.
The long-term goal is to introduce a locally grown and good quality organic hay that can be sold on the island. With luck, other farmers might also start growing it themselves, knowing there is a local market for hay. This in turn would help to increase the number of farmers working their own land or maybe even inspire new farmers to recover abandoned land. For livestock on the island, a good quality, organic forage product is important – especially for native breeds that are reared organically.
Rural Regeneration and CO2 Sequestration
Jess plans to introduce the widest possible variety of species, thereby benefitting the local ecosystem by improving biodiversity, making crops more resilient to drought and restoring the health of the soil.
Continuous ploughing without sowing, in order to maintain farmland and prevent the natural process of afforestation, results in depleted soil health. It exposes the top soil to degradation by sun, wind and rain, causing the loss of topsoil and encouraging the transfer of carbon back into the atmosphere. The loss of carbon and organic matter means the soil loses its ability to absorb water, leading to yet more water runoff and further loss of the precious topsoil.
This project aims to restore soil structure and sequester carbon through the regeneration of the land, by planting deep-rooted perennial wild grasses, grains and herbs that are hardy, drought-resistant and naturally occurring on the island of Ibiza.
The land will be left for 6 years and monitored during this time. A local variety of barley will be sown in the first year as a cover crop, to protect grasses and provide straw. It will also help to substantially increase organic matter during the first year after harvest.
By increasing organic matter, soil health and root systems, the soil’s ability to absorb and retain water also increases. In an area of decreasing annual rainfall, this is essential for successful agricultural practice.
The Near Future
Livestock farmers on the island have become aware of Jess’ project and have shown themselves to be interested in the results of the tests she’s running, in order to use them on their own land.
Herbal Hay follows principles of agroecology and will make its seed mix and findings available to other farmers both locally and in other similar regions. It will also share and exchange any related knowledge or best practice.
The great news is that a new generation of farmers in their 30’s and 40’s has already begun reclaiming the land for organic agriculture – and what’s more, they are finding a viable and expanding local market for organic produce. In 2019, 770 ha – that’s 15% of agricultural land – was under organic production in Ibiza and the number of organic producers increased by 11%.
Herbal Hay aims to create a new “KM0” organic product that is climate-adapted and uses climate-mitigated agricultural techniques to supply a potential market opportunity on the island, supporting rural jobs and local rural economy. Jess is hoping to put 50 ha of dry land into production in the next five years.
Herbal Hay is based on models of cooperation. At present Jess has a model of cooperation with Gabriel Artina, whereby straw for the cows’ beds is exchanged in return for manure.
Another model of cooperation is with Joan Trui, who grows cereal and forage crops and has sheep. As Joan is very interested in the results of these trials, he contributes with land that is being rested from growing cereals. Jess will put this into a large rotation with the perennial hay crop, in order to restore soil health and structure, before returning it to annual crops. Joan is also supporting by using his machinery and time to sow the seeds.
Jess is also part of a Regenerative Pilot Project with four other farmers (Fina Prats, Maribel Juan, Vicent Palermet and Isidro Ramis), all of whom are trialing different practices and regenerative methodologies in their fincas and are cooperating and exchanging ideas with each other to reduce inputs. (This innovation project is supported by FOGAIBA).
Also helping her are Pepe Colomar, a local farmer with decades of traditional farming experience and knowledge of the local soil and weather, and Pep Bover, who has 100 ha in the mountains of Catalonia given over to regenerative agriculture. Bover has experience with new machinery and practices and is also experimenting with a lot of different seed varieties, many of which Jess now buys from his farm at Cal Pauet.
Jess told us she feels very grateful, welcome and supported by the farming community, Apaeef’s land bank and the Consell d’Eivissa/FOGAIBA. “I can’t stress how incredible this journey has been so far for me, a complete newcomer to farming,” she said.