How we got olive oil from a small farm in Portugal brought over in a sailboat by a co-operative based in Brighton – and how you can do the same

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Posted Jan 7 2018 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
A cargo of olive oil arriving at Newhaven. Pic: Martin Sinnock.

I recently interviewed Dhara Thompson of the Sailboat Project for our new sailboats topic introduction. He told me that they are one of many new organisations that are working to bring back sailboats for cargo and passenger transport – using the power of the wind to move people and goods around the planet.

He explained that there were boats bringing chocolate, rum and coffee from the Caribbean and Latin America, and transporting people from the UK to the European mainland and even across the Atlantic. He also told me that they are involved with a project to help small organic family farms in Portugal, by bringing their olive oil by sailboat to Newhaven, and from there to collection points in the South-east.

Well, I decided straight away to be a customer. I ordered my 5-litre container from their website, and jumped on the 127 bus to collect it from Karen and Kepa in Croydon. When I was there, I talked with Karen about how it all works.

The boat

The boat that the Sailboat Project is using to collect the olive oil is the Nordlys, built on the Isle of Wight in 1873. It’s a complicated set-up, but the Nordlys is owned by Fairtransport, New Dawn Traders find the oil suppliers and organise the transport, and the Sailboat Project buy the oil in bulk and sell it on.

None of these businesses want to create an empire. What they’d prefer to do is to build networks of small boat-owners, farmers and locally-based sales outlets, including farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture. The whole approach is based on co-operation via non-hierarchical structures that keep money in local communities, instead of having it sucked out via corporate branches. There are many strands to this new approach, but collectively, it’s becoming known as the ‘Solidarity Economy’, as members show solidarity with one another, rather than cut-throat competition. It’s very refreshing and something that we’d like to support.

As an additional bit of fun, there’s an online tool for tracking your boat – you can see where your olive oil is at any moment, and follow its progress from Porto to Sussex.

The farm

This project is not just about low-carbon transport, however – it’s also about changing the food supply chain.

Marije Passos, of Passeite is a sommelier (an ‘olive hunter’ – although the word is usually used for wines) in Portugal, who found the Reigado family farm to take part in this project. The Reigado family produce 3000 litres of oil annually, and the Sailboat Project took 1000 litres – so a significant portion of their annual output.

The Reigado farm is on the edge of a nature reserve, and together with a couple of younger farmers in the same area, they’re producing oil that the Nordlys is also delivering to Cornwall (1000 litres) and Britanny (1000 litres). The farms are in the process of becoming worker co-operatives, and the Sailboat Project are helping them do so, as they themselves are organised as a workers’ co-op.

They pay the farmers up front, so that they can cover costs. They also pay the farmer 40% of the retail price, which is fair, but unheard of in the corporate world. In fact, on their website, they publish the complete price breakdown, and who in the chain gets what. This kind of transparency is not possible to find on corporate websites. The aim of the corporate sector is to pay the lowest price possible at the latest date possible, so that they can suck money from people who do useful work, to maximise returns to shareholders, who do no work.

The oil

The oil is extracted from the olives using mechanical means only. They’re squeezed, in other words. A lot of olive oil in the shops has been produced using chemical treatments that extract oil from the stones. This has a negative effect on taste and the environment. And of course, the Reigado family’s oil is organic and extra virgin. If your oil is neither of those things, it involves spraying poisons into the environment and will be made using old oil. Why not focus instead on producing and consuming quality, sustainable food?

Transporting olive oil by sailboat

Karen tore me off a piece of crusty bread and poured some oil into a saucer for me to dip the bread in. I’m not an artistic enough writer to describe taste in words, but let’s just say you can taste the love. Yum – really.

Back home, we decant the oil from the 5-litre container into sealable 1-litre bottles for use in the kitchen. We’ll wash these bottles and use them again and again, and when we go to collect more oil after we’ve run out, we’ll take the container back to be used again. Voila – no packaging to throw away. They even gave us special labels if we want to turn some 1-litre bottles into presents.

The price

At the moment, let’s compare like with like. Each 5-litre container costs £55 collected from Brighton, or £59 collected from London (which reflects the added cost of transport to London, currently). That’s between £11 and £11.80 per litre. Here you can see similar quality oils that range from around £14 to over £30 per litre; and here you can see that Waitrose sell a range from £8.50 to £11 per litre. There are many sources of organic, extra-virgin olive oil online that charge well over £11 per litre.

The Sailboat Project hope to double the volume transported next time, and to reduce prices significantly. However, it’s not just about price. It’s about the kind of society we want to build. The trick is not to see yourself as just a consumer, whose aim is to find the lowest prices possible. Instead think of yourself as both producer and consumer (a ‘prosumer’, if you like). Paying decent prices to ‘solidarity’ businesses (which includes self-employed people) keeps money in your community, and in the hands of the kinds of people who will also be prepared to pay good prices for quality goods and services in their communities. This will give you the opportunity to set up your own business (or join an existing one) to supply those people. This is the stirrings of a virtuous, rather than a vicious circle – a rising tide that will raise all our boats. In other words, don’t complain about prices if no-one is becoming rich, they result in high-quality, sustainable products and the money stays in your community.

It’s really important not to write this trend off as just another namby-pamby, middle-class, expensive idea, but instead to see it as a way of changing your own life and your own work. Would you rather have a boring, pointless job in the corporate sector (maybe on zero-hours contracts and minimum wage for blue-collar work, shelf-stacking or telesales etc.), making money for already-wealthy people, and spending your money on cheap, low-quality food and other goods – or would you like to have a satisfying job, working with great people, in a way that keeps money in your community, so that everyone can afford quality food and goods?

What you can do

Become a customer. See here. Contact them directly to buy olive oil and to talk about various options for delivery.

Start a hub in your area. If you live in London, you can get as many people together as you can (including local shops if possible) who would like to pre-order 5 litres or more. The idea is that the Sailboat Project will bring oil up the Thames on a big, restored, flat-bottomed Thames barge called the Raybel, organised via the Sail Cargo Alliance.

I can see the shoots of the new economy pushing through. It’s going to be very difficult, but the quality is so good, and the businesses so sustainable and full of such good people, that I think it’s going to succeed in the end.

Help people like the Sailboat Project grow their business, and they’re exactly the kind of people who will help you when you start yours. It’s called the Solidarity Economy, and it’s the future.