Even long-time Barcelona residents may have never suspected that just on the rim of the city’s dense urban area, along the Llobregat River’s delta, lie fertile fields that have supplied the city with fresh fruits and vegetables for centuries. Just five kilometres south of Barcelona, the rich soil—complemented by abundant sunshine, mild temperatures and the proximity of the Mediterranean Sea—has long established the Llobregat valley as a farmer’s paradise. Farming began to evolve in this area some 6,000 years ago, and by the 1800s three-quarters of the lands in the delta were being farmed. In the Thirties, the fruit and vegetable harvest achieved its highest levels of export to the rest of Europe.
This idyllic landscape was so greatly affected by urban sprawl and industrial expansion in the second half of the last century, however, that the area’s ancient farming tradition was threatened with extinction. In response, the Parc Agrari de Baix Llobregat (the Lower Llobregat Agricultural Park) was created, in 1998, as a large-scale agro-environmental project with a clear mandate to protect the agricultural tradition as a cultural treasure. Now, more than a decade after its establishment, Parc Agrari is regarded globally as an impressive example of sustainable ‘periurban’ farming.
“We continue to have visitors from all continents,” Sonia Callau, the head of the Unitat d’Espais Agraris (Agrarian Spaces Unit) at the park told Metropolitan. “Experts from Japan, China and many other countries come to learn from our experience and apply it in their own projects.”
In a ground-breaking collaboration between government, experts and farmers, a large consortium was created to manage the park, with representatives from farmers’ groups, ajuntaments and the Generalitat. The protection of the farmlands from urban and industrial pressures were, by necessity, the park’s chief concerns. But in the face of an increasingly globalised produce market and financial uncertainty, a central mission has developed of providing farmers with tools and strategies to remain competitive.
Researchers and land experts have been working to introduce eco-friendly farming techniques using less spraying and minimal amounts of pesticides, as well as modernising existing irrigation channels and helping farmers sell what they grow. As a result, instead of losing the farmlands to an ever-growing city, the Baix Llobregat park area today encompasses nearly 3,000 hectares of cultivated land and continues year-round to put fresh lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, and a profusion of fruits on Barcelona’s tables.
The king of the Llobregat valley is the artichoke. About 25 percent of the park’s farmed lands are covered by this crop. In a joint research effort with the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, the Agrarian Park is working to improve the quality of the artichokes. “It’s my favorite crop to grow,” said Joan Ribas, a 55-year-old farmer. “It has such a long cycle, it can be harvested from December until May.”
Ribas is the heir of a family with a long farming tradition, which has lived on these lands since the 1600s. Like his ancestors, he and his brothers have been working the fields since they were boys. He remembers a time about 30 years ago when he could drive his tractor loaded with fresh produce straight to El Born, Barcelona’s old central market. Now urban development has come to his farm’s door. The landscape has changed: busy motorways cross Baix Llobregat’s farmlands, the nearby airport sends planes flying above the orchards and industries have built their factories in the surrounding area, once occupied by marsh and wilderness. The high-speed rail line, taking passengers from Barcelona to Madrid, also passes through the park, damaging soil, crops and natural balance.
For farmers like Ribas, surviving in a changing environment has long been an everyday task. “You never know what the next day will bring. You depend on the weather, the wind and the rainfall.”
For Ribas, there’s no secret to farming other than learning to pay attention to the “language” of the land and the crops day-to-day. Like many other farmers in this area, he has been faced with water scarcity. The historic irrigation channels still do a great job distributing water from the river, but it isn’t enough. A couple of years ago, the Catalan government and the EU invested in a new water treatment plant. But the water recycled there proved too saline for the crops. This year, a smaller plant is being built to reduce salinity, but farmers like Ribas still don’t find the system truly effective.
A new irrigation alternative is also being explored: a drip irrigation system, used crop-to-crop, which could save a lot of water, irrigating only as much as is needed. Drip irrigation has already been put into practice in the park’s arboretum—a designated territory where traditional fruit tree varieties are being preserved. The arboretum maintains a collection of 62 rare varieties of apples, plums, grapes, olives, peaches, figs and other fruit trees traditionally cultivated in these lands and now under threat of extinction. The garden also serves as a demonstration field for applying eco-farming techniques for soil disinfection and fighting pests.
While some of the produce grown on the park’s lands is still being transported to France and Italy, most of it doesn’t go further than nearby Mercabarna, Barcelona’s vast wholesale market. “The thing is, once our produce gets mixed in with the rest on the markets, buyers have no way of knowing which fruits and veggies came from Chile, which from Kenya and which from just a few kilometres away,” said Ribas.
With that concern in mind, the park’s management has taken on another crucial initiative: to promote its distinctive quality and origin brand, ‘Producte FRESC del Parc Agrari’. Some farmers have already begun to label their produce with the brand’s logo, indicating that it was grown respecting natural rhythms, resulting in tastier, more nutritional and fresher produce from a nearby farm. As a part of the promotion effort, restaurants that buy produce from the park are also beginning to use the logo on their menus, and a website has been set up to list all the locations in Barcelona and its metropolitan area where the produce can be found.
In an attempt to further encourage Barcelona’s residents to choose fresh and local, over other alternatives, the park’s management is designing tours to the park, which will educate visitors about the history of the ecosystem and allow them to see farmers at work. Each year, hundreds of students from Barcelona’s metropolitan area are already learning about crops, soil and planting, thanks to the park’s educational youth programmes.
More info: http://www.diba.es/parcsn/parcs/index.asp?parc=9
First published February 2009. Updated August 2010.