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Almería is known as Europe’s greenhouse, but despite strong export figures the farming sector is facing an uncertain future due to an over-reliance on subsidies, questionable production methods and the spectre of water shortages. Some however are spearheading a new wave in crop growing methods. Richard Torné visits one such high-tech company in Pulpí.

Neat lines of Chinese cabbages – Pak Choi – stretch out as far as the eye can see. The temperature – and the smell – from inside the modern, high-tech greenhouse is surprisingly fresh and pleasant. A handful of workers labour away, the silence occasionally broken by the gentle whirr of a computer-controlled production line.

Elsewhere, strawberries and tomatoes are being grown in a smaller greenhouse in what can only be described as a display area. The strawberry plants hang from a motorised mobile rack suspended in the air; each one placed inside an inverted triangular bag, its innards concealing a complex irrigation system patented by NGS, an offshoot of farming conglomerate Primaflor. It’s crop growing in Almería, but not as we know it.

I’ve been given a tour of the complex in Pulpí by bubbly sales rep Carla Ramos, who assures me that this is the future of farming. “Lettuces have a lot of pesticides, but because we don’t use any soil to grow our crops in, we’ve eradicated those which are soil-based,” she says, keen to impress upon me the firm’s environmentally-friendly credentials.

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The company has been refining its hydroponic system for more than two decades. It’s an ingenious method of crop growing that is soil-free, or in the case of strawberries virtually soil-free. Although NGS is not the only firm to have adopted the technique, it claims its watering and oxygenation process is more efficient as it involves a more advanced form of drip irrigation, producing a ‘cascade effect’ to feed the free-flowing roots. It helps to eradicate many of the soil-based diseases which devastate crops, resulting in greater production and a 50 per cent reduction on pesticides and water.

The system has been adopted by UK jam maker Wilkin and Sons, and the firm is now growing its own strawberries back in England. It may open the export floodgates – and not before time.

With an annual turnover of some €2.6 billion, Almería’s farming sector is one of the country’s economic mainstays, but there are many who feel farmers are sticking their heads in the sand, particularly when it comes to the issue of illegal workers, the overexploitation of water resources and pesticide use.

A Guardian article from 2011, denouncing the exploitation of tens of thousands of immigrant farm workers unsurprisingly came in for much criticism, but despite boasts from farmers’ unions and the regional government that Almería’s farming methods are modern, the reality is often more complex – and less edifying.

In January, Spain’s pepper growers were hit with a year-long export ban in the US after inspectors detected the presence of a harmful pest in a number of batches from Almería. And last month, the Junta’s agriculture delegate, José Manuel Ortiz, urged farmers to do more to implement biological controls instead of relying on toxic pesticides, after figures showed there had been a marked drop (down by 875 hectares this year) in this natural method of pest control.

And while drip irrigation may mitigate the impact of drying aquifers, when you are watering more than 120 square miles of greenhouses and a further 10,000 hectares in the open air, careful water management becomes a hazy concept.

Business is also going to get a lot tougher. Spanish farmers will have to rely on less state aid while striving to become more competitive in an increasingly fierce export market. In Almería alone, farmers have had their subsidies slashed by €13.6 million following the EU’s common agricultural policy reforms for 2014-2020. To cap it all, farm unions are complaining their members are being squeezed out of the market by the all-powerful high-street supermarkets.

If farming is to survive in Almería it must embrace ever more high-tech solutions, according to Primaflor agronomist Antonio Oliva. “Systems like ours are being adopted worldwide, but these advanced farming methods account for less than five per cent of the total in Almería. Compare that to Mexico, where it’s more than 30 per cent. In Portugal they love our system for growing strawberries, but not in Huelva – there it’s the unions who dictate when to collect the crops.”

The Junta, he says, has so far showed little interest despite making big noises about the need to up the ante. “They won’t change until they’re on the edge of the precipice.”

He reckons it’s mostly big Spanish firms that are embracing change, to the detriment of small farmers, who are simply unwilling or unable to make the necessary investment and modernise their production methods. He refuses to say how much that would cost, but he assures me that a farmer could recoup his investment within six years. Soon, they may have no choice. Large producers are extending their reach by agreeing to rent land from uncompetitive farmers on condition they grow crops exclusively for them, often in long-term lease deals of 30 years or more.

Sr Oliva however believes the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. “One of the problems with traditional farming methods is that pathogens become resistant on land where the same crop has been planted for decades. There is also the build up of toxins from fertilisers, while organic crops still have the problem of pest control. But with our system there are no carcinogenic disinfectants on the ground, excess water is collected and re-used, and bees are used to pollinate the flowers. The farmer employs fewer people, too, doubles production and decides when to reap the harvest.”

Consumers will perhaps have the last word. Pre-cut washed salads are becoming an increasingly common sight on supermarket shelves – even if these products are up to 10 times more expensive. The idea of growing your own crops is also catching on. Ikea has adopted a similar, albeit less sophisticated, system to Primaflor’s, and Sr Oliva believes the concept will become ever more popular. “Children love to see how plants grow; to follow the process. They take a personal interest in their food.”

Farmers have a stark choice to make, he concludes. “Five or 10 years from now agriculture will be transformed, and small to medium sized producers will disappear.”

Adapt or die. Luddites were faced with a similar dilemma exactly 200 years ago with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and who is willing to bet against history repeating itself?

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