What happened when I bought a derelict farm in Ibiza

To pursue her dream to bring land back to life and create an off-grid eco-farm, author and filmmaker Rebecca Frayn bought a smallholding in Ibiza.The travails and triumphs are explored in her new book Lost in Ibiza.

How I ended up running a regenerative farm in Ibiza remains an abiding mystery. Not only am I a writer and film maker by trade, but I was born and bred in the city and am quite definitely the wrong side of 50. What I knew about running a farm at the time I bought it could honestly have filled half a postage stamp. And the tale of how randomly I ended up in Ibiza itself is a puzzling one too.

Then a few years ago I was researching a documentary film about rewilding. When I learnt that healthy soil has the potential to reverse global warming, a light bulb went on in my head and I began to look for some land to cultivate on the island. It seemed incredible that we didn’t need technology to save the planet. That we only needed to relearn how to work in harmony with nature.

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One day I went to see a nearby plot of land I had heard was for sale. It would have been spectacular, if it wasn’t for the fact that only a few months earlier, the worst fire in Ibiza’s history had left only a blackened wasteland as far as the eye could see. But when the sales agent unlocked the door of the derelict finca and we stepped inside, it was like being admitted to a magical museum. Just as if the old inhabitants had gone out for a walk and would return home at any moment; their little gaslights were still on the walls, the hollowed-out gourds – used as bowls – were still on the tables. There were tiny little wicker chairs to sit on and a mule harness still ready for the mule in the saddle room. There was an empty pig pen for the family pig. A bread oven waiting to receive the uncooked dough. And most miraculous of all, it turned out the house had an ancient spring. A steady trickle of water that ran from beneath a mountain into a little stone ante chamber and from there down a Moorish irrigation channel into two balsas, surrounded by fruit trees which had somehow survived the fire and were heavy with persimmon fruit.

Rebecca Frayn's farm in IbizaRebecca Frayn's farm in Ibiza
Rebecca Frayn's farm in Ibiza

My dream was to bring the land back to life and create an off-grid eco-farm that could become a case study project for a regenerative approach that might help inspire the systems change that is so urgently needed. So as lockdown bit, I took on Francesco Zanchi, a former chef to help me revitalise the 300, 000 square metres of terraced land that surrounded the house. We embarked on the task of renovating the fallen stone walls, planting an edible forest and seeding the razed earth with green manure to rejuvenate the soil. We installed bee hives alongside the traditional ones we uncovered, dug an eco-pond that quickly filled with frogs, and began an ambitious composting system. Bringing the soil back to health by using the old methods of farming was a challenge that Francesco undertook with admirable zeal. He planted and pruned by the waxing and waning of the moon and was scrupulous about no till, no chemicals, and no bare earth.

The valley began to regenerate from the fire with surprising speed. First the genets – lithe cat-like animals with long ringed tails – returned. Then hedgehog families sometimes appeared on the track at night, caught in the head lights of our homeward bound car, seemingly oblivious to any on-coming jeopardy. Rabbits too frequently skittered across the dusty track, their population bouncing back after a nasty dose of myxomatosis. We waged war with them in the new vegetable garden. I was learning all the time and the more I learnt, the more I realised what little I knew. Indeed, if I had known what I know now, I would never have dreamt of embarking on the project. Its sheer scale sometimes keeps me awake at night. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

A friend who lives nearby brought us three ducks he had been given as ducklings. They had imprinted on him at first sight, sleeping curled about his neck by night and waddling about his home by day. But now they had grown into adults, he felt the time had come to set them free. Once liberated on our farm they moved restlessly between the different water sources we had recently restored, swimming experimentally in one before trying out the short flight to the next. But after a few days they tired of living outside and came to tap insistently at the glass door of the study where I was working. I turned to find their beady eyes fixed expectantly on the cosy human life they had, until only so very recently, been sharing. Twice when someone foolishly left a door ajar, they managed to gain access and I returned to find every piece of furniture in our newly renovated sitting-room covered in duck excrement.

There were other, potentially more serious disasters, too. In the first spring after we moved in, rain fell unceasingly for six weeks. Leaving the house one evening in the jeep, my wheel grazed the long grass at the edge of the track and a flank of path simply sheared away, leaving the vehicle, with me still strapped in my seat and my hands still on the wheel, but now tipped at a horizontal angle above the drop that fell sheer to my right. Miraculously, after its initial pivot on to its side, the jeep appeared to be held fast by a tree stump. But if, or as I feared, when, it gave way, the car taking me with it, would plummet into the deep ravine below.

Eventually, after what seemed a vain struggle, I managed to lever the heavy driver's door up towards the night sky and on to the holding mechanism of its hinge. Then I gingerly extended one foot on to the path, mentally rehearsing the manoeuvre, before flipping myself out in an absurd one-footed pivot, to find myself once more on solid ground, properly taking in the perilous angle of the jeep for the first time and wondering if, just like the ducks, I was really cut out for this rugged living malarkey.

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I am now nervously preparing to take ownership of five sheep. I have absolutely no idea how to shear them but I’m hopeful I may find a YouTube video that will enlighten me.

​Lost In Ibiza by Rebecca Frayn is published by Whitefox, priced £14.99

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