Spain’s strawberry fields lie under a Brexit shadow
Written by Cool FM 97.4 on February 12, 2019
Listen on Cool FM Now: Press the LISTEN above
Article Written & Published By:The Guardian
Spain’s strawberry fields lie under a Brexit shadow
Barriers to the UK market could create supply surpluses and ripple effects across EU
Strawberries from Palos de la Frontera in Huelva
Glance at the food map of Spain, which crops up on children’s jigsaw puzzles and teaching aids, and you’ll find Valencia dotted with orange trees, La Rioja clumped with bottles of wine, and Castilla-La Mancha sitting under a heavy round of manchego.
The Andalucían province of Huelva, which borders the sherrylands of Jerez, is marked with a leg of Iberian ham – and an enormous strawberry that represents a billion-euro export market.
The fruit might almost be to scale. More than 85% of all the strawberries Spain exports are grown in the province and much of Huelva’s countryside sits under huge plastic tunnels over which hovers the occasional raptor.
Also keeping a beady eye on the fields – and the very near future – is José Antonio Martín. Like his great-grandfather, grandfather and father, Martín is a farmer.
The family business, AgroMartín, began with a single hectare of strawberries planted by his mother and father in 1980. It now comprises 140 hectares (350 acres) of strawberries and almost 200 hectares of nectarines, peaches, apricots and plums.
As his 8,000 tonnes of strawberries ripen, Martín ponders what Brexit will mean for his business. Around 15% percent of his strawberries are exported to the UK; the rest go elsewhere around the EU and to Norway and Switzerland.
A strawberry farm at sunset in Huelva. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Last year, soft fruit exports from Huelva alone were worth €994m.
Whatever happens, however, Martín knows that Brexit will have a negative impact on free trade and increase the administrative burden.
“How Brexit will affect us depends on the deal that’s agreed between the Europe and the UK,” he says.
“If there’s a deal, the main problem will be customs and getting all the right paperwork as each load will need to clear customs.
“At the moment, though, we don’t know and there’s a lot of uncertainty. If there’s no deal and a hard Brexit, we don’t know what’s going to happen with border agreements.”
The 36-year-old farmer hopes a deal will be reached, as border restrictions would be be terrible for both the UK and the EU.
José Antonio Martín Photograph: José Antonio Martín
If growers such as him have trouble exporting soft fruit to the UK, says Martín, the consequences will be felt across the sector – and by both exporters and non-exporters.
“At the moment, the strawberry, raspberry and blackberry markets are stable and the blueberry market has grown a bit,” he says.
“Supply and demand are pretty well balanced in the market right now. A hard Brexit and a border closing could trigger an important crisis over its initial years. We could have a couple of difficult years that could even mean we have to reduce our crop hectarage a bit to adapt our supply to the demand all over again.”
In other words, the surplus resulting from the closed UK market would upset the balance, drive prices down and force farmers to rethink their planting.
“That would be keenly felt in the early years – and especially at this time of the year. April and May are the busiest time of year for us. We may have to scale back planting next year, depending on what happens. This is a pretty uncertain time and I don’t think it’s good for anyone. It weakens the EU as a whole.”
According to Freshuelva, the industry association for Huelva’s strawberry producers and distributors, the UK is the third biggest export market for strawberries after Germany and France and the biggest for raspberry exports.
Sixteen percent of Huelva’s strawberries ended up in the UK in 2018, as did 34% of its raspberries and 26% of its blueberries.
“Brexit is obviously generating uncertainty as the UK has traditionally been our second biggest market,” says Freshuelva’s manager, Rafael Domínguez.
“But what’s really worrying us is not the controls themselves, but the border hold-ups when it comes to produce as perishable as berries.”
Domínguez says the sector is planning for a no-deal Brexit, with all the stress and paperwork – tariff rights, customs declarations and phytosanitary certificates – that a UK crash-out would bring.
“The imposition of customs and phytosanitary controls on exports of produce to the UK would affect transport logistics, slowing down or blocking access to the British market. Paying tariffs, meanwhile, would do serious economic damage and affect the competitiveness of our exports.”
All in all, adds Domínguez, “the economic consequences would be extremely serious”.
Martín, who has worked the land since he was a young boy, says Brexit’s ripples will be felt well beyond the strawberry fields of Huelva.
Agromartín employs around 400 people, but at peak harvest time, that figure can rise to 1,500 or 1,600.
“Strawberries move a lot of money and employ a lot of people,” he says.
“At harvest times, a lot of Bulgarians, Romanians and Moroccans come to work. A surplus and lower prices could affect employment. Strawberries are one of Huelva’s flagship products.”
Total value of soft fruit exports from Huelva, Jan-Oct 2018: €994m
Total value of Huelva’s strawberry exports in 2018: €437m
Total area of strawberry cultivation in Huelva: 6,095 hectares (15,052 acres)
Total value of Spanish strawberry exports in 2018: €580m
Biggest markets for Huelva soft fruit: Germany (31%), UK (26%) and France (10.9%)
(Sources: Andalucían regional government; Spanish federation of associations of producers and exporters of fruits, vegetables and live plants; Freshuelva.)