He quit his job at IBM to recover a forgotten gardening method: now he grows the best peas in Spain
Rocked between two waters, as Paco de Lucía would play, Sanlúcar de Barrameda oscillates between the mouth of the Guadalquivir River and the Atlantic Ocean, cradling this corner of Cádiz famous for its salt flats, for its birdseed, for its prawns, for its chamomiles and, thank you to the work of people like Rafa Monge, from Cultivo Desterrado, for his navazos.
But what is a navazo and how can it be watered with salt water? These orchards, unique in Spain, owe their existence to a sandy soil, similar to that of the beach, which serves as a bed, and to an underground water table.
There the water accumulates, which by capillarity feeds these orchards, nourishing with a mixture of slightly saline water and where the activity of the tides, with their high and low tides, naturally irrigates these fields. A new life for a former IBM employee, where he left in 2012 to study Product Design in that same year and what he dedicated himself to until 2017, when he started with Cultivo Desterrado. "I am not a typical farmer, I am an agricultural designer," he says.
The salt of the earth
Banished Farming Navazo Potatoes
For centuries, the lands of Sanlúcar were a favorable place for cultivation, being one of the economic engines of the area, especially when trade with America was in vogue, since the 16th century.
At that time, the entire Cadiz coast was dotted with these orchards, which ran from Sanlúcar to El Puerto de Santa María, passing through Rota or Chipiona. "The navazo was the traditional way of replacing Sanlúcar in the past," says Rafa Monge, head of Cultivo Desterrado, where he vindicates the work of the Navaceros and his own father, Rafael Monge.
"You have to take into account that the Guadalquivir was the gateway for everything that came from America," says Rafa. Thus, peppers, tomatoes and, above all, potatoes, were taking root in this sandy strip, turned to the sea, where the salinity of the water of the phreatic level fed these fields.
"The land gave a particularity to the product of this area, such as the Sanlúcar potato, which was smaller but had more sugar," says Rafa. Gastronomic jewels that had a lot of market in Andalusia and the rest of Spain and that made the Navaceros of the past authentic potentates.
The situation changed with the twentieth century, mechanization, the rural exodus and the need to feed more population made cultivating in Navazo not so profitable. This is why the irrigators of the agricultural colony of La Algaida - still today a powerful conglomerate of producers and cooperatives - demanded better access to fresh water from the institutions.
Their demands were met and the Navazos, for the most part, stopped feeding on that rich water table and turning to fresh water. It was simpler to work, easier to water, less dependent on the tides and, above all, increased the size of the crops.
Little by little, the Navazo was losing importance and the number of romantics around this way of cultivating the land decreased.
Rafa Monge, one of those romantics
Rafa Monge in the cult of Banished Cultivation
After years working at IBM and being a product developer, Rafa Monge decided to go to the call of the land and take over the navazo that his father, Rafael Monge, had in Los Llanos de Bonanza, one of the towns of Sanlúcar.
He left behind a successful career, a life of travel and videoconferences in various languages, plagued by cosmopolitanism and returned to his origins, to his Sanlúcar and that inherited Navazo with very clear ideas: to vindicate it and put his experience at the service of a land and a job he loved.
It was not -or is- easy and it is that Rafa Monge has decided to claim his navazo not as a territory of competition, but as complementary. For this, it has resorted to infrequent crops, to do dozens of practices with different seeds and to differentiate itself from what is done in the surroundings.
Thus, from the 3000m2 of this sandy land, Rafa supplies restaurants - and also individuals, where you have to pay attention to his Instagram - with vegetables, herbs and curious vegetables that we could classify as rare.
What is the miracle of these salt gardens?
Two of the species it grows: the pakchoi (left) and the tatsoi (right)
"Listen to nature and pay attention", Rafa Monge classifies as the key. "Navazo is a natural way for vegetation to break through. In fact, in Doñana there are also navazo that are generated naturally," he says.
To do this, we must understand some key concepts, which one would think chimerical, especially if we take into account the fact of irrigating with salty water and cultivating in a land as sandy as Sanlúcar.
"The sand that we work with is like that on the beach, with a lot of silica, which due to the location where we are, has been washed away over time and also drains a lot," he says. This is why the water table, with rising tides, naturally irrigates these fields by capillarity.
All this is explained through osmosis, an exchange of the plant itself with the water supply. "There is a high concentration of sodium and iodine in this water, without being sea water. This causes water stress to the plant that makes it generate much more sugar
However, the Navazo de Cultivo Desterrado - like so many others in the area - is not watered only with that water table, popularly called juice. It is also irrigated from the tollo, small wells dug in the earth until exposing the juice, extracting water from the upper part, the less saline, and with which irrigation is reinforced. "Before that water was flushed, which was a very thankless task, but now we have automated it", adds Rafa.
The third concept, unrelated to irrigation but relevant, is that of the bardo. These small walls, generated with sand from the navazo itself -or from which it is extracted for the tollo-, mark the boundaries in many fields and also protect the crops from external elements such as the wind.
We must take into account the legendary power of the airs that hit Cádiz, capable of changing position dunes in a matter of hours, so the bards also act as walls to defend the crops.
However, being protected by the bards has had an unexpected and positive consequence on Banished Cultivation. "The bards create a microclimate that has its own flora and fauna," says Rafa.
Lizards, small aquatic birds that had disappeared from the area, some insects and the flora of the Navazo have returned like this, thanks to the work in this small extension of family roots.
Far from a path of roses
Collecting tear pea pods
Enduring part of the mockery of some convicts, who laughed when they saw Rafa return, the one "who had studied and worked at IBM." Rafa put his experience as a product designer in his navazo to value the work of people like his father, being aware of the hard work but also of the reward that there was in it.
We are not talking about economic profitability or not as a driving force, but the personal satisfaction of a culinary utility, at the same time that honors the origins.
Thus, Rafa left the usual production circuit, making it clear that "it came to be complementary, not to compete", aware of the endemic problems that afflict the countryside in any part of Spain: submission to distribution, low prices, difficulty in find manpower and brutal international competitiveness.
For this reason, what Rafa sows and reaps cannot be found elsewhere. Fame has given it its delicate navazo peas, similar to tear peas, beets such as bicolor or gold, red spinach, rutabaga, pakchoi, Jerusalem artichoke, mustard greens, kale, parsnip or carrots purple and white.