Water and oil don’t mix well. The incompatibility in density and polarity of both has originated a hackneyed simile that is perfect for the case of irrigated cultivation of olive trees for oil in the Region of Murcia. The attempt to extract a higher yield from these trees by artificially supplying them with water does not quite work as well as expected. In fact, the area under localized irrigation has been reduced by half in five years. Of the more than 6,000 hectares that the media sector maintained under this regime until 2016, it has gone to just over 3,000 in 2019, the last year for which there are statistics. Does watering the oil feel bad? Not quite. What is not working as well as expected is the market. Hence, those who have water to irrigate look for other alternatives.
«With low prices [en las aceitunas] With which neither the production costs are covered, if you have irrigation you change it for another crop “, explains the Jumillano producer Pedro García Albert, who is also Secretary General of Agriculture of the agricultural organization COAG in the Region of Murcia. If the crop is rainfed, he clarifies, it takes between ten and twelve years for production to reach its level and there are not many alternatives; It can hardly be replaced by almond trees or vineyards, “which in this case are also being pulled up.” In the case of having water, “with any other crop in three years the land is back in production,” he explains.
«In the Region of Murcia», agrees the general director of Agriculture, Food Industry and Agrarian Cooperativism, José Gómez, «the farmer, in case of having water for irrigation prefers to apply it in other crops with greater profitability, and the olive grove surface it remains mostly in dry land ». In fact, the total space occupied by these trees has been around 21,000 or 22,000 hectares for at least a decade, without great ups and downs. “Water is a limiting factor” in our agriculture, Gómez recalls, hence it is difficult to extract a good yield from the oil if its price is not good.
“No costs are covered, so if you have irrigation, you dedicate it to another crop”, explains the producer Pedro García
50% drop in prices
This is what is happening in a situation that has led prices to fall by almost 50% in just four years, denounces García Albert. The producer attributes this collapse “to disastrous market policies”, in reference to the entry of production from “third countries with very low prices that sink those here.” It is a phenomenon, he details, “which is not new, it occurs with many crops and is getting worse.” The general secretary of COAG also regrets that oil is being purchased that is sold as Spanish, when it is not, so that “international customers are being deceived.”
The result of all this is a flight from the production of olive trees for oil under the irrigation regime in the Region, a modality that, in any case, is quite recent. The application of drippers to olive groves is related to a notable modernization of the sector, which in the last four years has managed to obtain productions of around 60,000 tons per year, a figure that doubles that registered in previous campaigns and even triples the annual average of the previous decade. “Just as in the oil mills we have industrialized and now we produce much more, in the olive grove the same thing happens”, explained when this ‘boom’ began four years ago, Juan Maravillas, owner of the Cehegin olive oil pressing business with the that shares a name.
The economic performance of Murcian production has fallen by 25% in just one year
The improvement in the productions of a crop that as a whole has not changed the area it occupies in the Region for years has been due to the adoption of practices such as intensive planting on trellises, in contrast to trees that are widely separated from traditional agriculture . Within this framework, “in those irrigated areas where new plantations were made”, details the general director of Agriculture, José Gómez, “localized irrigation was implemented with the aim of reducing, or lessening, the effects of overrun so typical of the culture”. That is to say, the phenomenon by which campaigns with strong harvests alternate with others with little or practically none. However, he clarifies that “the irrigated olive grove has a lower fat yield, compared to the dry land”, which returns to regain the prominence in which the new olive groves with drippers had made a dent.
“Water is a limiting factor here”, points out the Director General of Agriculture, which hinders a good yield to the oil
Reign of the cuquillo
As a consequence, the reign of the cuquillo variety, which occupies around two thirds of the total olive area in the Murcia Region, does not appear to be threatened. It is an olive well adapted to the limestone soils and accustomed to the droughts that abound in our geography. Other varieties present in the Region are the manzanilla, the cornicabra, the picual and the arbequina, but in a much smaller quota.
Half of the 3,150 hectares of olive groves for oil that still remained in 2019 fed by irrigation systems located in the Region were registered in the Altiplano (1,541), followed by the Guadalentín Valley, where 760 were recorded, and at a great distance through the Vega del Segura and the Northwest region, with more than 300 each. In the Mula River there were 134 hectares, and in the Campo de Cartagena they barely made up an anecdote of 54. The most notable reduction has occurred in the Guadalentín Valley, where less than five years before there were almost 2,400 hectares of olive trees with localized irrigation , more than triple that in 2019.
Meanwhile, as has been pointed out, production remains around 60,000 tons per year, extracted from almost 22,000 hectares under cultivation, a number that not only remains the same, but is even the highest (slightly) recorded since 2011. With these figures, in any case, it is still far from reaching the total capacity of more than 100,000 tons of oil per year, which together add up to the 27 oil packing plants that exist in the Region.
The health of the sector for the next few years will be marked by the evolution of prices, which did not leave a good result in 2019. That year, olive oil from the Region obtained, according to the data on vegetable production, 23 million euros , after having generated 55,000 tons. A year earlier it had reached 35.8 million, with a production of less than 65,000 tons, which is equivalent to that in a single year the economic performance per ton has fallen by 25% (from 554 in 2018 to 416 in 2019 ). With this evolution, it is no longer so important to irrigate some fields that can be used for other crops.