The seaside resort of Chipiona in the south of Spain is a horticultural enclave with a character all of its own: cut flowers are the main crops, with sales focusing largely on the Spanish home market, and most nurseries and farms are small-scale, extensive and largely non-mechanised. Barring a few exceptions, the latter aspect in particular seems set to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future, including at the farm of Jesus and Emilio Rodriguez. “Although we will have to improve our sustainability: that’s a major challenge for the future.”
At the seaside resort of Chipiona in the southern Spanish province of Cádiz, everything revolves around horticulture: everywhere you look you see nurseries and farms. That’s not really surprising, as this region is known as the lightest, sunniest town in Europe. On top of that, the town’s location on a bay along the Atlantic coast ensures a mild climate. It also rains a lot more in this area than along the Mediterranean coast, and the many different types of soil that are to be found in the surroundings mean that almost any crop can be grown here.
The horticultural sector mostly comprises fairly small, unheated nurseries and farms that grow their crops in polytunnels with areas ranging in size from a few thousand square metres to two hectares. The farm of Jesus (43) and Emilio (45) Rodriguez also belongs to this category. On an area of 1.1 hectares the brothers grow white courgettes, watermelons and tomatoes. “We harvest our watermelons and courgettes from March to July and our tomatoes from August to February. We grow the beef tomato Matias F1,” says Emilio Rodriguez. “We also grow red cabbages in open fields.”
All work done by hand
Substrate cultivation is virtually unheard here. The Rodriguez brothers, who took over their farm from their father five years ago, also grow their crops in the local soil. “Our farm’s fine sandy soil is ideal for our crops.”
There’s no question of any mechanisation either; all the work is done by hand. “We hire five to six workers on average,” says Emilio. “All local people. Finding good farm workers is no problem: people are always queueing up for work because of the high unemployment in our region.”
The brothers pay their workers five to six euros an hour. That’s not much by North European standards. “But in Morocco wages are much lower; labour is four times cheaper there on average than here. So many large Spanish growers are moving to North Africa.”
Problems by Tuta absoluta
Jesus and Emilio Rodriguez sell all their produce via the local auction in Chipiona. They transport their ware to the auction themselves. “The auction’s main customers are market vendors, restaurants and small traders from different parts of Spain, some even from Madrid.”
The brothers are quite satisfied with the prices their products fetch; they have been fairly stable the past few years. “And last season our tomatoes fetched very good prices because supplies from Almería were lower than usual on account of the extreme weather. All in all, we make a decent living from our farm. We don’t earn enough to allow us to invest in expansion or mechanisation, so we have no plans to that effect. But we’re satisfied with what we have.”
Something that does cause the brothers some concern is controlling Tuta absoluta. “Over the past few years the tomato leafminer has been causing a lot of problems, and the pest is difficult to control.” The brothers explain that many pest control products have been banned in Spain in the past few years. “The Spanish government is promoting organic cultivation, and the demand for sustainably grown produce is also growing. This is something we’re going to have to work on; quite a challenge for us for the future.”
Mentality a stumbling block
A few Dutch growers also benefit from the favourable conditions in Chipiona, mainly to lengthen their production season so as to be able to offer their customers products for a longer time. They are mostly growers of ornamental plants. “This village is indeed best known for its ornamental plant nurseries; I estimate that 90 percent of the local growers grow cut flowers. The climate here is a bit more humid than that in Almería, making it more suitable for ornamental plants,” explains Gert van de Werken, a grower from the Dutch town of Delwijnen.
For ten years he and a Spanish partner ran a chrysanthemum nursery with an area of 1.1 hectares. This enabled him to meet his customers’ demand in the winter months too. Last year Van de Werken transferred management of his nursery to his staff. “The ban on the use of methyl bromide as a soil disinfectant would have forced me to grow other crops. That’s something I didn’t want to do, and so I decided to give up my Spanish nursery.”
Van de Werken sees little development or professionalisation in horticulture in Chipiona. “Very few growers invest in expansion, mechanisation or more intensive land use. In my opinion that’s largely due to the entrepreneurs’ mentality: most of them have little or no long-term vision and tend to be satisfied with how things are going in the present. And because of this, banks are reluctant to invest in the nurseries and farms. It’s the proverbial chicken-and-egg situation.”
First signs of professionalisation
Horticultural adviser Jelle Moree of the Dutch consultancy firm Delphy has observed the first signs of professionalisation in Spanish horticultural regions such as Almería, Murcia, Granada and Valencia.
Moree provides cultivation advice to pot plant growers in Spain and Portugal. “Barring a few exceptions, the nurseries in these areas are unheated, extensive and largely non-mechanised. Some crops are grown under screens or under plastic. But I have observed a trend towards mechanisation at pot plant nurseries: growers are investing in mechanical pruning, for example, and more and more use is being made of conveyor belts. These are not major developments, but they do represent progress.”
According to Moree, integrated control is also making headway in the afore mentioned regions. “The recent substantial reduction in the range of approved control products has forced many growers to start using integrated and biological control, with varying success. The high concentration of nurseries working close to one another in regions such as Almería involves a high risk of pests. Buyers, especially in North Europe, appreciate these control efforts and are willing to pay extra for them.”
The adviser goes on to say that growers in regions such as Almería are also steadily making more use of substrates. “This is leading to higher yields, although they are still far below those of, say, Dutch nurseries.”
According to Moree, ever more Spanish growers of pot and container plants are entering into partnerships with growers in the Netherlands. “I aim to play a key role in this development, to promote a win-win situation, with Dutch growers being able to start selling products four to five weeks earlier, and Spanish growers gaining access to the North European market.”
The seaside resort of Chipiona in the south of Spain is a horticultural enclave with most small, extensive and non-mechanised nurseries that sell their products on the Spanish market. Jesus and Emilio Rodriguez grow white courgettes, watermelons and tomatoes in polytunnels. The brothers are quite satisfied with the prices their products fetch, but controlling Tuta absoluta is a problem at the moment. Dutch entrepreneur Gert van de Werken sees little development or professionalisation in horticulture in Chipiona due to the entrepreneurs’ mentality.
Text and images: Ank van Lier.