A few weeks ago, I was invited to Almeria and Murcia, two neighbouring regions in Southern Spain, to learn more about their agricultural practices and produce.
1 Agrobio – Biological Pollination & Pest Control
We started with a fascinating visit to Agrobio, a company that produces and sells bumblebees for pollination and a wide range of insects for biological pest control. Before a tour of the bee production facilities, we learned more about the use of bees for pollination from researchers Isabel Mendizábal and David Morales.
Tomato crops were used as an example; tomato flowers are not naturally very attractive to pollinating insects, so farmers need to intervene. In the past, farmers have employed a variety of techniques to pollinate their tomatoes; the use of hormones (which cheat the flower into thinking they are pollinated but result in poor quality seeds, poor setting of fruit and also need human intervention every few days to spray) or the use of blowers and vibrators (intended to release pollen by blowing or shaking it loose from the flowers, but expensive and not very effective).
But bees have proved to be more effective and cheaper and they result in perfect fruit setting.
Hive bees won’t pollinate tomatoes as there is no nectar in the flowers; once the first few bees from a hive visit the field, they’ll pass on information to the rest of their hive that there’s no nectar in that location. But bumblebees don’t communicate in this way, so each bee will merrily visit any tomato flower it encounters. Additionally, bumblebees don’t store food, so they will leave the colony box to find flowers every day.
Once farmers switch to using bees for pollination, they usually switch to biological pest control too; chemical pesticides often cause bees to die, not to mention the residues of chemicals that remain in the produce. To make matters worse, pests develop resistance to widely used chemicals over time, meaning that farmers must use ever increasing amounts to protect their crops from the same pests.
Indeed, Almeria’s farming community suffered a catastrophic blow in 2006, when Greenpeace published a report about its discovery (in German supermarkets) of unacceptably high levels of pesticide residues in produce from the region, including pesticides not permitted to be used in the EU. The supermarkets in question quickly switched to non-Spanish producers, but the scandal grew as more European vendors tested for and detected the same residues and stopped buying from Almeria. Brussels placed the offending chemical on its blacklist and with that, Almeria could no longer sell affected produce within the EU. The blow to the economy was severe and resulted in unusually rapid and wholesale changes to the industry; in 2005 just 300 hectares in the region used biological pest control, now 27,000 hectares in the region do so. The use of chemicals dropped drastically; indeed Almeria has become a global showcase for farming with minimal use of chemicals. The regional public administration also support the change, keen to ensure the problem does not arise again; they provide subsidies, training and other resources to support the agricultural community.
Said Isabel of the change; “We passed from an example of what you must not do in agriculture to an example of what you must do.”
The process of growing bees is utterly fascinating. Agrobio selectively breed different species of bumblebees for different regions around the world. For example, the UK bumblebee is a different subspecies to the ones found elsewhere in Europe. If Agrobio were to sell UK farmers the European subspecies, it would breed with our native bumblebees and our unique subspecies would be lost. For this reason, Agrobio produce a number of difference species and subspecies of bumblebees for their various farmers around the world.
By clever use of a series of temperature and light controlled rooms, Agrobio are able to mimic the various lifecycle stages of the bumblebee and produce the bees all year round. We explore the various rooms, blinking in bright lights as huge bumblebees buzz around us, a row of workers gently picking individuals and placing them into boxes; we squint in dark red lit rooms in which bees are in a state of hibernation, and even see a tray of dozing ones transferred from one very cold room to another. In the last room, boxes of bees are carefully packaged, along with a feeder of nectar, ready for transport to the customer.
Agrobio provide bumblebee colonies in two types of boxes suitable for use in a greenhouse or outdoors; the indoor boxes have more ventilation to allow the heat to dissipate; outdoor boxes are better protected against the weather.
