Agricultural co-op sowing seeds for a richer future

Talk to any manager of an agricultural co-operative at present and you’ll probably hear the same tale of woe. These are challenging times for farmers the world over,...

Talk to Pep Piñel and you’ll get much the same story. The difference is that he’s the young and ambitious boss of a co-operative on a Mediterranean island more famous for its tourism than its agricultural trade. The bad news for him is that orange and lemon prices are falling. If there’s any good news, it’s an improvement in the market for olive oil.  

Sr. Piñel, aged 35, has just taken over as manager of the Cooperativa Agrícola Sant Bartomeu in Sóller, a handsome and relatively prosperous town near the north west coast of Mallorca. The co-operative, with 393 members, was founded more than a century ago and has an annual turnover of about €1.5 million.

Traditional production centres on citrus fruits from the Sóller valley’s countless orange and lemon groves, together with premium oil from olive groves — many of them centuries old — high up in the surrounding Tramuntana mountains.

The oranges are mainly sold across the island to produce fresh juice, while the olive oil is distributed to Mallorca’s shops and restaurants as regular, virgin and extra virgin, with a new gourmet line of unfiltered extra virgin recently introduced. 

There’s also a modest output of pickled olives and marmalade, though to British palates the latter is probably best described as orange jam, as the local varieties are far too luscious and sweet to produce the tanginess that our tastebuds normally associate with marmalade. 

Sr. Piñel hails from the mainland, where he studied engineering and food processing at university, and one of his first priorities is to learn Mallorquin, a dialect of Catalan. “It’s the only language some of our members out in the mountains understand,” he admits.

Another priority is to draw up an ecological plan, setting out the advantages that will persuade members to become more aware of organic farming — a trend he is certain Spain will follow more closely as consumer demands change.

The island is already enjoying something of a culinary revolution as more discerning visitors seek out restaurants and outlets with the best traditional local cuisine, which in turn is encouraging producers to invest in future development.

An outstanding recent example of the reviving interest in local food was a Festival of Oranges which the co-op organised jointly with the local councils. One Saturday this spring Sóller’s busy main square was filled with stalls where tourists jostled with residents to sample dishes containing ingredients from the area.

A longer-term goal will be investigating alternative energy sources. Sr. Piñel would like to set up solar power units on the roofs of his co-op buildings, as he’s conscious of all the electricity consumed by the olive oil pressing and bottling equipment and the cleaning and sorting machinery for the citrus fruit. Converting the waste products from the olive oil pressing into a fuel that can be burned is another ambition, though he accepts this might be a challenge too far with current concerns about carbon emissions.

Sr. Piñel is also keen to reopen the export market for citrus fruit. This trade rejuvenated the Sóller valley a century ago when fruit shipments to France brought so much wealth to the town that its citizens could open their own bank and build a private railway through the mountains to Palma, improving communications with an area formerly so remote that it had become known as ‘the island within the island’.  

Affectionately called the ‘Orange Express’, the private train still survives, though day-tripping tourists have replaced the crates of citrus fruit trundling along its tracks to the Mallorcan capital.

As for the export of oranges, all that now exists is a small trade with Germany organised jointly with another local business as an internet joint venture. The co-op would like to see the fruit returning to France and has ambitions of extending sales to Britain too.

The co-op already attracts some visitors to a small wholesale/retail outlet situated on the premises, which sells its own produce and other groceries to restaurants and local people in the know. Sr. Piñel has plans to open a museum of local farming in an adjacent building and hopes this will attract more visitors, who in turn will buy more produce. 

If all goes to plan, this co-operative may one day become a tourist attraction in its own right. 

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