In the heart of empty Spain: The uncertain future of olive oil

“It has stopped raining, and there is no more water in the ground.” That’s what a Spanish olive oil producer recently told our PhD student Léa Lamotte. On the heels of her research on cocoa in Ecuador, she is now uncovering the realities of olive oil production in Spain. Join her on a trip through sparsely populated landscapes that produce olive oil for a large part of the world market, and learn more about the challenges facing Spanish cultivators.

Léa Lamotte

We chat around a table at the back of an Irish pub in Madridejos, Spain. It’s one of the only bars still in active in this small town of about ten thousand inhabitants in the province of Toledo – south of Madrid, just over an hour by car. There are a few regulars leaning against the bar counter, sipping a caña, a glass of beer, sometimes accompanied by a tapa, in this case a small sandwich, toasted bread, a drizzle of olive oil, and a few pieces of calamari. Outside, it is raining lightly.

It was mid-December, and I had come to learn about the olive harvest and olive oil production, then in full swing.

When Raúl Tendero arrives, before he sits down, he tells me he usually doesn't have time to go out anymore. Because he often works in the fields until 9 pm. He has taken over the agricultural work of his father – and of all the men in his family before him. He is now the owner of the family’s olive trees and wine vineyards, the two traditional crops of the region. His two sisters have gone to live far from the fields. But Raúl, with his calm voice, explains simply: “a mí me gusta mucho el campo, es lo que me ensañaba mi padre, no me he imaginado hacienda otra cosa“(“I like the countryside very much, it's what my father taught me, I could never imagine doing anything else”).

He is not quite 40 years old, making him one of the youngest farmers in the area. He likes to ride his bike along the straight roads that cut through the countryside, but he hardly has time “de vivir un poco la vida” (“to live life a little bit”).

Raúl in his olive groves with the machine he uses to knock the olives from the tree. Photo: Rodri Peña

The industrialization of a traditional crop

Raúl has a lot of farmland, but as is often the case in Spain, it is dispersed: 50 hectares here, 10 hectares there, another 25 over there... Inherited from the traditional system of equitable sharing of the land between all the descendants in a farming family, the fragmentation of the land draws out the landscape and necessarily complicates his work, because he must move the machines and drive more. And gasoline is expensive. He explains that in some of the surrounding villages, the farmers arrange directly between themselves to regroup the lands. For example, the dispersed land of olive trees is exchanged for wine vineyards nearby the main agricultural areas.

Raúl says that to survive today a farmer needs to have large surface areas – that means more aid from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). According to the CAP, producers receive money based on the number of hectares they have. So, in addition to the land bequeathed by his father, Raúl rents some land, or barters for access: in exchange for working the land of a neighbour who is now too old or simply uninterested, Raúl receives a portion of the rents from the harvest and the aid from the CAP. Raúl also bought a new piece of land for about EUR 30,000.

As the olive tree is a key resource for Spain, the 2023–2027 Spanish Strategic Plan – articulating the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) at the national level – emphasizes maintenance of the traditional olive tree. It will distribute EUR 30 million per year to producer organizations fulfilling specific conditions: rainfed olive groves, plantation density per hectare of between 30 trees minimum and 100 trees maximum; average age of plantation greater than 10 years.


In this way, Raúl has increased the agricultural area that he uses: in total, he estimates that he works about 250 hectares. On average, CAP financial aid makes up almost 30% of eligible olive producers’ income. Spain originally adopted the CAP when it joined the European Economic Community in 1986. The 2023–2027 CAP strategy is now adapted in the form of a strategic plan adjusted to each EU member country. Over time, this shared European policy has become essential to the survival of agriculture in the EU.

With the CAP and the adoption of modern industrial agriculture, cultivation practices have changed a lot. In the case of the traditional olive tree, its agrobiodiverse, multifunctional role – as wood to make furniture, oil to make light – is gradually withering away. Instead, a logic of productivity and profitability has been put in place. This has translated into adoption of intensive and super-intensive olive trees. This goes hand in hand with increases in the number of olive trees per hectare, development of irrigation systems that draw on groundwater, and use of machines for harvesting. It also results in concentration of certain varieties of olive trees and standardized application of chemical treatments that contribute to deterioration of the environment.

Organic production for ecological and economic reasons

In his fields, Raúl mainly has olive trees of the Cornicabra variety: "la variedad desde siempre" (“the variety since forever”), he says, as well as vineyards. Not long ago, he planted almond trees, and even more recently, some pistachio trees – a profitable crop, since pistachio is expensive and the tree is resistant to wide variations in temperature. These new crops have replaced the oats, lentils, and wheat that were also once produced in the area.

