10 May 2002

Olives are real money spinner for arable unit

ZERO tillage is the name of the game at Hacienda de Cordoba, a 400ha (988 acre) arable and olive growing farm to the south of Seville, run by Dario Candau of management company, D&C.

About 170ha (420 acres) of the low-lying, silty ground is put down to arable crops, alternating between winter wheat and sunflowers.

"We have not cultivated this ground for three years now, as we aim to minimise costs, avoid soil erosion and retain humidity," says Mr Candau.

After the previous crop of sunflowers has been harvested and the stalks chopped, the ground gets a quick spray with Roundup, plus an October application of NPK (15:15:15) to boost fertility.

The wheat seeds are then drilled 2cm into the topsoil in November at a relatively low rate of 180kg/ha. They get an extra 150kg/ha of urea (45% N) in January, which helps correct the nitrogen:carbon imbalance caused by the rotting stalks.

There is no use of insecticides or plant growth regulators, and just occasional use of fungicides. The farm employs three full-time workers and owns most of its own machinery, with the exception of the drill.

The wheat currently in the ground is Arcobaleno, a hard wheat with bread-making potential. "This variety enjoys a higher rate of area aid of about k391/ha (£239/ha), compared with the k241/ha (£147/ha) available on soft wheats," explains Mr Candau. A range of reference yields are used around Seville for calculating area aid.

Actual yields are very weather dependent as the farm has no irrigation and gets just 60cm of rain a year, concentrated in the spring and autumn. About 4t/ha is normal. Most of the wheat is sold off-the-combine before harvest, as storage facilities are limited and crops can deteriorate quickly in the hot, humid climate if left on a barn floor.

Prices are strongly influenced by world market movements, though last year merchants paid an above-average k175/t (£107/t) for milling material in June. "Poor harvests throughout Europe put a good premium on our early-cut crops," says Mr Candau. A more normal value would be k150/t (£92/t), he adds.

Including area aid and based on 4t/ha, that gives a crop output of about k1000/ha (£615/ha). Deducting total costs of k400/ha (£246/ha) leaves an average net margin of k600/ha (£370/ha).

After harvest, preparation gets under way for the next crop of sunflowers. Since these are spring-planted there is time for three passes with the sprayer to kill off all weeds, and two applications of fertiliser.

Only certified seeds may be used if the farm is to qualify for area aid, and there is also a 10% set-aside requirement.

Yields typically come in at 1.5t/ha, with the crop fetching an excellent k271/t (£167/t) last harvest. Between k180/t (£110/ha) and k210/t (£129/t) is more normal. Area aid is set at k240/ha (£148/ha), generating a total output in excess of k500/ha (£307/ha).

Based on total costs of k180/ha (£111/ha), net margin is estimated at k320/ha (£196/ha).

But while the arable crops make a useful contribution, the real profit is in the olive trees, says Mr Candau. There are about 230ha (568 acres) at Hacienda de Cordoba, of which 210ha (519 acres) are irrigated.

Standard green eating olives from the many Manzanillo Sevillano trees fetch up to k600/t (£370/t), while the largest green olives from the Gordal tree make double this.

But the activity is labour intensive, with over half the value of the crops going to the Moroccan pickers.

Four families live and work at the attractive Hacienda de Cordoba.