Friday, January 21

The countryside seeks alternative crops in the face of climate change and water deficit

Algarrobos, fig trees and pomegranates are postulated as alternative crops for Alicante agriculture in the face of the structural water deficit of this land and the consequences of climate change. They have always been here. They are ancient crops. Although in the last decades they suffered the same abandonment as the countryside and the forgetfulness of the dry land that had been traditional. The mirage of the transfer and irrigation almost certified its commercial demise. But they are back. And for this arid and dry land these trees are once again fine gold. It is the dry land revolution.

GRANADO, BETTER ADAPTED TO CLIMATE CHANGE. The pomegranate is one of the crops that best adapts to the scarcity of water and especially to its increasing salinity in its natural territory: Baix Vinalopó and Vega Baja lead production in Spain with 3,400 hectares. ANTONIO AMORÓS

“We are going to species that require less water, so that traditional crops -especially citrus- irrigate in the most rational way possible, almost on demand, with a system of sensors that measure water stress”, explains Julián Bartual, Director of the Agrarian Experimentation Station (EEA) of the Generalitat in Elche. They work on technology transfer and training necessary for the change to alternative crops. Paradoxically, this alternative inevitably involves irrigation if the objective is profitability that ensures the viability of the crops. But with a rational consumption of water, only for support or reinforcement, and that remains one third of the water footprint left by the intensive production of citrus fruits such as orange or lemon. As Bartual clarifies, it is one thing for the humble carob, fig, almond or olive trees to have mechanisms to survive in the dry land at low rainfall in the province and another “that we want this crop to be profitable.”

OF FIGS AND BRIEFS. GOOD PROFITABILITY, LESS WATER. It is a very popular fruit, although only 600 hectares are in production – there are only 10,000 of lemon trees in the province. The trials seek to maintain performance and profitability with less water consumption. TONY SEVILLA

Water is expensive and can account for up to 15% of the total costs of the crop, hence precision agriculture is currently focused on optimizing irrigation management. In the tests, boreholes are installed and the water stress of each of the trees is measured.

The carob tree, for example, can survive with contributions of rainwater of 350 liters per square meter per year with small productions – the average rainfall in the province is 280-. To produce varieties of higher density and yield of locust bean, at least 500 liters per square meter are necessary, which means that Alicante needs support irrigation of 1,000 to 2,000 cubic meters per hectare. Still, it is not even a third of what citrus fruits like orange and lemon need. Research with traditional rainfed crops such as almond or fig has been carried out for several years. And now the carob tree is the emblem of this transformation.

Mediterranean landscape

This modest garrofero, inseparable from the Mediterranean landscape, adored by environmentalists and an example of sustainability, is one of the protagonists of this “upland revolution.” The larger wild or abandoned trees create a real habitat for all kinds of Mediterranean species.

Along with the secondary roads of the driest areas of Alicante you can still see the remains of the almost a thousand hectares that are occupied by garroferos. Many are centenary specimens. Its main use as food for cattle and draft animals does not remove from the memory of the elderly its habitual consumption in the post-war shortage. Although in the last years the carob beans have been ringing again with force in the field and today their production far from leaving at a loss, a nightmare of any farmer, is profitable. The thousand and one uses as a food additive of the locust bean, the seed found in its pods, has revived interest in this tree.

Trendy species such as avocado or mango not only need more flow but also higher quality


In the first sale, the kilo exceeds the euro, and farmers who do not see it as an anecdote, are achieving it through innovation: with the planting of varieties that improve the yield of locust bean and that begin to produce earlier. This is the case of the farm that Joaquín Poveda is in charge of, an example of dry land transformed in Pilar de la Horadada, in which the carob trees, in this case without irrigation but as this farmer from Torremendo says “very well cared for” are combined with almond trees with drip irrigation. From ten hectares you can get up to 30,000 kilos of carob. The locust bean producers bear the cost of the labor for the harvest, which ends these days, and part of the transport.

Excess of optimism

Bartual warns that you have to be realistic when assessing the growth of these alternatives. “Sometimes new crops are launched overly optimistic. Some for example take a long time to produce, marketing is complex or require more water than is said.

For this reason, the Elche Experimentation Station urges farmers to carry out tests before turning to “fashionable” plantations such as avocado or mango. With great expansion as crops in southern Spain, they are unviable on a large scale in the Alicante countryside because despite being subtropical they require more water and of higher quality, according to the director of Experimentation, the president of Young Farmers José Vicente Andreu. Despite this, avocado has just over 130 hectares in the province that already leave a water footprint of almost six thousand cubic meters of water per hectare.

In the province there are crops in which up to five different contributions can converge in a single cubic meter: Tajo-Segura transfer, desalinated, underground gauging, wastewater treatment, and in Vega Baja and Campo de Elche the resources of the Safe, in addition to what falls from the sky. Only the transfer and desalination have optimal salinity levels. Not everything goes, success in other areas may not be so profitable in these lands.

The Elche Experimentation Station investigates the control of water stress in trees in real time


Within this range of possibilities for alternative dryland production, the cultivation of aromatic and medicinal plants has also begun to develop, some highly adapted to the terrain, such as thyme or rosemary. Other traditional species, of minority consumption and almost wild collection, are considered, in the case of capers, the popular ones. It hardly needs water but its small market and its high need for labor for the collection of the small fruit and flower buds determine its low profitability. In Spain, almost the entire market for brine comes from other Mediterranean countries.

Old productions for new markets. It is the umpteenth revolution of the Alicante countryside to adapt to what it always was with its eyes set on the dry land.

The chumbera: an alternative with a path full of difficulties

Juan Manuel Pascual has been producing shovel figs in Campo de Elche for three years. Another typical species of this aridity so ours, whose fruit, in old age, has made its way into markets and supermarkets as exotic fruit. Like the uncomfortable thorns of his prickly pears, the path traveled to carry out his plantation has been full of difficulties that will force him to throw in the towel. The palera is associated with its low need for water, it is so for small productions almost for self-consumption, but it needs a reinforcement of water to gain in production performance. The work in the field must be constant to thin the shovels and avoid the cochineal infestation, also without specific fertilizers and pesticides. Curiously, the palera is still considered an invasive plant five centuries later.

“Boom” of fodder maize in the Lower Segura orchard bound for the Maghreb

Image of a fodder cornfield in the Catral garden D.P.

The intense green of the cornfields has become a regular feature in the summer of the traditional Vega Baja garden during the last decade. And it goes to more. It is fodder corn – not for human consumption – and between April and the end of August it is found throughout about a thousand hectares in the region. It is exported mainly to the Maghreb countries.

Its low cost in labor and its irrigation with water from the Segura that has always been used in summer for forage crops, such as alfalfa, facilitate its profitability. When the corn is ready, the combine crushes it and packs everything at once: stalk from the base, leaves and ears.

Those who pay for water from the transfer criticize its demand for water: up to 6,000 cubic meters per hectare, but traditional irrigators maintain that they only take advantage of the little water they have to make their smallholdings profitable.

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