A group of researchers from University of Granada and ‘IFAPA Camino de Purchil’ (‘Granada’) have detected the management difficulties of sloping olive groves. For this reason, they are carrying out a research project in which they propose the implementation of agricultural management techniques based on organic production model in order to improve profitability and sustainability in this type of olive grove. In fact, they claim that this way of managing the crop would help farmers to increase soil services, it would encourage enrichment of ecosystems, maintain or increase biodiversity and prevent land abandonment and rural mitigation.

At present, sloping olive grove is a type of cultivation in the Mediterranean basin characterised by a steep topography, which causes uneven elevations in the soil, making it difficult, in most cases, to access for management and control of olive grove. In addition, these uneven soil conditions contribute to poor soil quality, lack of nutrients, which will encourage the development of erosive processes and, consequently, loss of biological diversity. Moreover, in sloping olive groves, one of the most affected is the farmer, since there are processes that cannot be mechanised due to difficulty of access, which leads to low economic profitability and high production costs. The researcher, Francisco Bruno Navarro, from ‘IFAPA Camino de Purchil’ in Granada, explained to ‘Descubre’ Foundation that “for these reasons, many plots end up being abandoned. This causes the loss of socio-economic activity in different areas of sloping olive groves, such as ‘Jaén’, ‘Granada’, ‘Málaga’ and ‘Córdoba’, which account for 26% of total surface area of this crop in Andalusia (Spain)“.

Therefore, this group of scientists proposes an ecological production system with vegetation cover, that is a cover composed of living plants and biomass remains that provide numerous benefits to the crop such as protection against erosion, as they are less exposed, improvement of water balance, air quality and crop resistance to possible pests and diseases, among others. In addition to aforementioned advantages, this agricultural management model will allow farmers to carry out their work in a sustainable way, avoiding loss of income and rural abandonment.

The first step in this study was to define the type of crop that could make the slope olive grove profitable. Then, researchers evaluated the soil situation, the type of management and how it affected soil biodiversity in 20 plots in southern Spain, located in ‘Córdoba’, ‘Jaén’, ‘Granada’ and ‘Málaga’. After, they selected crops that were characterised by dry, arid and humid areas in order to compare how different forms of farm management influenced plants and agricultural production. The researchers analysed six types of cultivation in situ: organic with soil tillage, organic with spontaneous cover, conventional, conventional without tillage, abandoned and in the process of abandonment. Furthermore, they assessed the diversity of lepidoptera such as butterflies and the composition of flowers (number of families, genus and plant species) on the soil of the farm. In addition, for each type of crop, they collected information such as nutrients present in the soil, types of soil micro-organisms and their capacity to fix carbon and how they contribute to biological process to reduce harmful emissions into the atmosphere. After all the data was collected, it was entered into a digital database for statistical analysis.

Finally, results of this study determined that the current tillage system is more damaging to the soil, favouring erosive processes, while the ecological system with plant cover was considered the most sustainable alternative. In this sense, Francisco Bruno Navarro indicated, “Furthermore, if it were implemented, farmers would be able to access public financial aid for this type of crop and their production would be more profitable“. Consequently, this group of researchers points out that the next step to be taken is to check what happens on a microbiological level when the olive grove is managed under tillage, when a vegetation cover is allowed to develop or when it is abandoned. In this sense, Francisco Bruno Navarro points out the following: “We want to check how long it takes for the soil to adapt new growing conditions, define how climate influences this change and evaluate issues such as carbon fixation in order to explore all the advantages of organic and abandoned olive groves on slopes“.

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