quotThe ground has never been so dryquot in Alcoy

"The ground has never been so dry" : in Alcoy, Spain, the endless wait for the rain

Ricardo Ferri hasn’t seen a drop of rain in over 100 days. Since February 2nd, no cloud has watered their cornfields. “Outrageous,” assures the 56-year-old farmer sadly. As the manager of a 55-hectare family farm in Alcoy, south-east Spain, he has seen his production decline week after week. Today, the entire harvest has definitely been lost and 22,000 euros in income have been lost.

“In fifty years I have never seen such dry soil. There is not a single drop of moisture. Nothing can grow,” he exclaims, searching the cracked soil of his plots. Normally, by the beginning of May, the ears of wheat, barley and oats should be lush. “There they measure just four centimeters instead of one meter. Their growth has come to a complete standstill due to the lack of water.”

According to the largest agricultural union, the drought is suffocating 80% of non-irrigated agricultural land in Spain. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

The region is used to the absence of rain. And Ricardo Ferri, like his parents and grandparents before him, adapted his work to this reality by following the principles of dryland farming – dryland agriculture practiced primarily in Africa. The crops he grows require little water and the land slopes slightly to allow rain to drain. “But that has its limits, you still need a vital minimum of water so that the plants can survive,” he emphasizes.

Around his fields, a few almond and olive trees – plants that also require little blue gold – usually provide a small additional income. “This year they are suffering too. Their production isn’t quite finished yet, but it’s bound to rain soon,” he is alarmed, showing some fallen fruit on the ground before it could ripen.

Also read “The land turns into a desert”: Spain is facing its water borders

“It’s the coup de grace”

Unlike the majority of Spanish farmers in the south of the country, the marked 50-year-old cannot compensate for the current drought with an irrigation system. “The nearest well is several kilometers away in the mountains, and the only stream that flows nearby is so small that it hardly provides drinking water for the surrounding wildlife,” he explains.

Overall, according to the Agriculture Committee (Coag), one of the largest agricultural unions, 80% of non-irrigated cropland like this is currently ‘choked’ by lack of rainfall, ie around 5 million hectares. “Many of my colleagues are willing to switch off,” testifies the 50-year-old grumpily.

Especially since the loss of his harvest due to the drought seems like a very sad irony of fate for the fifty-year-old. Because in 2022 the opposite happened: “In March and April heavy rains fell and I’ve already lost almost 80% of my production,” he recalls. As a remnant of this episode, ditches were dug between each field. Ditches that now appear utterly useless.

Ricardo Ferri walks in his drought-stricken wheat field in Alcoy, 100 kilometers south of Valence, May 9, 2023. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

“Add to this the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which have led to an increase in production costs – fertilizers, diesel, crop protection products,” he continues. “This drought is really the death knell.”

On April 19, the three agricultural unions were received at the Ministry of Agriculture to demand “extraordinary emergency aid” for the farmers affected. Until the government decides, Ricardo Ferri can only stay afloat with the financial support of the European Union.

Increasingly intense meteorological phenomena

The farmer looks resigned in his work clothes. “Year after year we have to deal with increasingly intense meteorological phenomena,” he laments. “In forty years I have never lost a crop to rain or drought.”

“I’m not a scientist, I don’t know how this relates to climate change. What I do know is that we are now transitioning from winter to summer without a transition. It can be zero degrees, and a week later it’s almost 30 degrees. The whole system is weakened.”

However, Ricardo Ferri assures that he does not want to give up. Rather, he is planning a comprehensive realignment of his production for the time being. “Perhaps by growing other crops that survive in drier climates? Maybe by increasing olive production?” he throws. Tracks that would take a long time to put in place, but that would perhaps make it possible to adapt to an increasingly desolate terrain. According to climate experts, Spain – like the entire Mediterranean region – is one of the regions of the world that will warm up the fastest under the influence of climate change. According to the United Nations, 75% of Spanish territory could eventually become desert. In the meantime, the farmer offers to rent his agricultural machinery or do work in the fields for a meager salary.

“My mother was born here. My parents worked here. Today my son wants to take over my suite. I would be very, very happy, but you have to be sure that he can earn a living,” he concludes. Ricardo Ferri looks up at the sky again. His weather app predicts a few raindrops for the next few days. “It will be.”