You may not find the acres of plastic covering the coastal plains of Almeria the most attractive landscape. A fascinating story of man’s quest to tame nature.
Campo de Delias from space
You may not find the acres of plastic covering the coastal plains of Almeria the most attractive landscape but how they developed and, pardon the pun, grew, is a fascinating story of man’s ingenuity in his quest to tame nature.
Melons under plastic
The story starts in 1941. The coastal plains of Almeria and to a lesser extent Granada, were known to be fertile; the problem was lack of water and a very thin population, mostly centred in Almeria city, small inland villages, widely dispersed, and the fishing villages along the coast. Agriculture was primarily subsistence dry farming, smallholdings supporting one family or a small village. Traditional cash crops were esparto grass, used for artisanal products and paper, sugar cane, and glasswort, used in the manufacture of soap and glass. Hardly a world shattering economy. The few roads, including the coastal N340, known during Roman times as the Via Augusta, were unmade, the scattered ports were basic, little more than breakwaters to shelter a bay for the fishing boats and the remaining railway network courtesy of the by now defunct mining companies only ran from inland to Almeria city. Traveling through the countryside and villages between the Mediterranean Sea and the foothills of the mountains that rear up only a few kilometres inland would have been like traveling back in time two, three, four even five hundred years. All that was about to change. In 1941, an area of land southwest of Almeria city, known as the Campo de Dalias, was decreed an Area of Natural Interest.
In 1943, the National Institute of Colonisation opened the first well and began encouraging people to settle in the coastal plain by offering them land. This policy, of moving people from one area of the country to another, has been normal practice in Spain since the reconquest. Those first colonisers received the deeds to their property in 1954.
Peppers under plastic
One year later, in 1955, one Juan Sánchez Romera tried an experiment. He used beach sand to mulch his crops. Over the years this practise was refined as growers tried different thicknesses of manure, compost and sand for different crops. For those wanting to try this at home, the formulae they arrived at was; 20 cms of loam or clay soil on top of the subsoil, manure to a depth of 2 cms, followed by 5cms of washed beach sand. With the growers having already found the perfect combination, the academics moved in to prove the facts. Dozens of papers have been produced telling the growers what they already knew. Try typing ‘sand mulching almeria’ into Google.
It was not until 1963 that the first greenhouse was erected in Almeria by Francisco Fuentes Sánchez. His idea was to extend the growing season and produce early crops. This first attempt to locally control the climate worked and his idea was taken up by other growers until, by 1970, the practice was widespread. These early greenhouses used a single sheet of plastic during the winter and early spring. The plastic would then be removed to leave a bare framework of wood or metal poles. The plastic deteriorated within a couple of years. Severe winter winds would leave these early greenhouses with tattered flags of rotted plastic fluttering in the breeze, untidy to say the least. By 1970 there were 45 hectares of plastic.
The next major innovation came in 1980 when the first hybrid seeds were cultivated. Fruit and vegetables were selectively bred for size, uniformity of shape, resistance to disease and fecundity. Flavour was of little consideration and not a major concern of the supermarket buyers that started to emerge during this period. Meanwhile, to support more research and efficiency, some family owned plots were purchased by corporations and the traditional crops, including grape vines, slowly disappeared.
This trend increased after 1981 when drip irrigation was introduced and really took off after 1984 at which time a new thermal plastic started to appear. Within the huge greenhouses, this allowed total control of the climate over the entire year, a process that was helped by the sand mulching that kept the growing medium at even temperatures radiating or absorbing heat from the light as required. Try walking on a sandy beach in bare feet in the middle of summer to feel for yourself just how much heat can be absorbed by the top centimetre or two of sand and how cool the sand beneath is in comparison.
Watering the plants became more efficient after 1986 when drip tapes appeared to replace the kilometres of plastic piping. Some growers started experimenting with hydroponics, growing the plants in nutrient rich water as opposed to soil.
A sea of plastic
Whilst all this sounds very clinical, natural processes were not entirely neglected. In the early 1990s growers began to use bees to pollinate their plants. Entering a greenhouse covering over a hectare whilst the bees were going about their business is an experience. A low background murmur, at first easily mistaken for some machinery, is the sound of thousands of bees flitting between flowers. The bees also produce a secondary product, honey. I have yet to discover where the honey goes, perhaps it is consumed by the growers and their employees.
