Irrigation crucial to farming in southern Spain

Rice is grown in the south while corn is grown in the north as a major fodder; barley and winter wheat are major cereals


The song in the famous musical drama My Fair Lady suggests, “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” That would be why this region of southern Spain has developed into a vast area for agriculture production. The mostly treeless plains are wide open fields stretching to the horizon.

Spain’s climate is similar to California. The rainy season, which is often inadequate, occurs in the fall, and occasionally during winter. A large part of the country is semiarid, with temperatures ranging from extreme cold in the winter to scorching heat in the summer droughts, which occur frequently.

Of Spain’s 125 million acres of land, about 40 percent is suitable for cultivation. The soils are generally poor quality and only about 10 percent of the land is considered excellent for agriculture.

In the south, irrigation is important. In ancient times the Phoenicians developed a sophisticated irrigation system using viaducts.

Today, the land south of Seville is surface irrigated with water from artesian wells and distributed using viaducts and canal systems.

Spain is one of the world’s largest producers of wine grapes. In addition, barley and winter wheat are the major cereal crops. Rice is grown in the southern region while corn is grown in the north as a major fodder. Other crops include cotton, tobacco, sugar beets, olives, beans, lentils, chickpeas, oranges strawberries, apricots, bananas, pears, peaches, plums, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and almonds.

There are thousands of acres of plastic dome greenhouses in southern Spain, where crops such as strawberries and tomatoes are grown. | Duane McCartney photo

Despite the marginal quality sandy soils along the southern coast line, there is a huge hothouse industry where strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and other fruits are grown under clear plastic domes. Spain is the biggest exporter of strawberries worldwide, and they are the largest and the juiciest that my wife, Joan, and I have ever eaten.

However, there is not enough water to supply this huge industry. According to the local water agency, many strawberry farms are getting their water illegally.

Britain is one of the main importers of Spain’s berry produce. There is big concern among the growers what kind of trade agreement the United Kingdom is going to have with the European Union and Spain following Brexit.

With the increase in livestock production, Spain is a net importer of feed grains. Ideal growing conditions, combined with proximity to important northern European markets, makes citrus fruits Spain’s leading export. Fresh vegetables and fruits produced through intensive irrigation farming are also important export commodities. Sunflower oil is also produced to compete with more expensive olive oils.

Rice is a main staple in the Spanish diet and Spain accounts for nearly 30 percent of rice production in the EU. Italy is the main producer accounting for about 50 percent. In some areas, rice is part of a crop rotation.

Spain’s southernmost region is the EU’s second largest cotton growing area after Greece.

Spain is the world leader when it comes to olive production. This country dedicates 5.9 million acres of land to this valuable crop. Andalusia, the area in southwestern Spain north of Gibraltar, is the world’s largest producer of olive oil. This accounts for about 44 percent of the world’s supply of olive oil each year.

It takes four to five kilograms of olives to produce one litre of oil and a tree produces 15 to 20 kg of olives, or four to five litres of oil.

Different cultivars begin fruiting at three years old, while other cultivars do not make fruit until they are five to 12 years old. Most olive cultivars will not produce fruit without a pollinator tree of a different cultivar.

Olive trees are evergreen — they do not lose their leaves in winter but constantly renew their leaves. Our tour guide pointed out that the region is green all year round because different species of vegetation are always green.

The growing of olive trees has now become a strategic sector for this area of Spain.

Olive trees can live for hundreds of years, or in some cases, more than 1,000 years. It is thought that the Phoenicians introduced olive tree cultivation to the western Mediterranean, and later, the Romans exported oil to every corner of their Empire.

Andalusian olives are mainly grown on non-irrigated land, but there is a move toward irrigation. In new dense plantations there are 80 to 100 olive trees per acre.

Olive oil byproducts are sold as olive pomace oil, biomass for generating energy, organic fertilizers and cosmetic products.

These hardy trees produce better fruit and oil in poor soil than they do in higher quality soils.

The region of Valencia produces the most oranges in Spain and is nicknamed the orchard of Spain. Sweet oranges are grown in well-irrigated groves near the coast. Spain is the leading citrus producer in the EU.

Citrons were introduced by the Romans during the fifth century and sour oranges, lemons and sweet oranges by Genoese traders during the 15th century. Initially citrus was used as ornamental plants and for medicinal purposes. Commercial plantings started at the end of the 18th century and exported as fresh fruit to European countries.

Today, Spain is the main fresh fruit citrus exporting country in the world.

Another unique food item in Spain is the jamón ibérico de bellota, or acorn ham.

Joan and I were sitting in a small restaurant in Seville and we noticed some sort of meat with the hind leg attached, hanging from the ceiling. The butcher would place the leg of meat unto a horizontal stand and cut thin slivers of meat with a very large and very sharp knife. We found out later that this was a pork ham from the famous free-range Black Iberian pig that roams oak forests along the border between Spain and Portugal and in later life eats only olives, chestnuts or acorns.

The hams from the slaughtered pigs are salted and left to dry and cure for at least 12 months, although some producers cure their jamones ibéricos for up to 48 months. The exercise and diet and relatively high fat content have a significant effect on the flavour of the meat.

The name jamón ibérico refers to the colour of the pig’s toenails, which are white in most traditional pork breeds, but black for the Black Iberian breed. With the high prices, there are even cases of counterfeit hams with the nails being manually painted black.

About the author

explore

Stories from our other publications