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. These outcomes can mean the difference between striving or struggling local economies.
Spain has the second largest landmass in Europe dedicated to agriculture. They produce 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. Only 10 percent of the land area is deemed 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. This is largely due to the strong cooperative network within Spain.
The Agri-food Cooperative in Spain
When researching food trends in Spain, I found 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. This creates a profitable, competitive, well-dimensioned and professionalized business model. It also contributes to an increase in profitability for 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. This gives them collective bargaining power whilst maintaining and investing in their own farms. It provides more opportunities for better market prices which creates better economic outcomes for farmers. However, this organisation, 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 about their work and it was so inspiring to hear their pride and passion. Gabriel also shared the collaboration links with other countries and how that increases their ability to create a healthy sector with strong export partners.
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. They also 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 facing the industry. 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. All policies implemented by the cooperatives focus 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‘. They aim to tell the story of the farming practices, production and background. The food is processed, manufactured and packaged on the island and then sold at local outlets. They also offer farm experiences to help consumers learn about food origins.
Currently there are 11 cooperatives from the region working with Farmers & Co. They have 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. They also 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 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. They also encourage them to be more active in the cooperatives’ governance bodies. Complementing education is an increased focus and investment on technology and innovation. ‘If we empower 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.
Cooperative structures, when implemented effectively 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. They strengthens the agricultural market through effective bargaining and distribution of technology, education and innovation.