Magazine article Focus

Southeastern Spain's Greenhouse Landscape: Plastic over Sand-Beds

Magazine article Focus

Southeastern Spain's Greenhouse Landscape: Plastic over Sand-Beds

Article excerpt

To most people on either side of the Atlantic, the subject of greenhouses in Europe probably evokes images of the glass structures long associated with the northern countries, especially the Netherlands and Germany. While such images are indeed a reality in abundance in that part of Europe, the largest concentration of greenhouses not only in Europe but apparently in the world is now in Spain, located along the southeast coast in the Andalucian province of Almeria.

This intensely-developed zone, the core area of which is known as the Campo de Dalias, could boast of 34,500-37,000 acres (54-58 sq. miles) of greenhouses by the mid-1990s. Coastal lowland Almeria is unique not only in the extent of greenhouses but also in the type. Unlike the rigid, rounded, metal-framed, glass structures long typical of most other places, these are almost flat-roofed enclosures with plastic sheeting covering a skeleton of wooden posts and wires. Remarkably, this immense agglomeration of distinctive greenhouses--known as the parral type--has become a major presence only since the mid-1970s. In spite of this short time, the name "Almeria" has become synonymous in Spain with the production of huge quantities of multiple-cropped tomatoes, peppers, greenbeans, melons, watermelons, cucumbers, and eggplants.

From impoverished to prosperous in 26 years

In a larger context, the Almeria greenhouses are part of a global explosion in the use of plastic sheeting for agriculture during the past quarter-century. Modern long-lasting plastic films are used in three ways: as mulch, low tunnels, and greenhouses. The use of plastic as a synthetic mulch simply refers to the spreading of plastic on the ground for water conservation and weed control. Both low tunnels (which cover a single row of a low crop such as melons) and greenhouses provide temperature and humidity control.

The fact that coastal Almeria is now the site of such vast numbers of intensively-cultivated greenhouses is particularly curious given the province's recent history as one of Spain's most impoverished, desolate areas. This remote corner of the country is the driest part of the European continent, averaging about eight inches of precipitation per year. Indeed, to an American this area is reminiscent of the lowlands of Arizona. In addition to scanty rainfall, groundwater in places is slightly saline. Rough terrain, marginal soils, and frequent, strong winds further contributed to a negative image. Until recent decades, this area was mainly the domain of subsistence farmers. How is it, then, that the coast of western Almeria has become transformed into one of the most prosperous regions of Spain, based upon small, intensive family farms? A number of factors have led to this rapid development. It would surely still be as sparsely populated today had it not been for government programs to raise the rural standard of living nationally by providing water for irrigation. While in much of the country the government built dams, in coastal Almeria in the late 1950s it drilled wells, some as deep as 600 feet. The government then subdivided the land into parcels, typically of one hectare (2.47 acres), and sold them, sometimes also along with new houses in small, planned villages, to family farmers. A major factor behind the success of these enterprises is the use of family labor which frees farmers from escalating labor costs. Thus, it was a deliberate effort to encourage small-scale intensive farming that set the stage for the rapid development of the area as a center of greenhouse agriculture.

Water, climate, technology, soils, and marketing

The availability of water was the catalyst that started the transformation. The climate, which earlier had seemed so limiting, actually has several advantages for horticultural production. There is no freezing weather in this coastal area, and it is almost always sunny, even in the winter. Moreover, the wind is now considered an asset and even a necessity because it ventilates the greenhouses, preventing buildup of excess heat in the summer, reducing humidity and condensation in the winter, and allowing outside air to replenish the [CO. …

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