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VITACRESS CLOSE TO THE SOIL

By LUÍS MESQUITA DIAS
CEO, Vitacress

Vitacress Portugal is a vertically integrated agri-food business which was first established in 1982 and today employees some 280 people. The core business is the growing, processing and marketing of baby leaf salads, watercress, herbs and other specialty vegetables, serving both the national and European markets.

Operations are located near Odemira, Portugal in an area which not only claims to be the single largest territorial municipality in Europe at some 1720 km2, but also has one of the of the lowest residential population densities in Portugal with just 27,000 people.

The local economic activity is heavily dependent on a mix of agriculture and rural tourism, the latter of which draws in several thousand tourists specifically looking to experience this remote, but ecologically rich area of Portugal.

Our nominated “Quinta do Azenha” located on the South-West Atlantic coastline of Portugal has applied to a specific accreditation of a particularly demanding international chain of restaurants and has received it in view of the extremely high quality of our operations.

Azenha do Mar currently farms some 130 ha of light sandy soils and includes 1km stretch of this pristine coastline between the land marks of Praia D’Amalia and the village of Azenha do Mar.

We grow up 19 types of leaf which collectively give rise to some 3500 tons of produce per annum, with the big five being red lettuce, green lettuce, spinach, wild rocket and coriander.

Our case study proposed to the referred chain is partly shared here to illustrate our ways of working.

VITACRESS-CLOSE-TO-THE-SOILWe believe our shared values of Ethical, Environmental & Economic, should not come with a price tag for the end user, but instead, be built on one of trust, stewardship and responsible farming.

We recognize that “sustainability” will cost business more but to produce sustainably in the long term, there must be an ecosystem or trophic pyramid in place if we are genuinely serious about leaving something for the next generations to come.

Our adoption of Conservation Grade under the headings, coupled with the measures we operate under the Agrotechnology sector in addition to our latest patented harvesting technology, linked with the opportunities rural tourism has to play in our local economy and how we can contribute, are the keys as to why Azenha do Mar should qualify for a Flag Ship Farm status.

What are the “Good Practices” which make this a Flagship Farm?

Human Health & Welfare

We take great pride in looking after our staff not least because agriculture is one of the main sources of income in the region.

To put this into perspective;

1. Circa 60% of the 48 workers at Azenha do Mar has served for on the farm for between 3 & 20 years.

2. Our staff, irrespective of position or length of service, earns 14% more than the national minimum wage in a region which is already regarded as disadvantaged.

3. All our staff have the opportunity to qualify for an additional monthly premium specifically tailored at promoting an upholding the company’s values, objectives and performance. An additional €100 per month is available and awarded at the discretion of how well these targets have been met.

4. Any employee, who has served for 12 months or more, qualifies for free Life & Health Insurance.

5. The company provides free access and subsidized on site doctor’s surgeries.

6. All staff has a voice where they can raise their ideas, opinions or experiences through an employee forum held once every two months.

Health & Safety

Quinta do Azenha works beyond recognized farm assurance schemes through the practices of OHSA 18001 and falls under a wider programme across the Vitacress Portugal Group.

Food Safety

The baseline and minimum standard for validating Good Agricultural Practice on our farming operation is Global GAP for which Azenha do Mar has consistently performed and met all criteria since 2003.

However, because we are vertically integrated, have full control & influence over our supply chain, and RTE Salads can arguably be classified as a higher risk category of food when compared with others, we go further.

We operate up to 5 GAP schemes, some of which are well known, others less so, but needless to say the central thread to everything we do is based on HACCP.

Managing food safety hazards and their associated risks are equally applied in an open field environment to that one usually associated with a post harvesting processing plant, eliminated to an acceptable level at our washing, sorting or packing stages of operation.

Rural Landscape Preservation

The unique setting of Azenha do Mar serves as a huge advertisement of how sustainable agriculture can co-exist in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

In 2011 Azenha do Mar became the first farming operation outside the United Kingdom to adopt the Conservation Grade or, “Nature Friendly Farming”.

Environment

Our environmental policy operated at Azenha do Mar identifies seven key areas: pollution, soil management, crop protection, water, waste, energy & biodiversity and is aligned and managed to ISO 14001 standards.

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