Spain’s Powerful Approach to Strengthening Agricultural Communities

Agriculture is a critical social, economic and environmental industry to many countries around the world. Agricultural land use and management directly impacts the local environment and outcomes can mean the difference between striving or struggling local economies. 

With the second largest landmass in Europe dedicated to agriculture, Spain produces produces the highest amount of olives in the world and is Western Europe’s top producer of citrus fruits. They also have the largest area of vineyards in the world, and are the world’s number-one wine exporter. However, much of the wine is bottled in neighbouring France and Italy. Although there is a large area of land used for agriculture, much of the soil is in poor quality, with only 10 percent of the land area considered to be excellent for cultivation. Another challenge facing the industry is a falling labour workforce. In 1970, the workforce as a percentage of the total population was 30 percent but dropped to 4 percent in 2017. This is a global trend, as agriculture becomes less profitable and more demanding industry. 
Despite this, the agriculture industry is still a main and strong industry, which is largely due to the strong cooperative network within Spain. 

The Agri-food Cooperative in Spain

When researching about food trends in Spain, I came across the Cooperativas Agro-alimentarias de España (Agri-food Cooperatives Spain). The mission of Cooperativas Agro-alimentarias de España  is to promote, represent and support the Spanish agri-food cooperative movement, boosting a profitable, competitive, well-dimensioned and professionalized business model and contributing to increase the profitability of farmers and cattle breeders, as well as to the sustainable development of the Spanish agri-food sector and the rural areas. 

The cooperatives’ work is also a response to consumer food demands that guarantees food safety, high quality, that respect the environment and the welfare of animals. They link production, processing and marketing which ultimately bridges the gap between consumers and producers. 

Cooperativas Agro-alimentarias de España  and their federations work with about 3800 cooperatives and more than 1 million farmer members. The agri-food cooperative enterprises connect local small landholder farmers together so they can have collective bargaining power whilst maintaining and investing in their own farms. It provides more opportunities for better market prices which provides better economic outcomes for farmers. However, this organisation, which was formed in 1989 does more than just provide better market rates. They also create programs and initiatives to enable growth of the sector. I was fortunate enough to meet with the passionate team at Cooperativas Agro-alimentarias de España, Gabriel and Susana. They shared the work they are doing and it was so inspiring to hear their pride and passion for the change they are seeing in the sector. Gabriel also shared about the collaboration links with other countries and how that increases their ability to create a healthy sector with strong export partners. 

Cooperative Power

According to their website, ‘Cooperatives are societies made up of people who associate for the realization of business activities, aimed at satisfying their economic and social needs and aspirations, with a democratic structure and functioning,’ This means that farmers work together to increase their bargaining power as well increase the distribution of knowledge and innovative methods of working to enhance the overall market efficiency. 

Agricultural cooperativism is an effective way to meet the new challenges demanded by consumers and that go beyond satisfying the nutritional needs of any food. Consumers demand food that guarantees food safety, high quality, handling and means of production that respect the environment and the welfare of animals. Spanish cooperatives are in a position to respond to these demands, with all policies implemented by the cooperatives focused on consumer needs both now and into the future.

Farmers & co

‘Spain has a lot of agricultural land, but one area not many people think about is the 4 islands off the coast.’ Gabriel shared. ‘It can be difficult for farmers to be competitive on the island, so the agri-food cooperatives in the Balearic Islands worked with local farmers to create a brand based on short supply chains.’ Susana said.
Agro-food cooperatives from the 4 islands, Menorca, Mallorca, Ibiza and Formentera have created a brand called ‘Farmers & Co’ which aims to tell the story of the farming practices, production and background. The food is processed, manufactured and packaged within the local communities on the island and then sold at local outlets. They also offer farm experiences to help consumers learn about where food comes from. 

Currently there are 11 cooperatives from the region engaged in Farmers & Co, with 17 outlets. They are working to expand their reach into mainland Spain and beyond. 

The success of the brand has increased its impact through the H2020 European Project SKIN (Short Supply Chain Knowledge Innovation Network). It is an ambitious initiative involving 20 partners, among them Cooperativas Agro-alimentarias de España, in 14 countries in the area of short food supply chains. The objective is to systematize and bring knowledge to agri-food agents, promote collaboration with an innovation approach linked to demand, as well as provide inputs to administrations through its open networks.  

Women in Agriculture

‘We have found that women are the key to ensuring healthy, regional communities. However, they account for only a small percentage of the workforce on farms in rural Spain.’ Gabriel said.
Along with other countries in the EU, Spain has joined the Women’s committee of Copa (they are the main body of agriculture in the EU) to increase education opportunities for women in agriculture. According to their statistics, ‘In Europe, 35.1% of the agricultural workforce is female which shows that their share is smaller than the total working population (45.9%); and only 30% of the farm managers are women.’ 

They are providing education programs for women to accelerate their roles on farm and encouraging them to be more actives in the cooperatives’ governance bodies. Complementing education is an increased focus and investment on technology and innovation. ‘If we can be empowering women through education and technology, we will help them to have more sustainable agricultural practices. Agri-food cooperatives cannot waste the 50% of our intellectual capacity leaving women away from our enterprises life ’ Gabriel said. 

Overall 

Cooperative structures, when implemented effectively can have the potential to strengthen entire industries. Having effective governance, accountability and strong networks are critical to ensure ongoing success. Cooperativas Agro-alimentarias de España   is an example of a strong functioning organisation that strengthens the agricultural market through effective bargaining and distribution of technology, education and innovation.  

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