AGRICULTURE

Why Spain’s farmers are up in arms

Across the country, agricultural organizations are planning street action to draw attention to the precarious conditions of nearly one million businesses

Enrique Sánchez grows grapes on 18 hectares of land. Although he has not fully lost hope yet, he is close. A few days ago, a colleague in the nearby village of Novelda, one of the seven municipalities that make up the Valley of Vinalopó in Spain’s Alicante province, cut down all his vines with a chainsaw. “And there will be more cases, because things are very bad,” says Sánchez, 37.

As a son and grandson of farmers who is also the head of the local growers union, the Unió de Llauradors, Sánchez has an explanation about why things are so bad in the countryside.

“The minimum wage has gone up and this grape requires a lot of labor. Agricultural insurance premiums have also gone up, as well as the price of fertilizer and diesel,” he says.

“We are selling the grapes at prices of 20 to 25 years ago,” he adds. “If I have to give away everything I make and there is nothing left for me, it is impossible to make a living. If governments won’t do anything for us, there is nothing left to do but to take our tractors out and demand our rights on the streets.”

Sánchez is not the only one who feels this way. After a week of protests in other regions of Spain – Galicia, Extremadura and Andalusia – agricultural organizations are planning more street action to keep drawing attention to the precarious conditions of nearly one million businesses. More protests are scheduled in the coming days in Murcia, Castilla-La Mancha, Cantabria and parts of Andalusia.

The Ministry of Agriculture has admitted that the sector is going through hard times, and called representatives to a meeting on Monday to seek negotiated solutions.

The agricultural sector in Spain says that overall income dropped 8.6% in 2019

“You can’t talk about a single problem,” says Pedro Barato, president of Asaja, an association of young growers. Instead, he says it is a combination of issues, some derived from European Union policies, others from national ones. Other industry leaders mentioned US tariffs and the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union as additional hurdles.

“Together, they make each passing day less profitable for the agricultural sector due to low prices: the EU’s environmental requirements, the demonization of activities over animal welfare, tougher and more expensive legislation regarding the use of some fertilizers and sanitary products, renewed threats of fewer subsidies when the [EU’s] Common Agricultural Policy gets reviewed... We can’t go on like this. And to top it all off, there’s the new minimum wage, which does not seriously affect the entire sector, but it does affect those activities that are very labor-intensive, such as fruit and vegetables and some vineyards.”

Agricultural leaders agree that the minimum wage hike – from €750 to €900 a month – is not what has triggered the protests, but that it will have a very negative impact on some activities that require a lot of field workers.

Juan Hernández, a manager at the fruit and vegetable producer Paloma, which has a staff of nearly 2,000, says that the pay rise affects around 70% of company workers, the ones doing unskilled work. “It will seriously affect competitiveness in areas such as tomatoes or strawberries, where the picking work represents more than 45% of overall costs,” he says.

The sector also rejects accusations that they are neglecting animal welfare or the environment, noting that agricultural activities only produce 11.6% of greenhouse gas emissions.

José Diego Garrido, an olive grower from Baeza, in the Andalusian province of Jaén, shares the same problems. “I work 35 hectares of traditional irrigated olive groves, and my production costs are no lower than €2.50 a kilogram, whereas I am earning €1.70 a kilo.”

Román Santalla, a farmer from Galicia, says that things are similar in the milk sector, where prices have also been below costs for the last four years.

The agricultural sector in Spain, which is mostly made up of medium-sized businesses, says that overall income dropped 8.6% in 2019. Together with the drops of the two previous years, the lost income represents around €26 billion. The decline has been more keenly felt by producers of fruit, vegetables, wine, oil, milk and cereals.

The fall in prices is being blamed on a lack of mechanisms to regulate the markets, a flood of cheap imported goods, and pressure from large distribution groups among other reasons.

Lorenzo Ramos, secretary general of the agricultural union Upa, says that growers only receive “a minimal share” of what consumers pay for the product. The sector wants to see regulation to address this issue, as well as large chain stores’ strategy of selling at a loss. “It’s crazy what’s happening in the food chain; there should be a mechanism so that producers at least have their production costs covered,” says Ramos.

In the area of La Ribera, in Valencia, many orange growers turned to persimmon instead because the crop seemed more profitable. Eduard Esparza was one of the first to make the switch, more than 20 years ago now. Today, he faces the same problem he used to face with oranges: “At the supermarket across from my house, they sell persimmons at €1.89 a kilo, while growers get 15 or 20 cents.” Esparza feels that besides the abuse on the distribution side, producers should be better organized.

Miguel Blanco, secretary general of the nationwide umbrella group COAG, agrees that the supply side should be better organized, and that the sector should play a bigger role in the selling process.

“The system is failing,” says Domingo García, who grows peaches, nectarines and apricots in Llutxent, Valencia. “It would be enough if growers were paid 15 cents more per kilo. They wouldn’t get rich, but at least they would cover costs.”

English version by Susana Urra.