Difficult Decisions: The Future of the CO Project Farm in Portugal

Leyla Acaroglu
8 min readMar 24, 2021

It’s been just over a year since the Covid pandemic was called. Since then, ripples of shut downs and difficult decisions have been made by individuals, families, companies and communities as the collateral damage of the virus continues to ricochet around the world.

The CO Project Farm in Portugal

On a spring day in May 2020, I reluctantly realized that I had to shut down all of the operations on my beloved CO Project farm in Portugal due to the impacts of Covid.

I had spent three years pouring my heart and soul into regenerating the farm and experimenting with creating a different type of rural tourism experience: a social enterprise focused on inspiring contemporary sustainable living.

Then, just like that, we had to wind it all back — we canceled programs, returned money for booked experiences, and sadly, had to let the local team go. We were not eligible for any Government support schemes, so the business had to be suspended. And I had to find a way to make sure that the farm continued to grow and blossom, despite it going from hosting many people to it just being me.

It was really hard, but it felt temporary. I made plans to suspend everything in hopes that this would pass and we could reactivate it all in a year. I rented the farm to a wonderful family and set about trying to recoup the losses.

It was a hard blow personally, emotionally and financially, but I held hope that if we just made it through the year, then we could come back.

But as we all now know with that year having passed, the world continues to be challenged by Covid-induced difficult decisions. In a time filled with such uncertainty, it’s very hard for any small business to know what the future holds, and so there is a point where a difficult decision has to be made in order to keep moving forward.

I created the CO Project farm to offer people incredible immersive learning experiences in nature about sustainability and systems change. It was designed for people — to host, feed, and inspire them — and we did that. Over 1000 people came to the farm in the two years we were able to operate.

Once a month on Sundays, we would host a big community open day where between 20 and 60 people would randomly show up and collaboratively, we would cook fresh produce from the garden into delicious vegetable-centric feasts. We hosted UnSchool programs, creative residences and local and international guests interested in learning about sustainable living. It was full of life and laughter, learning and joy.

Our community open days
The farmhouse and the iconic old windmill with the neighboring villages in the distance

CO stands for Creative Optimism, and it was my goal to find a way of inspiring this in anyone who made the journey to the farm, and perhaps those that did not, but wanted to. My goal was to create something inspiring that would be an aggressively copyable concept, where anyone else who had never grown food or even thought about rural regeneration would also get motivated to start a project wherever they could, planting seeds, working within natural systems and learning through the inevitable failures and hiccups that come along when working within beautiful complex systems.

The vista of the farm and the organic stone handmade garden beds
The farmhouse sunroom overlooking the private and secluded farmlands

I am extremely proud of what we achieved on the farm, completely restoring the old farmhouses into examples of contemporary sustainability, regenerating the farmland through organic farming principles, offering sanctuary to animals and sharing food and experiences with the local community.

But now I know it’s time to move on and find a new future for the farm, one where it’s filled with people who can continue to give life and energy to the continued regeneration.

After the restoration of the houses and inside the classroom
Building the biofiltration systems for the pool and how they look now
The fun and playful design features that use restored, reclaimed and recycled materials
The farmhouse master bedroom and the front of the old olive mill

Over the last few months I have battled with making a decision about the future of the farm. Not being able to operate another year, potentially more, means that the best next steps are to find the perfect fit family or group of people to become the new custodians for the farm property— people who can be there full-time to continue to breathe life into this incredible system and gain the same depth of experience and learning that I did when I was designing and regenerating it.

From today, I am searching for the perfect people who will take the vision forward or create their own version of Creative Optimism on the farm. Those who are craving an opportunity to build something beautiful with their own two hands. The CO Farm is for sale and awaiting its new humans to bring it new life.

I will find a way to continue my CO mission, in a new form and location, in the future. But for now, the goal is to pass the farm on to new hands and to continue to move forward.

As a designer, there is always this complex moment when you have to let go of a project you have invested all your creative energy into. But it’s also exciting and inspiring to see the products of your creativity become an opportunity for others.

The local area and the farm at sunset

My intention with the farm in Portugal was to create a unique rural tourism project. We have all the documentation and advice for it to continue to be built, and this is a fantastic option for a post-Covid world.

Alternatively, the farm is set up and ready for a family or group of people to live a fully sustainable life. There are over 200 established fig, fruit and olive trees, new syntropic food forests (with apricots, cherries and other delights that we recently planted), many organic garden beds teeming with produce and an onsite borehole with natural irrigation systems in place.

The outdoor kitchen and the playful goats

There are goats, chickens, ducks and donkeys all working to help bring nutrients back to the soil and offer daily joy. There are two fully renovated farmhouses with a total of 5 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, 3 kitchens, a beautiful bar, a huge classroom and additional renovated indoor space all created using reclaimed and sustainable materials. There is also the option to complete the approved plans to build a solar-passive small house on an adjacent piece of land. There is a giant stone olive mill that can be converted into any number of incredible uses, along with parcels of highly fertile land we have been rewilding naturally with cork trees.

The custom-designed triangle cabin and the natural swimming pool
The restored farm house and the handbuild organic vegetable beds

There’s a natural swimming pool and a 12-person wood fired Swedish hottub on site. Five minutes away there is an incredible swimming spot in the Zezera River. This project could be transformed into so many different incarnations. It can be continued as a retreat facility (perfect for a yoga retreat for example), turned into an incredible sustainable living homestead or continued as a rural tourism project. We also have the license for Alojamento Local for 9 people (which is what you need to have paying guests stay over) and a tourism license for running tourist experiences, all of which can be transferred to a new owner along with the set-up business model.

The Swedish hot tube and the outdoor dining area

Whilst this is a very difficult decision that I have not made lightly, I am dedicated to taking the time and space to find the perfect fit for the future of the farm. To provide as much information as possible, we have prepared a detailed property prospectus which can be accessed here.

I’m sure, we will all look back at this time in our lives and remember the complexities of our choices, knowing that we have done the best possible things we can under the circumstances we found ourselves in. I am excited about the future — I maintain hope and a positive mindset that we will all find our way in making the world work better for all of us, despite the challenges we currently face. I always try to see how challenges are opportunities in disguise and look forward to continuing my personal mission and vision for a sustainable and regenerative future by design in and through my projects, wherever they take me.

I am so grateful for all that I learned from restoring the farm, for everyone who came and helped build it, for the volunteers, the guests and the community we created. And, I am equally grateful for the ability to pass it forward to enable others to gain as much as I did from my three-year farm restoration adventure.

Download the Portugal Farm Purchase Prospectus >

Sign up for our mailing list to find out how we go with CO Project 2.0 >

Here are two videos that show the transformation of the farm. The first one was from the start of the journey and the latter from a year and a half ago after much of the restoration was complete.

How it started.
How it ended up.



Leyla Acaroglu

UNEP Earth Champ, Designer, Sociologist, Sustainability & Circular Provocateur, TED Speaker, Founder: unschools.co, disrupdesign.co & circularfutures.co