Spain and Portugal: Ancient History and Future Building

By Neil Melancon, Louisiana Farm Bureau Information & Public Relations Assistant Director

One of the main purposes of travel is for new experiences. As I’m coming to see, another side of that equally important is to reinforce old ones.

Intellectually, I knew that Spain was different from the Hispanic countries I’d visited in the Western Hemisphere. Coming here and seeing it first hand reinforced in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Despite the commonality of the language, Spain is a radically different country from its counterparts. The only one that comes close is Chile, but even there, it’s still very much a separate world.

Geographically, central Spain where we predominately travelled, is very similar to the Hill Country of Texas. Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe behind Switzerland. The dry, arid climate is perfect for wines, olives, cork and many of the ag products produced here. In many ways, even though it varies geographically, it is like Louisiana in that there’s an abundance of commodities produced here that supplies the rest of the country and continent.

The real differences lie in the pacing. While the siesta is still part of everyday life here, the Spanish are no less busy for it. They work hard and play hard here. There’s a definite national pride here that’s similar in a lot of ways to Japan—a devotion to cleanliness seen on individual and societal levels. You have organized street cleanings on a daily basis, while shopkeepers and homeowners take the time to clean the areas around their respective places. Even our bus drivers were paranoid about dirt being tracked on to their company-owned vehicles.  

Spain is very much European in its outlook. The cities are trend conscious places, including a fervor for artisinally-crafted food and goods. It’s strange to see, especially given the long history of artisanship that dates back to Phoencian times, yet it dovetails into their own national pride.  Locally-made is as much about preservation of identity as it is about trendy selectiveness.  

Things definitely get started later here. Some of my traveling companions have grumbled about the lack of services (coffee) available at 6 am. Few similar grumblings can be heard at night when they’re ready to have fun at night and the whole country seems ready to cater to that need. The siesta isn’t so much about lack of productivity as it is about blending work and life together. It was a cultural concept created long before “work-life balance,” because naturally, if they couldn’t be blended, why would the work be done? Or, at the very least, done in the manner that demands everything be sacrificed in the name of the appearance of productivity.  

Spain’s economy is booming right now. As we drove through the countryside, there were signs everywhere of olive production expansion. Trees are being planted en masse, both for ag production and for environmental reasons. With the International Olive Council headquartered here, they’re definitely making a statement that they would like to be in the driver’s seat for that commodity specifically, and likely for many others as well. With the U.S. as their number one customer, they’re very eager to fill our demands.

We spent a limited amount of time in Portugal, but what we did see was impressive. I knew next to nothing about the country and it was full of surprises. Much more so than Spain, Portugal is dragging itself out of a long economic slump and wages are slowly rising. In fact, our bus tour was cut off from one area of Lisbon because of a protest for higher middle-class income.  Minimum wage has risen by fiat, while others have stagnated. In the meantime, exorbitant taxes on fuel, up to 60%, are designed to force more urbanites to use public transportation, again to the chagrin of many in the city.

It’s hard to see those problems without the context of the history of Lisbon and Portugal in general. It’s the home of Vasco de Gama, who charted out a passage around Africa to open sea-trade routes. It’s also where they learned painful lessons of rebuilding from disasters. First from the great earthquake and tsunami of 1755 where more than 30,000 citizens were killed. Later, a monarchy gave way to a dictatorship which lasted more than 50 years, subjecting the small country to many perils. Yet, they celebrate innovation and individuals here in modern Portugal while honoring their past. They have a rich tradition tor draw upon to push themselves forward, both to take advantage of their booming, staple tourism and modern trade.  

Perhaps no better industry highlights it better than Portugal’s cork production. It’s rooted in tradition that goes back hundreds if not thousands of years, where the bark of the cork oak tree was stripped in a process learned father to son over generations. It’s still done today, but agains the backdrop of supplying much of the world with their cork for wine bottles. Amorim, a cork company that we visited, produces one in every three cork stoppers in the world.  

Amorim ran into a challenge several years back with the rise of plastic and screw-top stoppers. The company made a decision that rather than remain complacent, they decided to compete on a world stage, through a combination of increasing technology and marketing. At the same time, they redefined their relationship with cork producers, recognizing them as partners in their business, rather than mere suppliers. Now, cork bark slippers have the highest paid ag jobs in the country, making 110 Euros per day, where the minimum wage is 600 per month. Amorim also made a commitment to quality, correcting for a mold that can sometimes taint the wine or other beverages that touch it. Further, they have expanded their business to use cork in other products, such as shoes, jewelry and fishing rods.

Both Spain and Portugal represent both a known quantity and a new frontier, both for me and I think the U.S. as a whole. As I toured the magnificent cathedrals, beautiful countryside and millennia-old antiquities, I met people who were very ready to engage Americans and show that they’re very much a part of the modern world. I’m ready to go back and tour anytime—there’s so much more I wanted to see and explore there.  In the meantime, I’ll be looking for their market moves and I know our group will too.