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Pedro Maestre-Leon: Conservation Farmer

Sitting in the shade of his farmhouse, out of the heat of the southern Spanish sun, Pedro Maestre-Leon explains why he does not believe his work is a job.

“Most farmers I know don’t see farming as a job or a livelihood,” he says.

“We don’t go by the clock or have a schedule. I consider this a vocation, part of life, not a job. I would work for free.”

Pedro is the twelfth generation of his family to farm the land in Alcala de Guadaira, in Seville province, and though his words are being translated into English, the sentiment is clear.

“We protect the countryside…we can talk about the environment but we take care of the countryside and nature in general.

“This is something we do naturally.”

In Pedro’s view, he is a guardian or steward of the land as much as a producer of barley, wheat and oats or sunflowers and rape seed.

He grows these crops commercially of course – but sees his role is to protect the land in all its richness and diversity.

This means farming in a way which cherishes and supports local wildlife, and the migratory bird species which arrive every year.

And protecting the ancient streams and river beds, and the banks of wildflowers, which have thrived on the 700 hectare farm even longer than Pedro’s family.

He calls it conservation agriculture and although it might sound old school – it’s far from it.

Pedro studied agricultural engineering as a young man. Today he is a member of the European Index for Sustainable Productive Agriculture (INSPIA) helping demonstrate sustainable production practices and encouraging other farmers to adopt management practices that balance productivity with environmental protection.

He uses carefully-measured and monitored doses of insecticides and pesticides – administered using his GPS controlled tractors – to control insect pests, weeds, and diseases.

His low-pressure tyres, allied to the auto-tracking functions of the GPS system, mean his tractor can ride over the fields with the minimal amount of pressure and passes, minimising compaction and erosion.

All this technology is married to scientific insights into crop rotation and direct seeding ensuring minimal disturbance of the soil.

Beehives are a recent addition to the mix, helping improve pollination services and crop yields whilst adding to the local biodiversity. Simple measures like leaving strips of land between the crops and streams help keep the banks strong and also provide corridors for wildlife.

“When I took over the farm I started with traditional farming, like all my neighbours. But based on the technical information and my concern for the environment, I became aware that I should start implementing more environmentally committed farming methods,’ Pedro explains.

“Conservation Agriculture  is based on zero-tillage,  direct seeding, and preservation of soil cover. It does not exclude the use of pesticides.

“Go to the countryside, see the problems farmers have to manage from insects and fungi etc. and you will come back to your office to study different solutions and adapt them to the best possible rational, integrated and sustainable use of products.”

Pausing for a moment, he adds: “Producing food in a sustainable manner implies being able to do so this year, in three years’ time, ten years’ time…and that the next generation may also do so in a similar way.

“Because we haven’t destroyed our soil, our raw material, nor have we disturbed biodiversity or the environment. To the contrary: we have improved it.

“This is something that is, in fact, possible if one works with this objective in mind and with current or future means.”

Pedro clearly hopes he has found the template for the next generation of the Maestre-Leon family to continue farming the land his ancestors first cultivated in 1693, by marrying a simple, light-touch approach with modern scientific knowledge and technology.

As we end our conversation he asks: “Why do we protect the environment?”, then he answers his own question.

“Because it is what we will leave behind for the next generation.”