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Spain - As southern part of the counrtry dries up, its farmers get inventive

Finding wild asparagus sprouting at the feet of his almond trees puts a smile on the face of Juan Garcia Chacon, a Spanish farmer. The natural vegetation is a sign that the farm’s strategies to counter erosion are working.

Mr. Chacon, who last year left a job as a vehicle test driver to farm alongside his retired father, is one of many farmers across Spain’s Andalusia region who are working to find new agricultural practices to counter the dry winds of climate change. “My first year is marked by few almonds but tremendous hope,” he says with conviction.

Climate change experts estimate that two-thirds of Spain is vulnerable to encroaching desertification and accelerated soil erosion. Due to a mix of natural and socioeconomic factors, the Mediterranean nation is considered the worst afflicted when it comes to land degradation in arid, semiarid, and dry areas of the European Union. So farmers like Mr. Chacon are turning to regenerative agriculture in a bid to revitalize local landscapes, economies, and communities.

“I must leave this land in the best conditions possible,” says Mr. Chacon. “If I don’t take seemingly simple steps, we will lose this land to erosion and lose the almond trees,” says Mr. Chacon. “We will leave the next generation with no place to live or work.”

Spain’s warming fruit basket

The Chacon family has been growing almond trees for the better part of four decades. Like many in this region, they historically focused on cereals, and only planted almond trees on the border of their fields. But that changed when they grasped the enormous commercial potential, both at home and abroad, of the almond, prevalent in Spanish sweets and across bar tables.

Spain today is the world’s third largest almond producer behind Australia and the United States, which is the world’s top producer by a big margin. Rising prices, coupled with the knowledge that their countrymen are often eating California almonds rather than local products, has led many Spanish farmers here to invest in the almond.

The quality of the soil across the 21 hectares (52 acres) owned by the Chacon family is mixed – depressingly gray but viable in parts, iron-rich and promisingly red in others. The variety of almond trees grown here bud in March rather than between November and February. Almond trees need the cold to thrive, but a harsh frost can destroy their delicate fruit.

But climate change, coupled with soil erosion, threatens to change that – not just for the almond crop, but for the wider fruit basket that is Spain, where much of the land is semiarid with bitingly cold winters and hot summers.

In the southern region of Andalusia, the country’s most populous and with a landmass equivalent to Ireland, assessments of the risk of desertification range from high to very high. If the worst-case-scenario climate change models play out – with global temperature increases of 5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, versus the Paris climate agreement target of 1.5 C or 2.7 degrees F – all of southern Spain would become desert. The regional authorities recognized the threat and prioritized the fight against desertification already in 1989. In some parts of southeastern Spain, 80 tons of soil per hectare are lost annually due to soil erosion. To date, an estimated 5% of all Spanish agricultural land has undergone a degree of erosion characterized as irreversible.

Agriculture is not the main driver of the Spanish economy. It employs less than 2% of the Spanish workforce and represents less than 3% of gross domestic product. But it remains important; within the European Union, only France dedicates more of its land to agriculture. Spain ranks first in organic farming in the bloc and is among the top five in the world. Andalusia itself accounts for half of Spain’s ecological production.

Average temperatures have risen faster in Spain than in other parts of Europe, pushing some local almond farmers to shift toward the pistachio tree. In some parts of southern Spain, temperatures could rise by 6 degrees C by 2050 rather than the projected average of 2 degrees.

Mr. Chacon admits that almond farming has been tough, and that success or failure can hinge on 1 degree, the tiny difference between zero and subzero temperatures that manifests itself even within his land. “This year we had timely and gentle rains, but we suffered a heavy frost at the end of March,” he says, cracking open vibrant green almond buds to reveal damaged brown interiors. A healthy almond, he notes, opening a bigger bulb in better shape, is translucent.

There is no doubt in his mind that it will be difficult to match last year’s yield and income: about 20,000 kilos (44,000 pounds) of almonds, 35,000 euros ($39,000). But he is an expert at eking joy from the farm, finding the trade-off of more time and less money more than worth it in the company of his parents, partner, and pointer dogs.

His spirits visibly lift when his feet sink into a borderline muddy patch of soil, palpable evidence that his efforts to form terraces, natural water beds, and sheet mulching are working. “Look, no erosion.”

‘This is commonsense agriculture’

Mr. Chacon is also part of a growing network of farmers, brought together by the AlVelAl Association, who are trying to breathe life back into the ghost towns of Andalusia.

With nearly 300 members spread across the Spanish plateau regions, AlVelAl aims to revive local communities just as much as the landscape. It does so by lending financial and technical support to farmers, agritourism businesses that source locally, and regional entrepreneurs.

The results are on display in Chirivel. An agriculture fair in March showcased the efforts of multiple generations taking pride in local traditions and experimenting with new techniques.

Frank Ohlenschlaeger, a native of the German town of Hanover who settled in Spain 25 years ago, is using the fair to test consumer reaction to a combination of toasted almonds, salt, and aromatic herbs like rosemary and thyme grown between the almond trees. His company, La Almehendresa, brings together more than 20 partners who want to go beyond organic farming and focus on regenerative methods.

“We want to see the expansion of ecological, regenerative agriculture,” he says. “We want to restore degraded soils and landscapes. All of this with the goal of combating climate change because this is a red zone when you look at a map on the risks of desertification.”

Almehendresa and AlVelAl are projects that took root in Spain thanks to Commonland, a Dutch foundation that carries out similar work in the Netherlands, South Africa, and Australia. Such initiatives fit into a broader global effort to restore 150 million hectares (580,000 square miles) of the world’s deforested and degraded land by 2020 and 350 million hectares (1.3 million square miles) by 2030.

Santiaga Sanchez, a major landowning and leading female farmer in the region, stumbled on making water-collecting patches of grass between her almond trees because she needed room for her goats to feed. Training up the next generation of farmers through work placements, she says she is optimistic because there are signs of change, even if slow and gradual.

“We haven’t invented anything,” she says on the sidelines of a panel discussion on the merits of regenerative agriculture organized by AlVelAl. “This is commonsense agriculture. Mother Nature is so wise and so grateful that as long as we stop stabbing her, she will respond.”

Change, everyone here knows, is ultimately not in the hands of farmers, but consumers.

“What we eat transforms the territory,” says Loli Masegosa Arredona, an expert in sustainable nutrition and co-president of AlVelAl. “What is the point of an organic product if it destroys the environment? So, let’s stop for a moment and think: What kind of territory do we want? Our diets are a tool to change the landscape.”

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