The relentless march of progress saw hardier seeds being cultivated that allowed for sowing earlier and later, extending the picking seasons. By the mid 1990s crops were being picked continuously for about 9 months each year and the whole growing process was becoming automated. By the end of the 20th century, fertilisation, watering and climate control were becoming computer controlled.
Micrografting, a method of persuading a tender species to grow on a hardy rootstock, was in common use by 2005. Then came a remarkable development driven first by consumers and then by environmentalist organisations.
Consumers began to demand fruit and vegetables that had been grown without the use of chemical fertilisers, what is known today as organic farming. To their credit, the agro-industrial concerns in Almeria were not slow to pick up on this demand and started to use biological techniques from as early as 2006. Not too soon either as events ten years later in the neighbouring region of Murcia showed.
Water courses in Almeria and Murcia were becoming increasingly polluted by chemical fertilisers. A dramatic example of this manifested itself in the Mar Menor, near Cartagena, in Murcia. Mar Menor is the largest saltwater lagoon in Europe. In 2019, “The crabs tried to escape through the rocks, the shrimps piled on top of one another, practically making a paste, the eels jumped, the water boiled.” That’s how Carmen Rodríguez described the disturbing sight she saw on Saturday, October 12 on the beach of San Pedro del Pinatar, in the southeastern Spanish region of Murcia. In August 2021, about 250 kilogrammes of small fish and shrimps washed ashore in the southern part of the Mar Menor. This event has been blamed on an unusual increase in water temperature although environmentalists say it is just another example of the damage done by pollutants.
Today there are over 40,000 hectares of plastic in the Campo de Delias, the largest concentration in the world and easily visible from space. In fact, such is the reflective power of the plastic that the sunlight reflected back into the atmosphere is actually cooling the province at a rate of 0.3 degrees Celsius every 10 years. The huge thermal created each day results in an onshore wind that can reach gale force on a hot day. Much of the plastic is owned and operated by huge agro-industrial companies but perhaps half is still owned by individual families with plots covering 1 – 1.4 hectares. Over 2.7 million tonnes of produce worth over 1.2 billion Euros is produced annually, about half of Europe’s fruit and vegetables. The crops are grown continuously from October to July, with production peaks in December and January when tomato, cucumber, green beans, and pepper are harvested, and then again in May and June when melons are in season. Tomatoes and sweet pepper represent the greatest crop area, followed by melons.
The future has many challenges. Temperatures under the plastic can reach 45 degrees Celsius which many Spanish workers cannot cope with. Producers use a lot of temporary labour, especially from north Africa, Central and South America. Certain eastern European groups are also migrating to southern Spain for work. There have been recent clashes between growers and mainly Moroccan immigrants, due to poor working and living conditions for foreign labourers. Several growers have faced strikes, and labour issues appear to be some of the greatest problems facing producers in the area.
Approximately 90% of the greenhouses use an artificial soil called Enarenado to overcome the extremely poor indigenous soils of the region. This is a soil mix of clay, manure and sand that sits on top of the original soil base. In the remaining greenhouses, plants will never touch soil - they grow using a hydroponics system where chemical fertilisers are drip-fed to each plant from large, computer-controlled vats.
Water quality is a prime factor. Greenhouse production has a requirement of 800-1000 mm per year in a region that receives just 200 mm of annual rainfall. Water efficiency has improved dramatically, especially with the use of drip irrigation, and new seawater desalination plants are being built that are designed to supply 60,000 m³/day of fresh water to the region.
The last 80 years has seen a revolution in Almeria that has affected what we eat, how we feed entire continents, the climate, our water supplies and the local ecology. Present day research into biological growing processes, hybridization and plant genetics will no doubt continue this process in ways we cannot yet imagine. The latest research is looking at certain microbes that provide nutrients to plants that stimulate growth and suppress pathogens. This new science is called metagenomics. Who says the Neolithic period is over, it has only just begun.