Wine and Olive Days: How old farming methods are bearing fruit in Spain | Environment
They call it the sea of olives, 70 million olive trees stretching out as far as the eye can see in all directions in the province of Jaén in southern Spain. It is a spectacular landscape and yet, aside from the olives, the land is practically dead, with hardly a flower, a bird or a butterfly to see.
All of this could be about to change following the remarkable success of a project that is reviving the dust of Andalusia.
In 2016, with financial support from the EU’s Life program, 20 olive farms in the region were selected to adopt a model of regenerative agriculture, allowing grass and wild flowers to flourish among the trees. Various local species have been planted, nesting boxes installed and ponds created to encourage insect and bird life.
In the largest study in the world on the biodiversity of olive groves, researchers from the University of Jaén and the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), partners of the Olivares Vivos project, found that in three years, the population of bees in regenerative olive groves increased by 47%, birds by 10% and woody shrubs by 172%, against 20 control olive groves. As the rabbits thrived on the grass, the birds of prey reappeared.
Herbicides were also found to kill insects that eat olive fly larvae (Bactrocera oleae), one of the main crop pests.
“What we’re doing is going back to more traditional methods,” says Paco Montabes, who operates 650 hectares (1,600 acres) of picual olives in the Sierra Mágina de Jaén. “Not plowing between trees allows for better water retention, less erosion and runoff after heavy rains. The plant cover makes the soil spongy and absorbs the rain.
The initiative was motivated by both environmental and economic concerns, explains José Eugenio Gutiérrez of conservation organization SEO Birdlife, the project coordinator. Producers worried about soil erosion and lack of biodiversity, but also suffered financially as a global glut of olive oil pushed prices below the cost of production. Often the only people making a profit were at the bottling plant and at the retailers.
The Olivares Vivos approach is a win-win strategy: biodiversity thrives while olive oil is certified as having been produced under conditions that increase biodiversity, rather than being certified simply as “green”. which gives it added value.
“You can grow in plastic and it’s still classified as environmentally friendly,” says Gutiérrez. “We had to create a labeling guaranteeing that the product comes from regenerative agriculture. “
While producers are saving money on herbicides and pesticides and can sell their oil at a higher price, the program has not gone unnoticed in the region. Gutiérrez says more than 600 growers have expressed interest in adopting the regenerative model.
The idea has already gained ground in the world of wine. Some small wineries have adopted regenerative practices, but now large winemakers are signing up as well. In the Penedès wine region, 750 km north of Jaén, Torres, Spain’s largest wine producer, takes the regenerative approach as it searches for ways to reduce its carbon footprint.
“Although we were certified in organic viticulture in most of our vineyards, there was a feeling that we were not doing enough,” says Miguel Torres, the fifth generation in charge of the winery.
Traditionally, the land is plowed between the vines to get rid of weeds and open the ground to rain. However, in addition to contributing to erosion, this leads to a lack of biodiversity and poor soil, which then needs nutrients to be replenished artificially.
“The rules of organic viticulture don’t even mention the carbon footprint, so you can use a tractor as much as you want. We said to ourselves “we need to reduce our emissions, but we also need to capture CO2,” says Torres.
The producer has reduces its carbon footprint by 34% per bottle and aims for 60%, mainly thanks to energy efficiency measures introduced during the winemaking process.
“Our goal is to stop plowing,” he says. “When you plow, you bring organic material up to the surface and then it oxidizes, so whatever you had stored ends up in the atmosphere. What we are trying to do is imitate nature as much as possible, which means we have to bring the earth back to life.
While tree planting is at the forefront of tackling the climate crisis, if the world’s 7.4 million hectares of vineyards adopted the regeneration model, the impact would be huge, Torres said.
Nearby, at the Parés Baltà winery, the oenologist Marta Casas goes further. She believes regenerative viticulture is a major step towards a more holistic approach biodynamic approach, which sees animals, soil and products as part of a single, interdependent system.
“The more you give to the earth, the more it gives back,” she says, standing next to a 6th century BC open pit oven.
Casas’ passion for her work goes hand in hand with her curiosity, which has led her to pursue many old ideas. For example, she found that by using a solution of vegetable horsetail, it is possible to significantly reduce the amount of copper sulfate sprayed on vines to treat downy mildew.
If regenerative agriculture is more common sense than a revolutionary idea, for wine growers as for olive growers, it marks the rejection of two agricultural sayings: plow the land and kill competition.
Montabes says they had to break with the mindset that sees any plant other than the desired crop as a competitor, a weed or mala hierba in Spanish.
“Now we know better,” he said. “Las malas hierbas son buenas.”