Testing New Ways to Plant Olive Groves Near Madrid

Polycultural olive groves are coming to the Community of Madrid. A new operational group hopes their implementation will increase profits and safeguard against disease.

Jan. 11, 2019
By Daniel Dawson

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In the small city of Campo Real, just a half-hour south­east of Madrid, olive oil pro­duc­ers, bee­keep­ers and researchers met to dis­cuss an ambi­tious plan to revi­tal­ize the region’s tra­di­tion­ally unprof­itable olive groves.

Introducing wild aro­matic shrubs and flow­ers implies return­ing in some way to the pre­ex­ist­ing equi­lib­rium.- Javier Domínguez, land­scap­ing expert

The oper­a­tional group, which has been dubbed as Olivares de Miel or olives of honey,’ aims to increase prof­itabil­ity through intro­duc­ing a com­bi­na­tion of native bees and aro­matic plants to the olive groves.

See Also: Olive Tree Cultivation

The group aims to demon­strate that new uses can be given to olive groves in Madrid, which are tra­di­tion­ally not very prof­itable, but have great poten­tial,” a spokesper­son for the group said in a press release.

According to Olivares de Miel, the bees and aro­matic plants, such as laven­der and rose­mary, will pro­vide com­ple­men­tary rev­enue in between olive har­vest­ing peri­ods as well as open the door for agroe­co­log­i­cal tourism.

“[One advan­tage] for the olive groves is the aes­thet­ics,” Javier Domínguez, a land­scap­ing expert who is work­ing with Olivars de Miel to design these groves, said. Beauty attracts peo­ple, and peo­ple also pay to see that beauty.”


Producers all across Spain have been exper­i­ment­ing with projects like these for a few years now, par­tially in an effort to pre­vent the spread of Xylella fas­tidiosa and mit­i­gate the effects of Spain’s chang­ing cli­mate.

The Community of Madrid already had to erad­i­cate sev­eral olive groves in the region after detect­ing Xylella fas­tidiosa in April of last year. Farmers are eager to pre­vent a repeat occur­rence.

Domínguez likens this change in think­ing to what hap­pened more than a cen­tury ago with the rev­o­lu­tion in the auto­mo­bile indus­try.

It is like in the begin­nings of the auto­mo­tive indus­try, when there were 800 pio­neers design­ing cars, although in the end only 50 devel­oped them,” he said. There are pio­neers design­ing olive groves in Spain, plan­ta­tions where there are aro­matic hedges between rows of olive trees that pro­duce oil, honey and essen­tial oils. These pio­neers have come to the same idea by inde­pen­dent paths, coin­cid­ing almost in time.”

Domínguez said that the prac­tice of spac­ing olive trees far apart became pop­u­lar 20 years ago. He argues that this was a mis­take and that grow­ing aro­matic plants in between these olive trees helps pro­tect them as well as the envi­ron­ment.

The fact is that with sep­a­ra­tions of 10, 12 and 14 meters between olive trees, it is not so evi­dent that plant­ing some­thing in the mid­dle dam­ages the olives,” he said.

Domínguez points out that it was not so long ago when farm­ers planted vines in between their olive trees, a prac­tice that can still be seen in Villafranca de los Barros, a town in the Spain’s west­ern region of Extremadura.

He said the prac­tice stopped in mod­ern times due to the unfounded fears that the vines and trees would com­pete for water and nutri­ents in the soil and the growth of one would harm that of the other.

In fact, the oppo­site may be true, Domínguez said. Having some­thing planted in between the olive trees could help pre­vent flood­ing and avoid ero­sion.

Tree mono­cul­ture lacks the appro­pri­ate com­ple­ment of shrubs and flow­ers typ­i­cal of our ecosys­tems,” he said. Introducing wild aro­matic shrubs and flow­ers implies return­ing in some way to the pre­ex­ist­ing equi­lib­rium. In addi­tion, it mit­i­gates floods and droughts and mod­er­ates micro­cli­mates by mov­ing away from extreme con­di­tions.”

In California, the prac­tice of plant­ing aro­matic crops and intro­duc­ing bees is already under­way in the state’s mas­sive almond plan­ta­tions. Over the past decade, it has been mostly hailed as an eco­nomic and eco­log­i­cal suc­cess.

However, there is one key dif­fer­ence. Bees are respon­si­ble for pol­li­nat­ing almond plants at a much higher rate than olive trees. Nevertheless, the bio­di­ver­sity that comes with a larger bee pop­u­la­tion has been shown to act as a nat­ural check on pests, such as the olive fly, which car­ries Xylella fas­tidiosa.

Preventing the spread of the crip­pling dis­ease would cer­tainly be one of the sought after out­comes from the Olivares de Miel pilot project, which will last for three years. Olive farm­ers want to make sure there are no unin­tended con­se­quences of chang­ing a way of olive tree cul­ti­va­tion that works.

Some olive farm­ers have said they would like to test the method for 20 years, just to be safe. However, Domínguez believes that after three years any unin­tended side effects will have man­i­fested them­selves.

Good inten­tions are not enough,” he said. It is nec­es­sary to demon­strate that the inter­me­di­ate crop will not harm the olives, three years gives the major­ity of inno­va­tors enough time to cer­tify their progress.”

Assuming every­thing has gone to plan after this test­ing period, roughly 6.2 mil­lion more acres of Spanish olive groves could also be planted in a sim­i­lar man­ner.


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