A shimmering sea of polythene has consumed the small coastal
plain of Campo de Dalías, some 30 km southwest of the city of Almería in
Almería has become Europe's market garden and to grow food all
year, the land is cloaked in plastic. There are now an estimated 40,000 hectares
of greenhouses in the Campo de Dalías, the largest concentration in the world.
Over 2.7 million tonnes of produce are grown on the plain each year, accounting
for over €1.2 billion in economic activity.
The largest greenhouse producing areas in Europe are Spain
(46,000 hectares), Italy (25,000 hectares), France (9,500 hectares) and Greece
In the image below from 1974, mixed land use including urban
development and agriculture occupy the Campo. Table grapes were produced on wire
trellis systems and covered with plastic to induce early ripening for shipment
to the European markets. Some growers began growing vegetables, and because of
the greater profitability, most, if not all of the grape production quickly
disappeared during the 1970s and 1980s. Agriculture shifted from open fields to
greenhouse production of early and out-of-season vegetables.
From the lens of a passing satellite today, Almería province
is one of the most recognisable spots on the planet. The roofs of tens of
thousands of closely packed plastic greenhouses form a blanket of mirrored light
beaming into space.
Production of these salad vegetables has increased because of
When Spain joined the EU in 1986, it was able to export food
products to European markets tariff-free.
Changes in diet have contributed to an increase in vegetable
consumption in Europe, opening windows of opportunities for vegetable growers.
Greenhouse construction costs are low since many of the
greenhouses are homemade and all are primarily made of plastic.
Innovations in transportation have improved quality and lowered
costs in shipping vegetables.
Favourable physical factors: climate, soil, and availability of
water resources in the subsoil. The area has a dry, mild, Mediterranean climate
and is further sheltered on the north by the Sierra de Gador mountains. With
just slightly more than 200 mm of annual precipitation to support crop growth,
the area also relies on groundwater fed by small stream aquifers from the
mountains to the north. Almería has an average temperature of 20°C and about
3000 hours of annual sunshine. Salad vegetables can be grown during the winter
months without having to use expensive heating systems as in other places in
Europe (e.g. Holland).
Government support provided infrastructure, technical advice
and sources of funding.
The accidental discovery of the cultivation technique of
The know-how of the first immigrant farmers with experience in
this type crop.
A young and abundant workforce, with an enormous capacity for
work and low risk aversion.
Low labour costs. Labour costs are one third of those in the
Production Practices in Almería Greenhouse Production
Most of the producers are small family-owned greenhouse
operations and have low capital investments, generally producing on a site of
1-1.4 hectares in size. The family companies generally retain low labour costs
and have a strong motivation for work. Production and labour requirements are
The crops are grown continuously from October to July, with
production peaks in December-January when tomato, cucumber, green beans, and
pepper are harvested, and then again in May-June when melons are in season.
Tomatoes and sweet pepper represent the greatest crop area, followed by melons.
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 in order 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 in determining the price of
land in Spain. 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 a new
seawater desalination plant opening in 2009 will supply 60,000 m³/day of fresh
water to the region.
Production and Transport Costs
Almería has a comparative advantage over northern Europe with
production costs less than half of those found in Holland. Energy costs are low,
greenhouses are often homemade and labour costs are one third of those in the
Netherlands. Transport costs, however, are nearly doubled, leaving total costs
for production and transport 20% less than those in the Netherlands.
Supermarkets British supermarkets are secretive about how much
produce comes from Almería. Tesco calls this "commercially sensitive
information". But Rafael Losilla, editor of a local farming magazine, names
Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury's as valued customers. "Britain is the
third-biggest export market after France and Germany," he says.