Future not so peachy for Spanish farmers
(Artículo remitido por Juan Antonio Pérez)
21st century life
Monday October 19th 2009
Bajo Aragón, in the Spanish province of Teruel, slopes from the meseta down to the Ebro valley and has the highest proportion of secano (non-irrigated land) to regadio (irrigated land) in Spain. Every Spaniard knows Bajo Aragon for one thing: its Calanda peaches, which appear on market stalls and in supermarkets from mid-September until late October. The melocotón embolsado de Calanda is particularly famous because it is grown in a paper bag, hence its name, which literally means “bagged peach”. Each fruit must be bagged for a minimum of nine weeks – originally, it was to protect fruit from la mosca, a burrowing fly that attacks the young fruit, and from the harsh cierzo wind that blows up from the Ebro valley and dries out everything in its path. Jacqueline Karp meets two farmers – José Cuevas and Pascual Marco Aguilar – who, despite their fame, are finding it hard to make ends meet
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Monday October 19th 2009
Calanda peach farmer Pascual Marco Labarias. Photograph: Jacqueline Karp
In Calanda, they say that if one man knows everything there is to know about peaches, it’s 48-year-old José Cuevas who has been managing the town’s San Miguel Agricultural Cooperative for sixteen years
“People are now beginning to see the ecological interest of bagging. It fits well into a policy of sustainable development. The paper bags reduce the need for pesticides; but if pesticides are used, then only the tree is treated. The fruit itself is protected. Technically speaking, it doesn’t make the fruit organic, but it’s the next best thing. The bags allow light to pass, and they create a microclimate inside the bag that makes the peach sweeter than other peaches.
We sell 95% to the home market, plus Italy and Portugal. We don’t export to northern Europe, though. People there are used to a soft, sharp-tasting peach. These are deliciously firm, quite a different experience.
Ours is one of the oldest cooperatives. It was founded in 1939, just after the Civil War ended. Today, we have a hundred and twenty farmers, with only 1,230 hectares between them and we process three million kilograms of fruit. So these are minifundios – really small farms. If we didn’t group together we couldn’t survive. As it is, only half our members manage to live solely from farming, making ends meet with cereals, olives and almonds. The rest have to take other jobs.
But the price we get for our peaches is ridiculous. We’re really feeling the crunch of the economic crisis. If the fruit is a good size, one you can just about fit in your hand, the farmer will get thirty cents per kilo. For smaller fruit, he’ll get twenty, and if the fruit is bruised, it’ll go for fruit juice, so he only gets eight cents. His costs are the same, whatever price he gets. Try calculating that, when you get only an average of sixty kilo of fruit to a tree. There’s not much in it for the farmer.”
Pascual Marco Aguilar, 42, has a number of tiny orchards along the river Guadalope that he farms with his 71-year-old father, Pascual Marco Labarias. They send all their fruit to the San Miguel Cooperative in Calanda
“To conform to the Calanda peach regulations, we can only pick ripe fruit with a specific diameter, weight and sugar content. So you have to visit each tree four or five times, checking the colour of each peach through the bag. Pick under-ripe ones, and you’ll be paid less.
This whole area is poor, yet until now, people have never wanted to work during the peach harvest. It’s just too hard, and ill-considered. Yet, for the first time that I can remember, this year I’ve had locals asking for jobs. But we’re used to our two Romanians, they’ve run smallholdings back home, so they understand the work.
First comes the pruning, then the bagging. This takes a month, starting in late-June, early-July, fitting the bags and stapling them around each tiny fruit. I need people who don’t need supervising, who are used to the regulations. This is quite different work from summer peach farmers whose fruit can ripen during transport. They can strip a tree in one go. Here, we’re dealing with a natural, high-quality product that requires a lot of patience. It should be getting top market prices. As it is, we’re barely covering our costs. On the markets, they’re selling at 1.20€ per kilo.
I suppose we should count ourselves lucky to be working in the irrigated regadío land, but many of our channels date back to Arab times. Without them, we couldn’t grow peaches at all, but these are open channels, so in the height of summer 20% can be lost in evaporation. There’s always talk of financing improvements, but nothing actually happens.
The worst off are those on the dry secano slopes, with only rainfall to rely on. Many almond growers aren’t even bringing in their crops this year. They’re getting 20 cents a kilo – the same price as twenty years ago – but today running costs aren’t exactly the same. They’re said to be the best almonds in the world, but how do you expect them to compete with Californian prices and mechanisation?
Our fields, whether for peaches or almonds or olives, are small but it’s hard to mechanise. Our land distribution goes back to Roman times, parcels of land divided and re-divided, as each generation married. I’ve been buying up plots with my father to turn into viable modern-style orchards, where I can use modern machines, but that takes time. Meanwhile, I use my tractor to bring in other farmers’ crops. You have to love this land to keep working so hard.”