Agriculture and its products are the backbone of the economy in Portugal. From people scratching out an existence in the soil to using machinery for the production of food, Portugal adapted to its agricultural needs. Climate change affects the direction of agriculture’s future.
Portugal’s Past Agricultural Practices
Human-like people (Homo heidelbergensis) first inhabited the area now known as Portugal approximately 400,000 years ago. Eventually, the Romans, Visigoths, and Moors occupied the land. Once the Moors came, agricultural practices began to be updated.
The Moors began to change what and how people in Portugal farmed. They introduced a large number of new crops and farming technology to the land. Sugarcane, rice, durum wheat, citrus, cotton, and figs were brought to the area.
Many of these crops needed advanced irrigation methods, water management, and improved farming technologies. People began to rotate crops, manage pests, and fertilize.
Large livestock didn’t do well in southern Portugal. Because of the dry summer weather, there wasn’t enough fodder for them. Sheep and goats were the most important farm animals. To provide enough grass for them in the summer, shepherds and goatherds moved them to higher, cooler areas in the summer.
Since the soil in the area wasn’t heavy with clay, as it was in northern Europe, draft animals such as oxen and horses weren’t needed.
The Open-Field System of Agriculture in Portugal
Before the 1800s, people used the open-field system for land management. This was a communal system. The land was shared among several farmers, but it was inefficient. There was no good system for sharing resources, and sometimes farmers had plots not connected to each other. Moving from one plot to another took up a lot of the farmer’s time.
Farmers resisted the shift from open-field to privately owned property. Once capitalism took hold though, people lost their securities in the open-field system. They couldn’t guarantee where they could plant.
A lack of nitrogen-rich manure to fertilize the land was another problem that plagued farming. Farm productivity suffered.
Agriculture Under Military Dictatorship
Farming life was glorified under dictatorial rule, from 1926 until 1974. Large plots of land were held by people who were useful to the dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar. Most of these landowners were absentee owners.
Salazar applied tight control over everything, including agricultural output. He muzzled the press. He blocked trade unions. And he kept most of the country’s people poor and illiterate. In 1967, yearly income was about $420. To compare, in the United States, it was $9,420.
In 1966, the Secretary of State for the Economy, Correia de Oliveira, said, “We based our industrial development on low wages, and these on low food prices, which were in turn based on fixed and frozen prices for agricultural products. Having been maintained for so long, these prices have discouraged investment in the agricultural sector.” (See this thesis for info)
When Portugal overthrew dictator rule, large agricultural estates were split into small farms. This weakened productivity. Eventually, the government reversed this policy, but farming plots stayed small and inefficient for years.
In modern times, farming practices have greatly improved.
Agriculture in Present-Day Portugal
Until recently, most agricultural practices were highly traditional. However, farmers invested in and adopted new technology in the past decade or two. These include irrigation, soil mobilization, pest and disease control, and fertilization.
The Most Popular Crops
To become more competitive with the rest of Europe, farmers began changing some of their crops. They also updated farming practices to better meet European standards. These changes enabled Portuguese farmers to increase their output and become more efficient.
Major crops today include:
- Cereals (wheat, barley, corn, rice)
More than ⅓ of Portugal is forests:
- Pine and Eucalyptus timber
- Near the coast – sardines, anchovies, and tuna
- In the north Atlantic – codfish
- Castelo Branco
- Saloio (unsalted sheeps’ milk cheese)
- Santarém cheese (goats’ milk)
- Serra da Estrella
Pork and Beef
Family farms make up about 90% of the farms in Portugal. However, the income from each farm is very small. Most income from very small and small family farms comes from retirement pensions. That’s because family farmers are aging. Medium and large farms make incomes from agriculture.
More than half of the farmers in Portugal are older than 65, but young people are becoming interested in agriculture these days. They bring new ideas with them to the farms, so now more farms are diversified.
Rather than focusing on just one crop, farmers now plant several crops. The export market for fruits and vegetables is growing. Cereal grains and oilseeds are not yet meeting the demands of the Portuguese people, but their production is rising.
Austerity gardens, what we call community gardens in the U.S., are gaining in popularity. These are plots of up to 150 square meters (1600 square feet) rented to people on the edges of a city where they can grow food to offset their grocery bills.
The average salary in Lisbon is 910 Euros per month ($1,067), less in more rural or smaller areas. The Portuguese minimum wage is 635 Euros ($745) per month.
If people can save about 100-150 Euros ($120-175) per month in food, that makes a HUGE difference.
Agricultural Regions of Portugal
Mainland Portugal can be divided into three regions for agriculture. In addition, The Azores and Madiera Islands are fertile and productive.