As with the bees, breeding insects for biological pest control isn’t straightforward; agrobio perform extensive research to determine which insects are the best natural predators for the various pests that plague farmers, with the choice depending on crop varieties, climate and geographical location. They then produce and sell the relevant insects in large quantities. Although they do a lot of research to improve the efficacy of their biological pest control species, they are keen to point out that there is no genetic manipulation involved, just careful use of selective breeding to favour natural characteristics. With some insects, it’s a case of breeding them in large numbers, packing them in suitable bottles, tubes and boxes and shipping them to farmers for release. With some insects, particularly parasitoids, the pregnant females don’t travel well so instead they will allow the parasitoids to impregnate some of the pest species, send those out to the farmers, and once released into the greenhouses, the parasitoids hatch and breed, and lay their next generation of eggs within the pests of the greenhouse.
2 Clisol – The Future of Farming
Lola Gómez Ferrón is a fruit and vegetable grower who embraced biological, sustainable farming long before the rest of the region were forced to follow suit. It’s a family business which she inherited from her parents, and she and her husband now employ just 6 staff to help them look after 2.2 hectares of land. The average figure, she explains, is around 3 people per hectare, but of course it depends on what you’re growing and how you are growing it. Tomatoes, for example, need much more effort than melons!
The first thing that most visitors to the region notice, even before they land, is that the vast majority of agricultural land is covered in greenhouses. Looking down, as your flight comes in or takes off, you cannot fail to notice the extensive coverage of green and white plastic tunnels across the landscape.
Lola explains the history of local greenhouses:
The Almeria region has a unique semi-desert climate which is warm enough for many fruit and vegetables to be grown outdoors. However, the region suffers from blasting winds, often 100 days of the year or more, which destroy crops and made farming very difficult. Around 50 years ago, farmers in the region began to put up traditional greenhouses – the regular structures used elsewhere, with plastic coverings. These succeeded in protecting crops from the wind but also conferred an additional benefit – Almerian farmers discovered they could now grow produce throughout the winter, when the rest of Europe could not. Year round produce became central to the economic success of the region’s agriculture.
The original greenhouses were flat, but rainwater collected on top and often caused the structure to collapse; that lead to a change in the shape of the greenhouses, most of which now have a 10-12% gradient roof angle to allow for water to run off without weighing down or damaging them.
The extra heat provided by the plastic coverings was a boon in winter, but in summer, the heat was too intense. Rather than remove the plastic coverings from such vast areas of land, local farmers developed a system of whitewashing the plastic during the summer to reflect away much of the heat, and then washing the plastic back to green for the winter. Many of the greenhouses are quite low in height, which makes it easier for the farmers to clamber on top to paint or clean.
Other changes include improved ventilation; earlier greenhouses required manual opening and closing of vents but the newest models are fully automated and computer controls open and close vents on different sides of the structure according to sensors monitoring temperatures within the greenhouse and wind direction outside. (Plants being such efficient producers of oxygen, need ventilation to blow out excess oxygen and bring in fresh carbon dioxide).
Greenhouse coverings now make use of photo-selective plastics which reflect light in such a way that some pests such as aphids and whitefly are less likely to enter.
We also learn why Lola has moved away from traditional soil-based agriculture to hydroponics:
The soil in this region is poor. Traditionally, farmers used to add a 50 cm layer of fertile soil imported from elsewhere, on top of the local orange soil. Then they would add 2-3 cm of manure and then 12-15 cm of protective sand above that. To plant the crops, the sand was moved aside, the seedling planted into the soil below, and the sand moved back into place. But after 5 or 6 years, all the goodness in that imported soil was depleted and the farmers faced the enormous task of removing the top layer of sand and replacing the soil once again. It was an arduous and expensive cycle.
