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EAF Annual Meeting 2006 - Farming in the South of Europe

From 8 till 11 June 2006 a group of 30 EAF-members visited southern Spain. With the beautiful city of Córdoba as a base, they got an interesting impression of what farming is like in the hot and dry region of Andalusia. This is the home area of Ignacio Fernandez de Mesa, organiser of the trip, and chairman of the Asaja Córdoba, the association of mainly large farming businesses in the Córdoba province.

As in the rest of Europe Spanish farmers have to operate on a less and less protected market. Where possible, they are restructuring their cropping plans and shift from cereals, sunflowers and cotton to more profitable crops like fruits and vegetables. This certainly is not a solution for everyone. Farmers need the skills of entrepreneurship and access to the scarce water-resources. Future does not look bright for small farms that lack both.

Water is a big issue in Spain. In the Córdoba province there is a supply of 1.600 m³ water per capita per year. In Northern Africa this is 1.300 m³, in an average northern European country 9.600 m³. Agriculture in Córdoba uses 83 percent of the water, while it represents only 6 percent of local economy. After a couple of dry years in a row, agricultural use seems no longer self-explanatory. Farmers face restrictions in water-use (up to 50 percent in 2006). Comparable situations are numerous in Spain and the trade in water(rights) is blooming. There is even physical trade in water between areas who are hundreds of km’s apart, connected by pipeline.

At the pumping-station of the Genil/Cabra-area engineer Rafael Navas showed us how a modern irrigation system is operated. It now supplies water for 15.000 ha, managed by small farmers who grow mainly vegetables. The water consumption is about 5.000 m³ per ha per year. The water is controlled at five levels: farms, groups, sectors, canals and the total area. Each farm has a controlled water inlet with a cut-off valve, a flow meter, a flow limiter and, if needed, a pressure limiter. Overall investment costs were 4.325 euros per ha. Farmers are billed partly on flat rate (150 euro per ha) and on variable rate by use (0,025 euro per m³). On average farmers in Spain pay more for their water.

Although it is hard for Spanish farmers to compete, decoupled crops (EU arable crop payments in Spain are decoupled by 75 %) will not disappear at once. As no other crop sunflowers can stand the heat and drought, which makes the crop suitable for area’s that cannot be irrigated. Cotton is an important crop in coastal areas since it can stand salty soils. Ignacio expects durum wheat to be grown less in the south and more in the north of Spain. In the past years it was too dry for the crops to take up enough nitrogen to meet the protein-requirements of the pasta-industry. For sugar beets 2006 was the last year. The factory in Andalusia has closed.

One crop that is not decoupled is olives. Andalusia is the world’s biggest olive oil producing area and is keen on keeping that position. The EAF-group visited the Luque-family that owns several oil companies. One of their strategies is to make value out of strictly ecological cultivation, under their own family-name.

In the main stream production farmers are looking for new cultivation techniques that require less labour. They plant trees in dense rows for better mechanisation. Again, water is an important limiting factor. Ivan Arteaga (a new member of the EAF) explained that’s why he cannot just change from wheat to olives. That’s why he is also planting peaches and apricots. These fruits require less water since harvest is earlier.

Apart from olives oranges are well represented in the landscape. Grower Nicolas Gonzales explains that this crop demands a lot of water, 5.000 m³ per ha. Nevertheless the acreage in Córdoba has expanded from 2.000 to 10.000 ha in just a few years and is expected to grow further, up to 20.000 ha. Growing oranges for the fresh market is getting less profitable. Most of the harvest goes to the juice-industry.

Mario Reina is farming 400 ha of irrigated arable land. He grows broccoli, peppers, cauliflower, onions, zucchini, artichoke, garlic and potatoes. Almost year-round he employs 150 people, mainly for harvest work. Until last year he grew 80 ha of sugar beet. Yields were up to 70 tons per ha at prices around 50 cents per tonne. He is not sure how to fill up the gap. Partly with vegetables, but also some wheat to give some rest to the soil.

Ignacio notices more and more farmers are thinking of going into vegetables. Which is on one hand a good sign of entrepreneurship. On the other hand the he is worried about how this could easily spoil the market.

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Egbert Jonkheer