In the north, the climate is rainy and moderately cool. It’s a mountainous region with about 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of cultivated land. This region produces the grapes to make port, a sweet wine. At some point, I’ll write a separate post about port wine. Olives also grow in this region.
The central area has about 75,000 hectares (185,500 acres) of farming land. The rolling hills are good for tree crops, and fertile soil lies along the riverbanks. Otherwise, the land has poor, dry soil. With irrigation, this soil produces wheat, corn, sunflowers, and rice.
In the south, the Alentejo region produces about 75% of the country’s wheat. It has about 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of fertile land with poor soil. This region makes Portugal the number one producer of cork, producing over 50% of the world’s supply. I’ll write a post about it in the future – the cork harvest is an interesting process.
The Azores islands are mostly agricultural. Some islands depend on producing dairy and meat. Others rely on fishing, whaling, cattle-raising, and small-scale agriculture of tea, tobacco, sugar beets, and vegetables. Madeira islands rely on wine, bananas, sugarcane, fishing, and whaling.
Farming Technology and Initiatives
Within the past decade, Portugal launched an initiative to make unused/unowned land available to rent for farming purposes. Another initiative gives private landowners tax incentives to rent unused land to farmers. One key reason for this is to increase the size of agricultural plots. This makes them more profitable and reduces costs.
Farm machinery, irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers, and hybrid seeds are some examples of technology used for agriculture in Portugal. These have all made food production more efficient, both in terms of labor and time saved.
But sometimes, the old practices show us a way forward.
The Future of Portugal’s Agriculture
Bringing trees back to European farmlands is on the rise. No matter what size farm, its design, the crops and animals on it, or what trees the farmer likes the best make a difference. Agroforestry – growing trees and shrubs along with crops or livestock – brings many advantages to the farm.
This is not a new idea. People used to do it long ago, but it’s making a comeback.
The Benefits of Agroforestry
Trees help manage nutrients in the ground, help with pest control, save the variety of life in that area, and help the climate.
Agroforestry can help prevent soil erosion, improve the fertility of the soil, and increase the number of plants and animals in the region. Trees help the soil hold onto water, cool the area, and act as windbreaks. Oftentimes, trees help block the spread of diseases and fungi.
By increasing the number and types of plants and animals, or the biodiversity, of an area, predatory birds and insects help decrease pests.
Lots of studies have shown that agroforestry can keep a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere. With decomposing leaves, twigs, sticks, and roots, fertilizer use can be decreased, cutting down on farm emissions.
As the climate changes and the earth gets hotter, much of southern Europe, including Portugal, will be affected. Agroforestry will help reduce many of the problems of climate change.
Not all farmers are ready for this future. After all, “This is the way we’ve always done it, and we like it!” is a common barrier. Other reasons are not having the knowledge needed to choose the trees and shrub and not knowing where to plant them for maximum benefit.
In the EU, direct farming subsidies can be decreased if there are “too many trees” on farmland. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is slowly changing as agroforestry is becoming more mainstream.
I read a report on the projected changes in agriculture in Portugal between 1990 and 2080. I’ll try to sum it up here, but if you want more information you can read about it here.
Climate change vulnerabilities include fruit and olive crops. Fruit trees need cold weather to prepare to bud in the spring. They also need warm weather to bloom and ripen. Climate change will decrease the amount of cold and increase the amount of heat. This will greatly decrease fruit production, especially for apples, cherries, and chestnuts. The northeastern region will increase in heat but only slightly decrease the amount of cooler weather – no major impact expected.
Olive production will drop. Many farms may be abandoned by the year 2080.
With increased heat comes more water evaporation. This means there will be water scarcity for crops. The study made these suggestions:
- Change from gravity irrigation to drip or sprinkler irrigation
- Leave some of the previous season’s crop residue on top of the soil
- Plant native trees or grasses
- Conserve water as possible
- Change crops
- Plant short-season crops earlier to avoid the summer heat
- Use land management techniques better adapted to water scarcity
- Use Biotechnology
- Increase storage capacity for surface and groundwater
- Harvest rainwater
- Desalinate seawater for use
- Remove invasive vegetation
- Pump deep wells
The Portuguese government will also have to adapt current policies to help farmers.
- Encourage flexible land use, crop production, farming systems, etc.
- Adjust limits for the emission of greenhouse gasses
- Motivate farmers to plant energy crops to substitute for fossil fuels
- Work with the EU to develop rules that fit the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)
No matter how you look at it, agriculture in Portugal is constantly changing. The more people learn to adapt to their environment, the more changes happen.
The idea for this article came from Angie. She wanted to know about agriculture in Portugal, so I researched and wrote what I found out.
Is there anything that you would like more information on? Some burning questions about Portugal, its history, its culture, its food, or its people? If so, let me know. I’ll be happy to find the answers for you.
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