Viewed in terms of land mass, Spain is one of the largest countries of Western Europe, and it ranks second in terms of its elevation, after Switzerland. A large part of the country is semiarid, with temperatures that range from extremely cold in the winter to scorching in the summer. Rainfall, which is often inadequate, tends to be concentrated in two generally brief periods during the year. Summer droughts occur frequently.
20.6 million of Spain's 50.5 million hectares of land, or about 40 percent, is suitable for cultivation. The soil is generally of poor quality, and about 10 percent of the land can be considered excellent. The roughness of the terrain has been an obstacle to agricultural mechanization and to other technological improvements. Furthermore, years of neglect have created a serious land erosion problem, most notably in the dry plains ofCastilla-La Mancha.
Compared with other West European countries, the proportion of land devoted to agricultural purposes in Spain is low. In the 1980s, about 5 million hectares were devoted to permanent crops: orchards, olive groves, andvineyards. Another 5 million lay fallow each year because of inadequate rainfall. Permanent meadows andpastureland occupied 13.9 million hectares. Forests and scrub woodland accounted for 11.9 million hectares, and the balance was wasteland or was taken up by populated and industrial areas.
The primary forms of property holding in Spain have been large estates (latifundios) and tiny land plots (minifundios). In large measure, this was still true in the 1980s. The agrarian census of 1982 found that 50.9 percent of the country's farmland was held in properties of 200 or more hectares, although farms of this size made up only 1.1 percent of the country's 2.3 million farms. At the other end of the scale, the census showed that 61.8 percent of Spain's farms had fewer than 5 hectares of land. These farms accounted for 5.2 percent of the country's farmland.
Just under 25 percent of all farms consisted of less than 1 hectare of land, and they accounted for 0.5 percent of all farmland. Minifundios were particularly numerous in the north and the northwest. Latifundios were mainly concentrated in the south, in Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura, Valencia, andAndalusia (Spanish: Andalucía).
Crop areas were farmed in two main manners. Areas relying on non-irrigated cultivation (secano), which made up 85 percent of the entire crop area, depended solely on rainfall as a source of water. They included the humid regions of the north and the northwest, as well as vast arid zones that had not been irrigated. The much more productive regions devoted to irrigated cultivation (regadio) accounted for 3 million hectares in 1986, and the government hoped that this area would eventually double, as it already had doubled since 1950. Particularly noteworthy was the development in Almeria — one of the most arid and desolate provinces of Spain — of winter crops of various fruits and vegetables for export to Europe.
Citrus fruits, vegetables, cereal grains, olive oil, and wine — Spain's traditional agricultural products — continued to be important in the 1980s. In 1983 they represented 12 percent, 12 percent, 8 percent, 6 percent, and 4 percent, respectively, of the country's agricultural production. Because of the changed diet of an increasingly affluent population, there was a notable increase in the consumption of livestock, poultry, and dairy products. Meat production for domestic consumption became the single most important agricultural activity, accounting for 30 percent of all farm-related production in 1983.
Increased attention to livestock was the reason that Spain became a net importer of grains. Ideal growing conditions, combined with proximity to important north European markets, made citrus fruits Spain's leading export. Fresh vegetables and fruits produced through intensive irrigation farming also became important export commodities, as did sunflower seed oil that was produced to compete with the more expensive olive oils in oversupply throughout the Mediterranean countries of the EC