The province of Jaén in southern Spain is known for its olive production. It’s called the sea of olives, with 70 million olive trees expanding in all directions—but despite this striking scene, the land has nothing else to offer. There are no other plants, flowers, or critters scurrying about the olive groves because the meticulously maintained monoculture offers no support for biodiversity.
However, after the success of a regenerative agriculture project in Andalucía (the region which encapsulates Jaén), these groves will hopefully be teeming with life.
In 2016, 20 olive farms in the region of Andalucía were chosen to take up the Olivares Vivos regenerative agriculture project, which allowed grass and wildflowers to grow between olive trees. Other native plant species were cultivated within the groves, and nest boxes and ponds were added to attract insects and birds.
Researchers from the University of Jaén and the higher council for scientific research (CSIC) found that within three years of the Olivares Vivos project, bee populations in the regenerative olive groves increased by almost half (47 percent), birdlife by 10 percent, and woody shrubs by 172 percent in comparison with the control groves. Other small creatures like rabbits returned to feast on the grass, which also drew birds of prey back to the land.
Their research also revealed that herbicides were killing the insects that consume the larvae of the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae), which is the olive’s main pest.
Paco Montabes, a farmer who works 650 hectares (1,600 acres) of picual olives in Jaén’s Sierra Mágina says that the project “is returning to more traditional ways.” He explains that “not plowing between the trees makes for better water retention [and] less erosions and run-offs after heavy rain. The vegetal covering makes the ground sponge-like and absorbs the rain.”
The Olivares Vivos project presents a win-win for the farmers and for the environment. Biodiversity is permitted to thrive while the farmers can certify their olive oil as having been produced in conditions that support the environment, which gives it added value and further entices consumers to purchase their product.
The olive growers also end up saving money on herbicides and pesticides, which permits them to sell their oil at a premium, which other olive growers have taken note of. The project coordinator, José Eugenio Gutiérrez from the conservation organization SEO Birdlife, reports that more than 600 growers have expressed interest in adopting regenerative agriculture.
The main idea behind regenerative agriculture is to stop plowing, which has already been adopted by vineyards in the area. Usually, the land is plowed between the crops or vines to rid the earth of weeds and open the ground up to rain, but this practice not only contributes to erosion but leads to a lack of biodiversity and poor soil.
As Miguel Torres, the fifth generation leader at the head of Spain’s biggest winemaker, explains, “when you plow you bring organic material to the surface, and then it oxidizes, so everything you had stored goes into the atmosphere. What we try to do is imitate nature as much as possible, which means we have to give life back to the soil.”
Torres, along with other smaller winemakers, has embraced regenerative practices, reducing his carbon footprint by 34 percent per bottle, and is striving for an even more impressive 60 percent. Hopefully, more growers and farmers across the country and the world will see the multiple benefits of regenerative agriculture and adopt these practices so that our planet can thrive once again.