Regenerative Ag Practices Improve Profitability of Steep-Slope Olive Farms

After finding that soil health improved in abandoned steep-slope olive groves, researchers determined organic and regenerative farming could yield similar results.

By Máté Pálfi
Sep. 28, 2023 13:21 UTC
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Researchers in the south­ern Spanish region of Andalusia have found that fol­low­ing regen­er­a­tive and organic agri­cul­tural prac­tices in steep-slope olive groves improves prof­itabil­ity and sus­tain­abil­ity.

The inves­ti­ga­tors from the Institute of Agricultural and Fisheries Research and Training (Ifapa) and the University of Granada deter­mined that cul­ti­va­tion sys­tems involv­ing con­tin­u­ous tillage degrade soil health and increase ero­sion.

If (regen­er­a­tive and organic agri­cul­tural prac­tices) were imple­mented, farm­ers could access pub­lic finan­cial aid for this type of crops, and their pro­duc­tion would be more prof­itable.- Francisco Bruno Navarro, lead researcher, Ifapa

According to the researchers, about 495,400 hectares of olive groves in Andalusia, 29.6 per­cent of the region’s total olive grove sur­face area, are cul­ti­vated on slopes with a gra­di­ent of more than 20 per­cent.

Abrupt topog­ra­phy, irreg­u­lar ele­va­tions and chal­leng­ing acces­si­bil­ity char­ac­ter­ize steep-slope olive groves. Due to these fac­tors, steep-slope olive groves often suf­fer from poor soil qual­ity, includ­ing a lack of nutri­ents, which leads farm­ers to till the soil and apply fer­til­iz­ers annu­ally.

See Also:Climate Change Threatens Steep-Slope Agriculture

As a result of the rel­a­tively poor soil qual­ity and inabil­ity to mech­a­nize the groves, farm­ers grow­ing olive trees in these demand­ing land­scapes face dimin­ished eco­nomic returns and soar­ing pro­duc­tion costs.

For these rea­sons, many plots end up being aban­doned,” said Francisco Bruno Navarro, a lead researcher at Ifapa. This causes the loss of socioe­co­nomic activ­ity in dif­fer­ent slop­ing olive grove areas, such as Jaén, Granada, Málaga and Córdoba, which account for 26 per­cent of the total sur­face area of​this crop in Andalusia.”

In a study pub­lished ear­lier this year in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, the researchers found that soil health and bio­di­ver­sity gen­er­ally improve in steep-slope olive groves after they are aban­doned, which revives eco­log­i­cal func­tions.

However, the researchers added that these results of aban­don­ment could be achieved through regen­er­a­tive and organic farm­ing prac­tices, allow­ing farm­ers to improve soil health and increase the prof­itabil­ity of their steep-slope olive groves.

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Steep-slope olive groves in Andalusia

The pri­mary way for farm­ers to achieve this is to fol­low no-till agri­cul­tural prac­tices and encour­age the growth of veg­e­tal cover between olive tree rows, which researchers found pro­tected the soil from ero­sion, improved water reten­tion and cre­ated habi­tats for nat­ural preda­tors of per­va­sive olive pests.

It is a more nat­ural and prof­itable cul­ti­va­tion sys­tem that helps stop ero­sive processes and the scarcity of bio­di­ver­sity,” Bruno Navarro said.

The researchers reached these con­clu­sions after thor­oughly eval­u­at­ing land man­age­ment prac­tices across 20 diverse plots scat­tered through­out the most sig­nif­i­cant olive-grow­ing regions in Spain, includ­ing the Andalusian provinces of Córdoba, Jaén, Granada and Málaga.

These selected plots rep­re­sented a spec­trum of con­di­tions, rang­ing from arid and dry to humid and fer­tile, allow­ing for a detailed com­par­i­son of var­i­ous farm­ing approaches.

The study exam­ined six cul­ti­va­tion sys­tems, each reveal­ing its eco­log­i­cal foot­print: organic with soil tillage, organic with spon­ta­neous cover, con­ven­tional, con­ven­tional with­out tillage, aban­doned and those in the process of aban­don­ment.

Researchers under­took a deeply detailed assess­ment of bio­di­ver­sity in terms of flora and the world of Lepidoptera, an order of insects that includes moths and but­ter­flies.

Based on their find­ings, the research deter­mined that con­ven­tional tillage prac­tices were more ero­sive and resulted in soil degra­da­tion.

On the con­trary, the eco­log­i­cal approach, char­ac­ter­ized by cul­ti­vat­ing a pro­tec­tive veg­e­ta­tion cover, yielded the best results regard­ing ecosys­tem health and olive grove prof­itabil­ity.

In addi­tion, if it were imple­mented, farm­ers could access pub­lic finan­cial aid for this type of crops, and their pro­duc­tion would be more prof­itable,” Bruno Navarro said.

The prospect of access­ing pub­lic finan­cial sup­port under the lat­est iter­a­tion of the Common Agricultural Policy for adopt­ing these organic meth­ods could improve the eco­nom­ics of steep-slope agri­cul­tural land­scapes.

With the foun­da­tion laid, the researchers set their sights on inves­ti­gat­ing the micro­bi­o­log­i­cal side of uncul­ti­vated or veg­e­ta­tion-cov­ered olive groves, search­ing for the dura­tion required for soil to adapt to new growth con­di­tions.

We want to check how long it takes for the soil to adapt to the new grow­ing con­di­tions, define how the cli­mate influ­ences this change and eval­u­ate issues such as car­bon fix­a­tion to explore all the advan­tages of aban­doned eco­log­i­cally sloped olive groves,” Bruno Navarro said.



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