Jo Caird discovers how one Chilean cider maker is showcasing local fruit and putting something back
Saturday 30 July 2022
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When Juan Lisboa, one fifth of the Chilean cider-making collective Agricola sin Patrones, began approaching local campesinos – peasant farmers – about the possibility of using fruit from the old apple trees on their land to make cider, there were two types of response.
The first was suspicion: a point-blank refusal to even discuss selling their apples to the collective. The other response, Juan recalls with a laugh, was bemusement that anyone would be interested in the apples at all: “They were like, ‘are you really sure you want to buy them? Because you can just have them and we're good’.”
Juan and his colleagues – fellow agronomy students Italo Toledo, Lucas Santis and Nicolás Mosso, plus independent winemaker Roberto Henriquez – came up with the idea of making cider with the campesinos’ apples in 2020. The students, at that stage all enrolled at the Universidad de Concepción in the southern Chilean city of Santa Juana, were doing a three-week internship with Roberto when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. They ended up staying for four months.
With time on their hands, their thoughts turned to cider-making, “just for the sake of it,” Juan says. “There were so many apple trees in the area and nobody was doing anything with them.”
They didn’t expect much from their efforts but, surprisingly, the experiment was a success. 42 Manzanos, a cider named for the 42 apple trees dotted around Roberto’s vineyards, “turned out to be way better than we expected,” says Juan. “We thought, we might have to do something about this.”
That something is Agricola sin Patrones, which is this year producing 4,000 litres of cider, up from just 400 litres in 2020. The name of the collective, which translates as ‘farming without bosses’, is a mission statement of sorts, a way of differentiating what they do from the big agricultural and forestry businesses that dominate the landscape in Chile. A rebellion against both the pesticide and fertilizer-heavy commercial dessert apple orchards and the sprawling pine plantations that create a “green desert” in this part of the world, Agricola sin Patrones aims to demonstrate that a more sustainable way of working the land is possible.
It’s also a practical means of standing up for the little guy. The pine plantations in the region around Santa Juana, Juan explains, “affect the livelihood of these campesinos. They've been displaced and they've been not valued for their work and how they keep on their traditions.
“There used to be a lot more people around and now the only ones that are left are the old people that stayed on their farms and are trying to make the best of it. It's quite harsh for them. And that's one of our goals: to help them to improve their livelihoods.”
The project is going great guns. There are now three ciders on the roster, blends of the 20 non-commercial varieties they’ve so far found growing here: 42 Manzanos, Temprano, meaning ‘early’, which is made from the first apples harvested each season, and Carisal, which is made from the apples harvested from a local upland area of the same name.
There isn’t much of a domestic market for the sort of traditional cider they’ve made their speciality (and even if there was, dealing with either of the two huge national distributors that serve the Chilean booze market would run counter to the collective’s egalitarian ethos), but Agricola sin Patrones has found plenty of appetite for their products abroad. They’ve already sold out their entire 2022 output in fact, mostly to importers in Sweden, Denmark and the United States.
The collective is now working with 15 campesinos, up from eight in 2021. They’ve so far been able to handle the entire harvest themselves, but this year have been in a position to spread the load – and the wealth – by giving the campesinos the option to pick their own apples in exchange for a higher price per kilo of fruit. Juan won’t be giving up the hard work of harvest any time soon though: “Half of the farmers that we work with are really old people that are not able to do it anymore,” he explains.
The age of the campesinos affects the business in another way too – or rather, it might do before long. These farmers will not live forever and it’s uncertain what will happen to their land – and the apple trees that grow on it – when the inevitable occurs. It’s sometimes the case that younger family members take over and continue to farm the land, but this is by no means a given. As the “last defence” against the spread of the pine plantations, these small farms are extremely vulnerable.
Which is why, along with continuing to work with the campesinos for as long as they are able to, Agricola sin Patrones is looking into the possibility of buying land for their own orchard one day. “There are several unidentified apple varieties that we love and would like to start propagating,” says Juan. “We want to work in the long-term to preserve them. But that's far away right now.”
For the moment, therefore, politics and cider-making remain inextricably linked: “We can't think about making cider without thinking of the small farmers that grow the apples. It's just impossible.”
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