This week has been a great deal of dissatisfaction amongst the farming community of the North-west of the region due to the price being offered to agriculturalists for the harvest this year by the canning industry.
The region of Murcia has 9000 hectares dedicated to the production of apricots, the industry, claiming that this direct activity produces 5400 direct jobs as well as supporting over 2000 indirect jobs, including those working in the processing plants and storage and transportation industries.
In past years, the region of Murcia has produced around 130,000,000 kg of apricots for the canning industry, although these days, the crop levels have fallen to around the 40,000,000 kg mark.
Much of this production is destined for canning, an industry which has provided vital employment in the north-west for many years, although during the last few years has been undergoing convulsions which are causing unemployment and huge reduction in output, due to the financial instability of some of the big names, such as Cofrusa.
Apricots grown for the canning sector are a different variety to those produced for retail sale, the variety 'Búlida' the main crop grown for canning, with production of around 35,000,000 kg a year.
Agriculturalists growing this particular variety can only sell it to the canning sector, as it is a harder variety and less flavoursome when eaten fresh. In the last few years, French style apricots are being substituted in an increasing number of exploitations, which have a higher retail value and are a more flexible crop.
The problem this year focuses around the price being offered to the farmers for their Búlida crop.
Last year, first grade fruit, i.e. hand-picked, in perfect condition and unblemished was being sold for 0.60€, and second quality for 0.30€. Last year was a difficult year with a total production of 43,000,000 kg, mainly due to the hailstorms on 7 May, which caused extensive damage in the Vega del Segura, Río Mula, Altiplano and North-west, reducing the crop which was saved to predominantly second quality.
This year the agriculturalists are being offered just 0.27€ for first grade fruit and 0.18€ for second grade as there is more fruit available.
Anyone who has foolheartedly volunteered to assist a friend bringing in their apricot crop will understand just how much work it is to handpick a kilo of apricots, taking care to sort the firsts from the seconds, ensure the fruit is not bruised as it is being picked and then shipped on for sale. Picking the fruit is just the final process, as the trees have been hand pruned, sprayed to prevent insect damage, the land around them ploughed to keep down weeds, and then the land flooded several times during the development of the fruit.
Add the costs of employing professional fruit pickers, and the margin left for the actual farmer at the end is minimal.
Many expats who have bought land with fruit plantations such as these have given up after a couple of seasons due to the vast amount of work involved for a pitifully small return.
On Thursday the agriculturalists and cooperatives decided that they would not collect the fruit this year and leave it to rot on the trees, as the costs of picking, the fruit would make the sale price offered unviable.
The decision provoked a flood of protests from all those who earn a living picking fruit, as well as the canning industry who said that they themselves were being squeezed by the supermarkets and the distributors, meaning they could not pay higher prices without risking loss of employment within their own plants.
Yesterday an emergency meeting took place, and finally the agriculturalists have agreed to accept the price offered in order to avoid total losses for the last years work and further job losses within the canning plants. However, many are saying that this year will now force them to reconsider their planting and some have already said they will be ripping out their apricot trees after the harvest and replanting with other crops or not replanting at all.
A similar situation occurred a couple of years ago when those producing peaches for the canning industry had to accept below-cost prices due to be warm spring , which resulted in the market being flooded with low-cost Greek peaches, sold in wholesale markets at prices which were below the Spanish production costs.
Long-term, the agricultural industry is trialling different varieties of fruit, and planting crops which yield at different times of the year to try and avoid glut situations and lesson the dependence of the sector on the local canning industry, achieving good success with alternative varieties.
However, this year the crop levels mean that apricots will be good value in local street markets!
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