Crop yields and animal productivity in Portugal are well below the EU average because of low agricultural investment, minimal mechanization, little use of fertilizers, and the fragmented land-tenure system. The main crops grown in Portugal are cereals (wheat, barley, corn [maize], and rice), potatoes, grapes (for wine), olives, and tomatoes. Since 1999, Portuguese farmers have planted genetically modified corn. Portugal is among the world’s largest exporters of tomato paste and is a leading exporter of wines. Port and muscatel, both dessert wines, are among Portugal’s most famous varieties of wine. In mainland Portugal, where there are nearly 50 demarcated wine regions, viticulture is a dominant activity; many people also work in the industry on the island of Madeira, where investment in vinification techniques has sustained the renown of Madeira wines. Newer crops include sunflowers, and Portugal also produces large quantities of fruits (oranges and apples). The country’s agricultural exports help offset the cost of imported wheat and meat. Nearly one-third of Portugal’s land area is used for agriculture.
Small farms predominate, particularly in the north, where they are too small and made up of too many dispersed holdings to allow integrated farming and rational crop rotation. In the south (except for the Algarve region) before 1975, intensive cultivation was prevented by the system of latifúndios, or large estates, which were owned by absentee landlords who had no interest in making capital investment in machinery, fertilizers, and other items that would increase productivity. After the 1974 revolution, agrarian reforms were implemented south of the Tagus, where about 3.2 million acres (1.3 million hectares) of land in large holdings were expropriated (with compensation) and nationalized. The policy was aimed at, among other things, destroying the latifúndio system, changing the tenancy system, handing uncultivated land back to the people, abolishing quitrent (rent paid by peasants to use royal or state-owned land or property), increasing the irrigated area, introducing new crops, intensifying the output of fodder and cereals, and developing livestock. A large part of the nationalized land was turned over to collective and cooperative production units. The hasty transition, however, precipitated political tension and a decline in the agricultural output of the Alentejo region. The land redistribution policy was reversed after 1976, as succeeding governments sought to encourage modernization and higher productivity by a return to private ownership. Agricultural subsidies were made available, though not all farmers took advantage of them. The Alqueva Dam—criticized for its destruction of a significant amount of rock art and rare fauna and flora, including some one million trees—began operations in 2002 and provides irrigation to southern Portugal.
Sheep, pigs, and cattle are among the country’s leading livestock. Beef cattle, dairying, and wool production contribute to Portugal’s economy, though their relative importance varies by region.
About two-fifths of Portugal is wooded, and the majority of its forests are privately owned (among the highest proportions in Europe). Most of the mountainous areas are well suited to forestry, and the demand for forest products has prompted considerable reforestation efforts since the last quarter of the 19th century in areas where crop yields are low and where erosion tends to be severe. The pulp and paper industry contributes significantly to the economy. Portugal is a leading producer of cork, which has become a significant export. Eucalyptus plantations cover about one-seventh of forest land, and pine is also importan