Lola has instigated closed-water system hydroponics in several of her newer greenhouses. She uses coconut husk purchased from India, where it’s a discarded by product of coconut farming. All the nutrients required are added to the water, which circulates within the closed system. Nothing leaches into the soil; nothing enters the water table. Again, specialist sensors detect when plants need more water, and allow controlling computers to direct the flow as required. When the plants are young, they are fed by clean fresh water. That water is recycled through the closed system repeatedly. By the time the plants are older, the water has been recycled numerous times, but the older plants are able to handle that. Lola is convinced that in the future, most if not all farming will use closed-water hydroponics systems – no contamination of the land or water table and very efficient use of water – an increasingly limited resource.
Lola uses biological pollination and pest control, and is pleased that the price has dropped as more and more farmers adopt the approach, and companies like Agrobio (she uses a competitor) are able to increase volumes and reduce prices. Things are constantly evolving as more research leads to greater understanding; where once the sticky insect traps – placed on greenhouse walls to attract and trap pests – were bright blue, they are now a much paler blue. Why? Because recent spectrum research has discovered that the brighter blue attracts both pests and pest control insects but the paler blue attracts only the unwanted pests.
Lola smiles as she tells us that she loves her plants as she loves her children; “a plant lives, grows, thinks, moves – it’s the same, not less, than people”.
After teaching us so much about the history, current practices and future of farming in the region, Lola also shares some of her personal tips for tomato growing, several of which could readily be implemented by a home grower. I’ll be sharing those with you next year, as I’m eager to give them a try myself. Lastly, we enjoy a fine feast of farm fresh produce served with local olive oil and honey.
You may enjoy this short BBC Video filmed in Almeria last year, which features Lola and showcases her hydroponic tomato greenhouses.
3 Agromark – Traceability of Produce
Agromark in Murcia is a successful fruit and vegetable farming business owned and run by three brothers. One of the brothers, Carlos Doménech Llopis, gives us a tour of one of their broccoli farms, telling us that an impressive 80% of the broccoli consumed in Europe during late autumn and winter is grown right here in Murcia.
Like Almeria, Murcia boasts a microclimate that allows them to grow crops throughout the winter. Unlike Almeria, it doesn’t have ferocious winds to deal with, indeed Carlos tells us a little more wind would be very welcome when it comes to ventilating their greenhouses!
Before visiting the greenhouses, we learn how seeds are processed by the rather grand Urbinati potting machine; I find it utterly mesmerising. Soil is imported from Estonia (and on occasion from Scotland) and fed into the machine which breaks it up, fills it into the seed trays and pushes a small hole into each pot. Today, Agromark are using seeds purchased from Malaysia; a variety called Calabrese Broccoli F1 Hybrid Parthenon. The bright blue coating protects the seeds and also makes it easy to identify the source; each seed company uses a different colour coating for their seeds. A vacuum system sucks individual seeds onto a rotating cylinder and releases them into the seed trays below. These are then covered with vermiculite, a mineral-rich rock that expands when heated, providing a superlight covering for the seeds that locks in moisture and leaches beneficial minerals.
After potting, the seed trays are transferred into a climate-controlled room for 48 hours, during which time they germinate. Once germinated, the seedlings spend 35-55 days in the greenhouses before being transplanted to the fields outside. The consistency of temperatures in the germination room and greenhouses ensures a 99% success rate for germination; much higher than can be achieved outside.
In the greenhouse, we are shown seedlings at various stages. Each seedbed is meticulously labelled to show the variety, the date they were sown, any feeds or chemicals applied and so on. This commitment to traceability fulfils stringent requirements from customers including Sainsbury’s and Waitrose in the UK and other supermarkets and distributors across Europe.
When it comes to the other end of the process, Agromark are keen to pick, package and distribute the produce as quickly as possible. To this end they’ve developed a process whereby workers walk through the field, cutting only the heads of broccoli that are fully grown and in good condition; these are dropped onto a conveyor belt that carries them into a mobile packing shed where they are cut, wrapped, labelled and packed into crates within minutes.
Coming soon, a round up of traditional food in the two regions.
Kavey Eats travelled to Almeria and Murcia on behalf of the We Care You Enjoy campaign, funded by Hortyfruta and ProExport.