Unseasonal cold, extreme heat, drought: calamitous year for agriculture

Losses of up to 80% in crops as farmers call for more efficient use of water

Frosty crops in western Catalonia after a period of unseasonably cold weather in April 2022 (image courtesy of Sergi Balué)
Frosty crops in western Catalonia after a period of unseasonably cold weather in April 2022 (image courtesy of Sergi Balué) / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

September 18, 2022 10:12 AM

December 9, 2023 11:59 AM


Corbins, near Lleida, April 4, 2022. Farmers wake up to see their crops have suffered heavy frost for a second night in a row. Unseasonably cold temperatures as low as -6ºC make the whole western rural region fear the worst for their peach, nectarine, apricot, almond, pear, and apple trees.

Just a month and a half later, in Vinebre, in the Ebre region in southern Catalonia, temperatures peak at 38ºC. On the days around May 22, Catalonia experiences exceptionally hot days. Lleida, and especially the southern Ebre region and its famed olive trees, are severely affected by the heat. The same happens along the coast and its crop areas of juicy fruits such as melons, watermelons, tomatoes, as well as green beans.

Several episodes of hail and a long summer with no rain have resulted in a disastrous year for agriculture, which can still get worse.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Google Podcasts Listen on Spotify

According to the secretary of the farmers' union Unió de Pagesos, Carles Vicente, "if it doesn't rain in September or October, olives turn black from the drought and fall off the branch. They won't be able to be harvested."

Unió de Pagesos estimates that 50% of olive production will be lost this season due to the heat in May, especially those in the Ebre region, home to half of the total oil production of the territory.

Indeed, during episodes of extreme heat, plants that are outside can see their lifetime drop "from two months to one and some weeks," Vicente told Catalan News.

The fluctuating extreme temperatures coupled with little rainfall over the last year have caused a serious situation of drought in Catalonia, leading to restrictions on the use of water in some towns, and plenty of other issues.

Heat and drought threaten irrigation canals

This situation also leads to less water in rivers – for instance, the volume of the Segre river, also in the Lleida region, is at its lowest level in 50 years, with a flow of only 3m3 per second, according to the authority managing the Urgell area canals.

This entity's president, Amadeu Ros, said that the heat this year led to the early melting of snow, which acts as a natural water reserve during the spring and summer – as a result, instead of 170 hm3 of water expected to become available in May in the Ebre river basin due to melted snow, there was only 70hm3.

In turn, reservoirs have been emptying throughout the year – and even old villages sunken to build the infrastructures are reemerging –, and irrigation canals sucking water from them have been dealt a blow.

"We have suffered a bit, but thanks to the Ebre basin authority (CHE), the technical services of the Urgell canals authority, and some late rain, we have managed to save the crops, but for just a few, in Urgell's five counties," said Ros to the Catalan News Agency (ACN).

"Our concern now is next season," he added, referring to the fact that the level of water reserves during the year has fallen. The irrigation season begins in early spring and ends in late summer – this year, the CHE obliged farmers to end it earlier than usual, but this has not had a major impact.

Up to 80% losses in farmers' production

Yet, others were not so lucky. The recent harvest of stone fruit such as peaches was 70% to 80% smaller due to the April frosts, Unió de Pagesos says. For pears and apples, there was a loss of between 40% and 50%, confirming farmers' fears on that freezing April morning.

Last month, Catalonia's Institute of Vineyards and Wine (INCAVI) estimated that the grape harvest would be down by 15% due to the drought, a figure that Unió de Pagesos increases to 40%.

A recent study by investigators at the Catalan Agri-Food Technology and Research Institute (IRTA) showed the drop in extensive farming has been significant. For instance, the amount of peas grown in spring has fallen by 55% compared with 2021, while wheat and barley grown in winter fell by 35%, as a result of an 80% decrease in rainfall between December and February compared to the past 20-year average, according to IRTA.

Lower crop yields have also led to less fodder for animals. That is to say, it has had a negative impact on livestock farming.

Calls for more efficient use of water

So, is there anything that can be done? Unió de Pagesos says there has always been extreme weather, but that now it is more frequent than ever, and calls on authorities for more financial aid, the creation of a mutual fund to stabilize the sector, and research to explore drought-resistant varieties of plants and to make the most of heavy rain.

"Climate change does not say it will not rain, but that it will rain badly," Vicente says. "We need to store water so that we can use it when tough times [of drought] come."

Amadeu Ros, in charge of the Urgell canals, says that given the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the subsequent rise in inflation, "the modernization of the canals is necessary, and if possible, within five years," addressing the several administrations involved.

According to him, if facilities were more efficient, the Rialb and Oliana reservoirs would now have a combined 100 hm3 of water – at the moment they have just above 40 hm3.

Is importing food a good solution?

With these problems for the primary sector ever more frequent, is importing more the only way out? For Unió de Pagesos, this could potentially cause more starvation in poor countries if we imported from there.

Bolivia is one of the top producers of quinoa in the world, but because of exports, there may be not enough for everyone, so prices have gone up to European standards and locals can't afford it anymore.

"Quinoa has turned fashionable, and with only some Europeans consuming it, this has led to Bolivians no longer being able to consume all the quinoa they want," Vicente told Catalan News.

Thus, technology and research are seen as the main hopes, in the long run, to ensure the Catalan agriculture industry survives climate change, and that both local farmers and consumers in lower-income countries are not doomed to poverty.