Cultivating a new concept

photo: Workers of Hytasal during one of their training sessions

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“EVERY NEW BEGINNING comes from some other beginning’s end.” This quote from Lucius Annaeus Seneca and the popular 1997 song ‘Closing Time’ by Semisonic relates to the new outlook of Hytasal. This enormous vacant space is proportionate to the increasing amount of ideas filling the minds of people who are helping the renovation of this once-famous textile factory in the southern neighborhood of Seville into an entirely new practice: cultivating mushrooms.

HYTASAL is the Spanish acronym for Hilatura y Tejidos Andaluces Sociedad Anónima Laboral, or “The Anonymous Andalusian Labor Society of Spinning and Textile,” but formerly was known as Hytasa, when it was a corporation (Sociedad Anónima) not owned by its workers. The original textile factory was constructed in 1937 (during the civil war) with the goal of promoting the economic recovery of Spain. Its aim was to take advantage of the cotton production in lower Andalusia. The formation of Hytasa and the textile industry sparked employment rates in the neighborhood. The 35,000-square meter (8.6-acre) factory housed around 3,300 workers, whose labor was divided into spinning, weaving fabric, and finishing the wool. Throughout Francisco Franco’s dictatorship over Spain beginning in 1939 (in Seville in 1936) and ending with his death in 1975, the workers of Hytasa demon- strated a strong presence in the labor union movements and protests.

BETWEEN 1958 AND1962, Hytasa experienced its greatest success. But it was short lived. The textile industry began to experience a downfall in 1970 which lasted until 1991. Internal problems included the competitiveness among the workers and high labor costs. Another factor that contributed to the decline of the company was the energy and petroleum crisis, from which the textile industry most suffered. The gradual opening of markets around the world stimulated competition with countries such as China, Taiwan, and India. By 1975, Hytasa’s profits were suffering great losses.

AT THE BEGINNING OF THE 1980S, the factory was expropriated and seized by the government. It remained in a state of deficit, so in 1991, in an attempt to gain back ownership, Hytasa was sold to Gossypium/Integusa and changed its name to Mediterráneo Técnica Textil, or the “Mediterranean Technical Textile (MTT).” In 1997, still insufficiently successful, 600 employees were left without work, and the company that was once one of the most relevant enterprises of the Andalusian community for a quarter of a century closed its doors for good.

THE FACTORY REMAINED CLOSED for thirteen years. A majority of the former workers had been with the company for years, and only had the skills and knowledge of textiles, but Seville did not have other industrial options in that field. Regional and central governments considered helping them, but there was no way to support the textile industry with all of the growing competition. No matter how hard they fought to maintain the company name, which changed legally from Hytasa to Hytasal when it was assumed by its workers, the only choice was to find a new business concept.

“WE HAD SEARCHED FOR AN ALTERNATIVE for the labor workers. We knew that the textile industry had died. What could one produce here?” Juan Luis Pagés, the president of the Asociación de Hermanamiento, or the “Brotherhood Association,” based in the Cerro del Águila neighborhood, where the factory is located, says. The Brotherhood Association studied the possibilities of a new business concept for Hytasal. The company wanted to stay with the theme of labor work, so that former workers could have the choice of returning. In 2012, Pagés approached the renovation of the factory with the concept of cultivating ecological products using their enor- mous empty buildings. This idea was discussed in two different ways: creating a foundation for self- managed projects and combining the concepts of textiles and agricultural work. “With a mall right next to Hytasal, it offered me the possibility to produce something that we can commercialize from the fields to the Internet,” explains Pagés referring to the big Alcampo supermarket across the street. But what could possibly be something produced by employees with little ecological production knowledge and that could also be cultivated inside of a building?

THE ANSWER: MUSHROOMS. The possibility of cultivating mushrooms indoors was discussed with an engineer and presented to the city hall, the factory creditors, Caixabank, and the judge who has controlled the company since it declared bankruptcy, who, ultimately, all approved the project. Ever since this exciting news, Hytasal and its workers have been back working hard. “While we are reassembling as a business, we can only handle about 30 workers right now, but if we achieve success we can add more after,” Pagés says.

THE CURRENT EMPLOYEES do not yet know how to cultivate mushrooms, but with the help of biochemist Daniel García, they are learning in classes inside the factory every day. “It is not difficult to cultivate mushrooms in a building and not in the fields. There are only a series of things we have to follow to be able to imitate the ecology of the cycle of production with humidity, light, or temperature,” García explains.

“THE IDEA is to cultivate the first mushrooms in December. Then we would like to work on the production of other mushrooms in the beginning of 2014,” says a hopeful Pagés. The objective is then to sell these ecological mushrooms (they will cultivate the species pleurotus ostreautus) at the same price as similar products, around 9 to 11 Euro per kilogram.

BUT THE REINVENTION OF THE FUTURE of Hytasal may provide more than just the cultivation of different mushrooms. Pagé’s association is also looking into other business possibilities for the large area where the factory sits. One of these options is working with the group Apascide, a Spanish association for the families of people who are blind and deaf. Apascide provides a number of activities for their members, including boxing. Hytasal would like to use the large space to give Apascide and its members an area where they are able to practice their boxing skills. From the idea of collaborating with Apascide, Hytasal is also considering the possibility of addressing the food revolution by adding a kitchen to the expansive building.

WHAT ABOUT THE CURRENT ECONOMIC CRISIS in Spain? Wouldn’t it be a mistake to try and reopen a business with an entirely new concept when it has already shut down once before? Not according to the developers of the new Hytasal, now called Los Huertos de Hytasal, or The Hytasal Orchards. Everyone is very excited for this opportunity, especially because being eco-friendly is popular in today’s society. But will it last? Páges shares, “The idea is not what we can gain, it’s what we can utilize out of the market. It’s as simple as: if they need what we can supply, then we will have success.”

THE HISTORY AND PRESENT-DAY SITUATION of Hytasal is the definition of a new beginning. With the worker’s new concepts and business ideas, determination, and hard work, there is no doubt that it will soon again become the famous factory of Seville it was once known to be.