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Spanish farmers struggle to adapt to worsening heatwaves and droughts

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By Graham Keeley
Heatwaves are impacting Spain's olive oil production
Heatwaves are impacting Spain's olive oil production   -   Copyright  Green Gold Olive Oil Company

Known as the Green Moon, the plains of Jaén in southern Spain are filled with millions of olive oil trees making this the heartland of one of the country’s biggest exports.

Spain is the world’s biggest producer of the ‘green gold’ as olive oil is known, accounting for two fifths of production, but this year the drought and scorching summer temperatures reaching into the 40s have ravaged the harvest.

Farmers said production could be down by at least 30%, even if there are late rains to save some of the harvest which ends in November.

“The problem is not the lack of rain; olive plants can cope with that. The problem is it was so hot that when the flowers came out, they were literally burnt away,” Juan Jiménez, CEO of Green Gold Olive Oil Company, told Euronews.

With climate change likely to mean droughts become a regular feature of life in southern Europe, Jimenez believes technological solutions are the only way to survive.

“We have a good system of irrigation for our plants. What we need are ways to blow cooler air onto the flowers, so they are not burnt or find other technological ways to guard them from drought and high temperatures,” said Jimenez.

He admits that these answers are not readily available – yet.

Asaja, an association of young farmers in the main olive-growing region of Andalusia, estimated this week that Spain would produce about one million tonnes of olive oil, down from 1.48 million tonnes pressed in the 2021/2022 harvest, according to the latest data from May.

This has pushed up the price of olive oil by nearly 19% year on year, according to data from Mintec, a commodities data company.

“The year-on-year price rise in olive oil in Spain was 18.7% in the first week of September driven by adverse weather conditions including the drought,” said Roxanne Nikoro, a vegetable oils analyst at Mintec.

Green Gold Olive Oil Company
Heatwaves are impacting olive oil production in Spain.Green Gold Olive Oil Company

Finding ways to live with regular droughts and soaring summer temperatures is a challenge farmers across Spain are facing. They sell much of their fruit and vegetables to supermarkets in northern Europe.

On the southern coast of Spain, things have been equally bleak for Paco Pineda, whose farm produces mangos and avocados.

A farmer for over forty years, for the first time he does not know if he can carry on because this year’s drought has ravaged his crops so badly.

The mangos and avocados shrank and smaller fruit means smaller profits but there has still not been a drop of rain to relieve the situation.

“The mangos are about 50% smaller so from 700g they have come down to just over 350g. The same thing has happened to the avocados,” Pineda told Euronews from his farm near Malaga, southern Spain.

Like other farms which grow sub-tropical fruit in this parched part of the country, they depend on water from La Viñuela, the largest reservoir in the area, but water levels have dwindled to 11% of their normal level. Supplies have been limited.

Nationally, water reserves fell to 30.4% of the normal level in the country’s 371 reservoirs, the lowest level for three decades, according to the Spanish government figures.

“They are talking about building a desalination plant in three or four years but by then will we still be around? I would like to get out of farming, but I am 59 so there is nothing else I can do,” said Pineda.

“My sons Francisco and Mael are thinking of leaving farming and getting jobs in construction. We cannot go on like this.”

Spain’s two main agricultural organisations Asaja and COAG have estimated that losses and damage caused by the drought amount to €8 billion this year.

Wheat, barley and corn farmers who depend on water from reservoirs have also suffered, particularly in Extremadura in the far west of the country, said Diego Yuste, of the Association of Small Farmers.

Apart from the enduring drought, farmers are also struggling to cope with the rise in energy and fertilizer prices caused by the Russian war in Ukraine.

AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
People stand next to The Dolmen of Guadalperal, a megalithic monument that emerged due to drought at the Valdecanas reservoir in El Gordo, western Spain.AP Photo/Manu Fernandez

Katja Faber, a British farmer based in Coín, near Malaga, is lucky that she has a well so does not depend on water from a reservoir for her avocados, lemons and oranges.

“The thing is that I need to pay for electricity to get the water out of the well. Then the price of fertilizer is going through the roof so that is an added cost,” she told Euronews.

Russia and its ally Belarus are two of the main producers of potash – known as ‘pink gold’ for its appearance – which is an essential ingredient in fertilizers. But as their exports have been blocked, prices have soared.

Prices have failed to cope with rising costs, said Faber. “I was offered €0.13 per kilo for my oranges so it wasn’t worth picking them and I just left them to rot on the ground,” she said.

She questioned why southern Spain does not lack for golf clubs whose lush green grounds are well irrigated, but farmers are struggling to survive.

“It is like the Costa del Golf here. It is not just a question of it not raining, it is what you do with the water,” said Faber.

In the Ebro Delta, mussels and oysters are the crop but farmers have been struggling with a different problem: not lack of water but its temperature.

After a heatwave lasting 42 days, the water temperature in one of the main mussels growing areas in the Spanish Mediterranean has touched 30C.

Gerardo Bonet, of the Ebro Delta’s Federation of Mollusc Producers (Fepromodel) said the high temperatures have cut short the season in Catalonia’s delicate coastal wetland.

The heat has destroyed 150 tonnes of commercial mussels and 1,000 tonnes of young stock in the Delta, estimates suggest.

“Many producers are thinking of changing their crop from mussels to oysters because they are more resistant to the heat. This will not be easy because demand is not so high in Spain because we have to compete with French oysters,” Bonet told Euronews.