Spotlight

The forgotten victims of Filomena

13 July 2021

Author: Leah Pattem

In January, Storm Filomena brought the capital to a standstill. While we were building snowmen, snowboarding through the streets and carving makeshift paths for the elderly, there was something we completely overlooked: the countryside.

Tomorrow, a convoy of tractors will arrive in Madrid towing two dead olive trees – not just to reminisce about Storm Filomena, but to show the national government that her effects lasted for more than two weeks. In fact, they never went away.

Storm Filomena arrives in Toledo and covers the olive groves and vineyards.
Animal footprints can be seen in the snow.

“We have lost a quarter of our olive trees,” explains Laura García, co-owner of Proyecto Los Aires‘ 300-year-old olive groves. “The problem wasn’t even the two days of snow, it was the freezing temperatures that lasted for two weeks. This is the first time this region has seen anything like it since this grove was planted.”

Only 4% of olive farmers in Spain can afford insurance – which, as Laura explains, is unreasonably expensive. This leads farmers to take great risks to ensure production. “Philomena left us with more damage than we could have imagined and we need the government’s help.”

Laura’s 300-year-old olive grove today.

The president of the Union of Unions of Castilla-La Mancha, Andrés García Vaquero, says that after the union organised a convoy of tractors to the ancient city of Toledo last month, the government has agreed to grant aid worth €18 million, but Andrés says it’s not enough. As he explains, the allocated funds don’t cover the next five years, during which the olive trees will be unproductive.

With the €18 million put on the table so far, and taking into account that there are 72,000 hectares affected, farmers only come out with €250 per hectare. That sum doesn’t even cover the pruning work that has been done on the few trees that survived despite the frost damage.

Some trees survived.
Some trees have partial damage, which can be seen where the leaves are dry and brown.
Laura inspects a damaged, pruned olive tree.

As we drive through the fields, Andrés explains that – because the storm affected only a very specific geographical area – the Filomena damage will not lead to an increase in the price of olive oil. That is perhaps why their plight is receiving so little attention from the government, the press, the public and even other farmers around Spain.

What is often overlooked is that the young farmers, many of whom only recently took out loans and made huge investments in their new farms, simply don’t have the funds to replant.

Dead olive trees.
Dried and brittle olive leaves on a 100-year-old tree.

Guillermo Sánchez, Laura’s partner, took over the management of the family grapevines a few years ago. Last year, the couple began producing wine for sale. “I can sell a kilo of grapes for 30 cents, but it costs me 60 cents to produce them,” says Guillermo. “What am I even doing? You would think I’m insane. But I can’t leave my vines or they’ll get out of control or die – both will cause more problems, including plagues.”

“Thousands of hectares of damaged crops are being abandoned and will quickly become a source of plagues,” explains Andrés, pointing to a neighbour’s 200-year-old olive grove. “If the farmers give up and leave their groves to go wild, they become a hotbed for pests that affect olive trees. When those pests flourish there and go on to infect other active groves, it has a knock-on effect on the whole region.”

Andrés points to dead olive trees.
A grove of dead olive trees.

Filomena may be the problem that these farmers are currently facing, but it is just the latest in a series of issues they have been struggling with for many years.

“The rabbits they introduced for the lynxes are meant to be eaten by humans, not lynxes. They’re bigger in size and produce larger litters, and they like the lower-lying areas where the crops are grown,” explains Andrés, pointing to a rabbit hole in the middle of his vineyard. “In the area immediately surrounding the rabbit’s house, the vines are bare. They like the little fresh shoots. They’re eaten before there’s even a chance to grow.”

An opening in the vineyard surrounding the rabbit holes.
Storm-damaged vines try to grow back from the roots, but the new shoots are eaten by rabbits.
Storm damage: grapes are much smaller than they should be at this time of year.

The solution, as Andrés explains, is twofold: “Firstly, the population of this specific invasive rabbit must be controlled, and the native one reintroduced, which lives higher up near where the lynxes roam and doesn’t eat the crops. Secondly, farmers must be provided with the resources to prune or replant their crops.” Here is the union’s manifesto.

“It’s not just about the farmers, it’s about the workers too,” explains Laura. “This year, they had a lot of work because they had to do a lot of cutting and burning. But next year, and for the next five, six or even seven years, they’ll have no work. They’ll have to abandon the countryside and move to the city, further exacerbating the problem of la España vaciada,” a term used to refer to depopulated areas of rural Spain.

Guille and Laura under an ancient olive tree
Guille and Laura under one of their centenarian olive trees six years ago.

Originally from Madrid, the young couple moved from the capital to the countryside seven years ago. “Before that, we were both working several jobs just to pay the rent. I was working in a hospital and suffering from constant migraines,” says Laura. “The 2008 financial crisis hit us hard and we couldn’t find a stable job – despite having four masters between the two of us.”

Guille explains: “I always had it in the back of my mind that I would recover my grandfather’s olive grove in Toledo. We were so happy to be a part of reversing la España vaciada.” The couple now have two young children, and Laura’s parents have moved from Madrid to the village in order to be near their grandchildren.

“We grew the business slowly. We converted our olive trees to organic farming, we began doing tours and tastings, and we slowly scaled up production by hiring more workers. It was exciting – we’ve had visitors from all around the world and sell our oil to restaurants all over Europe. Our olive oil is in the top 20 olive oils in the world,” Guille says proudly.

Lunch at the olive grove
A few years ago, Laura and Guille’s olive grove was a paradise of greenery, and they held tastings among the bushy trees.
The same view as in the previous photo but with the trees destroyed.

Filomena has devastated this area.

The farmers union has launched a campaign called “For a Future,” which will take the form of a convoy of tractors driving from Toledo to Madrid this Wednesday morning. “We’ll begin driving tonight, as the journey takes eight hours in a tractor,” explains Guille. “I’m nervous but excited.”

At 10.30 am, this convoy will be joined at Plaza Elíptica by other vehicles travelling from all over Spain. Together, they will then travel to the gates of the Ministry of Agriculture, opposite Atocha station, where the tractorada (tractor convoy) is expected to arrive at 11 am.

“We’re bringing some of the dead trees with us so the people of the city can see what is happening out here with their own eyes,” says Guille. “This isn’t just for the future of the farmers. It’s for the future of Spain.”

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