When life gives you lemons, make lemonade – an overview of citrus production in Spain

Each year millions of kilos of citrus fruit are produced in the Murcian, and Andalusian coastal regions of Spain and it is one of the most prestigious growing regions in Europe for this commodity. There is a lot to learn from one U.K. based company, G’s. Most commonly known for putting the likes of fresh salad and beetroot on your table, they are also working in the citrus arena in Europe. Henry Shropshire, director of the tomato business at G’s, kindly gives a tour of the farm back on one sunny day in May.

Notes from the tour

Insects are one of the largest challenges within citrus production at G’s. I learnt that citrus farms release wasps to act as a natural form of insecticide, targeting any insects spoiling the produce. Farms also purchase bees in mass to pollinate anything from tomatoes, watermelon, oranges and lemons and so on. In many cases, consumers don’t desire the skin on a lemon tree’s second fruit due to the skin being ‘too thick’ – have we got too picky in the UK as consumers? We will discuss this more later.

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The gift that keeps on giving in this part of the world appears to be grapefruit. One tree produces fruit for up to 75 years and when year seven is reached, the tree is yielding at maximum capacity. However, a cereal farmer in the U.K. has on average between 40 and 50 opportunities to grow a good yielding crop in a life time. So, what does the yield look like? Some 300 kilos of fruit per tree per year can be produced and there can be up to 300 trees per ha. On top of that the average price for a hectare of land, with good water quality, in this region ranges from €80,000 – €120,000.

Feeding a growing population & adapting to consumer tastes

G’s grow ‘black tomatoes’ but were unsuccessful in the UK due to consumer behaviour, despite tasting better than the norm. So, do we need to be more open minded? Even the orange market has crashed which is surprising due to the number of households who have orange juice in their fridge in the UK. Unfortunately, this has been caused by overproduction and farmers cannot break-even growing them, therefore, farmers are currently turning to a process called ‘grafting’ which is topping the orange trees, taking shoots of lemon trees and placing them in the trunks to use the rootstock of the orange tree to grow lemons.

Ever seen a pink, tiger lemon? I hadn’t until a few months ago. Keeping a close eye on trends in the market, G’s have been innovative and introduced this variety of lemon; it happens to be suitably paired with a G&T over some ice. This is a great example of a somewhat niche product that has worked in the UK opposed to the ‘black tomatoes’. Want to try some? M&S stock them!

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Want to do your bit? G’s and AMT have teamed up with Tesco to utilise fruit that is out-of-spec and deemed for the bin by championing the Waste Not range, wonky juices at Tesco. Mike Bullock of Waste NOT said, “Around 50 per cent of celery is discarded in the UK, before it even gets past the farm gate, and beetroot deemed too large or small is rejected.” Read more here: https://www.tescoplc.com/news/news-releases/2018/new-wonky-fruit-and-veg-juice-range-launched-at-tesco/

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Photo credit: Tesco PLC

How tech is helping productivity

So, we have had everything from using wasps as an insecticide and pink lemons, but it does not stop there. Working at optimum capacity, G’s are also making use of the aerospace industry by flying drones over the plantations to identify weak trees, to target them with fertiliser.  Every tree on the farm in Aguilas is connected to an irrigation drip system provided with water and fertiliser, which allows for variable rates depending on each individual tree’s requirements – that to me is precision farming at its best.

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To conclude, I thought an interesting question to ask would be ‘Is there a correlation between fever tree sales and lemon consumption increasing in the UK’? Unfortunately, there aren’t any stats on citrus production in Europe and demand is not the only variable that will affect the final figures (but if you have any insight, get in touch!). But what we do know is that Fever Tree sales are continuing to rise and its success probably doesn’t depend on the citrus industry.

This certainly is an interesting space to work within. The take home message is to consider how there is no room for error when producers are meeting the spec, just because it might not look ‘normal’ on the outside, it does taste just as great.

RW

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