Cordoba Agriculture: Going Organic

by Michel Cruz

Cordoba Agriculture: Going OrganicThe fertile Guadalquivir valley, which occupies the heart of the province of Cordoba, has been a prized agricultural region since classical times. In reality it is a mildly eroded floodplain with gently rolling hills that extend for miles, covered in a patchwork of colours and patterns created by the many crops that its fertile soils nurture. Thanks to the richness of this land, and indeed the vast expanses of orchards and olive groves that extend beyond its periphery, the white villages and towns that dot this landscape have developed a proud agricultural heritage and a reputation for producing some of the finest produce in the country. In recent times, the region has faced the uncertainties of European agriculture by focusing increasingly on organic production. Unlike the countries of Northern Europe, however, the Cordoban producers regard this not as a trendy new form of production, but rather as a return to age old traditions.

And so they combine the latest agricultural techniques and technologies with old and often long-forgotten local wisdom. “We seem to be coming full circle,” says Francisco Robles, latest in a long generation of wine-growers at Bodegas Robles. “In my grandfather’s time organic farming was still very much the norm. The so-called ‘modern revolution’ coincided with my father’s tenureship and now we have been among the first to start returning to organic farming.” Early pioneers such as Francisco have started a trend towards a more environmentally-friendly form of agriculture that could best be described as a system of carefully managed organic farming that aims to combine modern techniques and traditional methods to the best effect.

It was in olive oil cultivation, however, that the ‘organic revolution’ was first set in motion. About 20 years ago, the late Andres Nuñez de Prado started experimenting with natural alternatives to pesticides and chemical fertilisers. As part of a family whose reputation for the finest olive oils had helped to put the little town of Baena on the map, he was motivated by a continuous desire to improve upon the quality and wholesomeness of his product. As a son of the land he was driven by a desire to create a better harmony between agriculture and the natural environment. “Andres was passionate about this,” says his brother and successor Francisco.

Cordoba Agriculture: Going OrganicPesticides and chemical fertilisers hardly sound appetising, but even today they are still predominant in food production. Andres knew that it was possible to do things in a more symbiotic way and create a balance between the needs of mankind and nature. He studied the characteristics and traits of flowers and plants, and found out that a great many of them can be employed as a natural substitute for man-made chemicals. This encouraged him to gradually transform his operation into one which relies not on crop sprays to fight insects, but instead uses naturally occurring weeds and flowers as a means of distracting them. “It may sound half-hearted,” says Francisco, “but it works extremely well. We have also replaced fertilisers with natural organic matter, which not only reduces chemical intake but also adds flavour to the oil. By adding a large concentration of apple or orange peels to the organic material, you might say that we are blending our product ‘organically’. The means to replace harmful chemicals were there all along. It just took an extraordinary man to find them. In a way, Andres was an early environmentalist.”

But, as Nuñez de Prado and other producers of agricultural produce are finding out, doing what is good for the environment can also have great commercial advantages. In extensive forms of agriculture such as olive cultivation the initial drop in yields recorded, as one switches from conventional to organic methods, is offset by highly prized products that command high prices in the health and environmentally conscious countries of the North. The success of producers such as Nuñez de Prado has spread across the region, to include cultivators of vegetables, garlic, citrus fruit and wine. One of the earliest among these was Francisco Robles, who was keen to see how well the cultivation of grapes would fare under an organic regime.

In the section of the bodega’s vineyards that was set aside for the trial run, workers not only stopped weeding and spraying pesticides, they actively encouraged the growth of certain types of weeds and flowers in the furrows between the long rows of vines. “Normally viticulturalists would be abhorred by the sight of such untidy vineyards, but we have found that these weeds and flowers, as well as the occasional tree or row of hedges, do wonders in attracting bugs off the vines.” Again, an initial reduction in yields was noted, but this gradually picked up again with the use of natural (organic) fertiliser, while wine growers have also found that the weeds and flowers have the added the benefit of retaining moisture and reducing temperature extremes—something that conventionally weeded vineyards suffer badly from.

Cordoba Agriculture: Going OrganicAfter successful test trials, Bodegas Robles has converted part of its crop to organic production, and other bodegas are starting to do the same thing. They find that even if they can’t convert wholesale to the lower-yielding and more labour-intensive organic form of farming, the creation of such labels does offer them greater flexibility in their marketing. “Our region is famous for the production of sweet Amontillado wines, but we have had to rethink our marketing in the face of declining demand in Great Britain, traditionally our biggest market. This has meant the development of both new products and new markets, involving packaging and campaigns that attract a younger clientele, but also the inclusion of a range of organic brands.”

Agricultural producers from Cordoba are proving their flexibility, drawing on ancient truths to confront modern day challenges, and using the new opportunities offered by chemical-free, organic farming to revitalise the age old industries that have for so long supported and been a part of this beautiful region’s towns, villages, countryside and people.

Copyright 2007 Michel Cruz

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