Green gold and greener fields. Why olive farmers are embracing regenerative agriculture

by Arlene Barclay | Sep 27, 2023

Fermín Ibáñez Guzmán is the manager of Nava, a farm situated in the Andalusia region of Southern Spain. Since 2019, Nava has been embracing a new kind of agriculture. Together with his brother José, the two are actively building back life through regenerative management.

We spoke with Fermín to understand his motivations, learnings, and the steps he took to transition.

Farmer
Fermín Ibáñez Guzmán

Location
Jaén, Andalusia, Southern Spain

Type of farm
Olive cultivation (Secano)

Produce
Organic olive oil

Farm name
Nava

Farm size
100 hectares

Social structure
Family run

Sales channels
Direct marketing & cooperatives

The problem facing olive growers in Southern Spain

Nava was purchased by Fermín’s parents in 1975. They initially grew cereals and grains, but little by little, they started planting olive trees. Eventually, the 100-hectare plot consisted entirely of olive cultivation.

Nicknamed the olive oil capital of the world, the Jaén province of Spain is home to one-fifth of the global supply of “green gold”. With its ‘monocultivos absolutos’ – vast seas of olive deserts dominate the landscape.

With scorched soil and consistent drought, farmers dread to think about what lies ahead for the one-crop economy of Jaén.

Fermín and his family realised that with increasing climate stresses, something needed to change. That change was regenerative agriculture.

“As a farmer, I know the best way to use natural resources is through regenerative agriculture. If there is no soil, there is no agriculture.”

Fermín’s transition to regenerative agriculture

Fermín started implementing regenerative techniques in 2019. He had no idea other people were practising this kind of farming – there wasn’t a name attached to it that he knew of, just a gut feeling that he needed to give back to the land rather than take from it.

“Regenerative agriculture was something that convinced me, little by little, without knowing there were people practising this type of farming. There is an intuition that tells you you are not doing something right.”

Transition start date
Approximately 2019.

New practices
No-till, cover crops, integration of organic matter and other types of residues, and no chemical inputs. Creation of biodiversity habitats.

Necessary investment costs
Grass cutters / 20.000 €.
Spreader trailer / 9.000 €.
Investment in training

Main practices previously
Tillage, synthetic fertilisers, and herbicide application where the plough couldn’t reach.

Challenges
Reintegration of animals, drought, and poor soil health in the province. Additional work hours.

Together with his brother José, they’re optimising Nava all the way from business management to soil microbiology. If he had one piece of advice to share with farmers considering the change, it would be:

“It is essential to have a good understanding of how the soil works and to have some basic knowledge of chemistry and biology. Once you understand how a living organism like soil works, things take care of themselves.”

The benefits of regenerative agriculture at Nava

From reducing input costs, increasing ecosystem health, and redefining his role as a farmer, Fermín has observed countless benefits on his path to regeneration.

Farm profitability
– Higher margins for olive oil
– Reduced costs on the farm

“The herbicide and fertiliser calculation is based on prices from 3 years ago. Nowadays, they can be three times that price.”

Ecological benefits
A 1% increase in organic matter. Biodiversity is more noticeable, both in macro and microfauna. Fewer incidences of pests.

Yield and produce quality
“Productivity has not been affected at any time. Quality is that of a toxic-free product.”

Cost reductions
Diesel consumption / 2,000 litres saved per year.
Herbicides and fertilisers / 10.000€ net savings per year.

Social impact

“On a personal level, there is a feeling of greater connection to the soil and nature.”

Further expected benefits
Soil restoration compensated via Carbon+ Credits.

Higher nutrient content combined with lower environmental impact will result in increased margins.

Fermín’s thoughts on the Carbon+ Program

Although he’s achieved brilliant results, Fermín states that obstacles remain. He’s utilising our Carbon+ Program to advance the regeneration of Nava and overcome those obstacles.

A key part of this will be integrating additional practices and further restoring the soil.

Planned additional practices

Animal integration, organic matter application, agroforestry, cover crops, and mulching.

Thoughts on the Carbon+ Program

“A benefit of the program is that you cannot lose money, you can only make it. There are no signup costs. If something goes wrong, you are in the same position as when you signed up. It is very low risk.”

Closing remarks

Nava’s journey from ‘monocultivos absolutos’ to regeneration is something to be applauded. But it’s also a powerful reminder that it’s more than possible.

The scorched soil and consistent drought in the Jaén region rightfully has farmers worried about what lies ahead. Fermín’s approach demonstrates that an alternative is available.

By making the change now, farmers will be significantly better positioned down the line.

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