SEEDING THE FUTURE
A 5-hectare abandoned plot. 80 people. The seed of a life project. In 2012, this was only the synopsis. Now, it is the first part of a promising story of overcoming adversities and finding a place both in the labour market and in society. The need to find alternative ways to ensure its financial sustainability led CERCICA (Cooperative for the Education and Rehabilitation of Maladjusted Citizens of Cascais) to the creation of an innovative social farming project. In this farmland, once used as a dumping ground, a plantation of high-quality organic crops was implemented to grow a selection of tea leaves and aromatic plants. Bela-luz thyme, Stevia, Lemon Grass and Lemon Verbena are the top performers.
The project’s farmers are mostly young people and adults with cognitive and learning disabilities serving within the context of an on-the-job training programme. Their tasks include soil preparation to placing stakes, planting seeds, harvesting and packing the plants. Only the drying stage is done using machinery: the team uses an artisanal solar dryer, designed by the institution and made from a shipping container. The first harvest of these aromatic herbs took place in 2016 and annual yield can reach up to 300 kg.
Alongside with Stevia, bela-luz thyme was the first crop chosen. Also known as green salt or pure salt, this evergreen shrub is indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula. It thrives in well-drained soil with low humidity, loves the sun, withstands extreme weather and is very resistant to pests and diseases.
Following three years of investigation, the first large-scale bela-luz thyme plantation at Cercica was implemented in 2014. “At the time, we bought several specimens of the mother-plant from a certified nursery and started placing stakes in trays for them to take root. We called this process the ‘hot bed’ because the trays were heated,” explains Luísa Simões, agricultural engineer from Cerplant (a spin-off from CERCICA that provides gardening services). A weed barrier fabric and a drip irrigation system are used. In addition to controlling possible pests, the thyme is also fed organic fertiliser once a year.
In this farmland, once used as a dumping ground, a plantation of high-quality organic crops was implemented to grow a selection of tea leaves and aromatic plants.
The herb is harvested three to four times a year. “As soon as it is 20 cm tall, it is cut back hard and dried. The drying process depends on the weather and can take between three to 15 days,” says Luísa Simões. Approximately 15 people are needed to maintain and harvest the bela-luz thyme, but this number can increase to 70 when it comes to stripping the leaves and packing.
Founded in 1976, CERCICA trains people with disabilities and incapacitating conditions or those who are at risk of social exclusion with the purpose of promoting their inclusion and capacitation for an autonomous life. The creation of Cerplant, in 2001, was a way of setting the example. The company provides all kinds of services regarding the construction and maintenance of gardens and green spaces, employing former trainees in their staff. In 2018, Cerplant had 26 collaborators and produced 1.2 thousand packs of aromatic herbs.
SOLIDARITY TASTES (EVEN) BETTER
After drying, the aromatic herbs are wrapped in cellophane or packed in CERCICA’s private brand tins. They are also sold in defoliated bulk, in 1 kg packs, generally to the catering sector, or in bulk without defoliation to be exported alongside with other products. Since May 2019, Pingo Doce has invited Cercica – as well as other social institutions – to sell the bela-luz thyme, Stevia or Lemon Grass in selected stores, under the “Social Market Initiative”. The latter is setting up small in-store dedicated displays where selected charities with social businesses can market-test their products. In this ready-made sales channel, the total revenues go back to the institution. Social Market’s goal, expressed by the claim “Solidarity Tastes Better”, is to help non-profit charities to build a sustainable revenue stream, instead of only relying on donations.
The “bela-luz” thyme produced by Cercica gave birth to the Pingo Doce Private Brand newest mayonnaise, launched within the scope of the “Menos Sal Portugal” (Less Salt Portugal) initiative. The herb’s aroma and flavour enhance its taste, working as an alternative to salt. As a matter of fact, the item has 80 % less salt than the average market value, around 0,24 g for 100 ml. Prepared without colourings or preservatives, it is also gluten-free.