All Raúl’s production is certified, according to European organic standards. It is a choice he took mostly for “el tema personal de ser ecológico, de cuidar a la naturazela” (“the personal theme of being ecological, of taking care of nature”). And, also, “porque es más rentable” (“because it is more profitable").

View of Raúl’s olive fields...
...and olives on the ground. Leaves are later separated from olives. Photos : Léa Lamotte

Working together in the endless fields of olive trees

Raúl works mostly alone throughout the year, even if his father, who is retired, is always there to give a hand. He would like to hire a permanent employee. In any case, whether for grapes or olives, at harvest time he needs additional help. So he hires temporary workers, often foreigners from Morocco and Romania. Indeed, the production of olive oil employs more than 2 million workers per year in Spain, between the harvest in the fields, production in the “almazaras” (“oil mills”), and the “entamadoras” – i.e. companies dedicated to table olives.

In the harvest period, the workday starts around 8 am. When I first came to visit Raúl’s olive fields – where he is joined again this season by workers Mickie, Theo, and Rodri – I initially noticed the absence of barriers to delimit his olive trees from those of his neighbour. Then, amidst the rows and rows of trees, my attention was gradually drawn to the colours on display – the orange of the stones, the dark green of the foliage, the grey of the sky.

Next, I noticed the monotonous, steady hum of the harvesting machines, composed of an automatic handle that looks like a comb, which knocks the olives from their branches. It is physically demanding work: while Theo and Raúl knock the olives off a tree, Mickie and Rodri move two large nets surrounding the trunk of a harvested tree to the next tree still full of fruit. Once the nets are sufficiently filled, Mickie and Rodri gather the fruits of the harvest on another white plastic sheet, which Raúl picks up with a tractor. He puts everything in a big trailer. Then, he quickly takes them to the local oil mill.

As often, the mill works on a cooperative model, with several farmers who come together and create a cooperative to grind their olives using the same equipment. In fact, more than 70% of Spanish olive oil is produced in these cooperatives, whose operation is governed by laws at the national level. Most of the olive oil produced that way is then sold “wholesale” and exported to the USA, Japan, or other European countries like France and Italy.  

From a collective work to a noisy reality

In Madridejos, everyone I met told stories about the olive harvest. It is present in people’s collective and individual memory. The agricultural practices of fifty years ago or more are remembered as bygone, idyllic, collective celebrations, for example when workers used a "vara", a long wooden stick, to tap the branches of the olive tree and make the olives fall, while singing and eating all together.

Today's reality: a continuous noise of the machines. Photos: Léa Lamotte and Rodri Peña

Today, even if the continuous noise of the machines prevents the workers from talking to each other, Raúl takes care that Mickie, Theo and Rodri have regular breaks. A first coffee break around 10:30 am, and a lunch break starting around 2:30 pm. Work stops at nightfall. It’s not gruelling, but it is repetitive. It’s not that cold, but the workers are out all day, and the nets filled with olives are quite heavy.

I talk with Mickie, a woman in her forties, full of energy. She comes from Romania and has been living in Madridejos with her husband for over 25 years. She has been working with Raúl for many years, and her physical strength and sense of organization are highly valuable. Theo does not speak much. He is also of Romanian origin and has been living in Spain for a long time. Finally, Rodri. A young Spaniard in his thirties with a degree in social anthropology. He comes every year to make some money working with Raúl. His parents live in Madridejos, so it is a good opportunity for him to spend some time with them – the rest of the year, he lives in Seville.

An uncertain future

When I ask Raúl what future he sees for the olive tree and the production of Spanish olive oil, he answers without batting an eyelid: "un suicidio, una locura", a suicide, a madness – even though, as he also says: "El olivo, es lo más importante que hay aquí" (“the olive tree is the most important thing we have here”).

Mickie takes care of the olives in the nets. Photo: Rodri Peña

He mentions climate change, which is straining the olive tree’s limits of resilience. "Si los olivos aguantan y nos dan de comer, a lo peor producen menos..." (“if olive trees endure and feed us, at worst they will produce less...”). But not all the olive trees have been able to withstand recent particularly long and intense extreme weather events. Indeed, in January 2021, the snowstorm Filomena, which hit central Spain, killed hundreds of trees. “Por primera vez, la gente vio morir olivos. Normalmente, el olivo no muere”, Rodri says ("For the first time, people saw olive trees die. Normally, the olive tree does not die").

But above all, what worries Raúl most is that "dejó de llover; y no hay más agua en el suelo" (“it has stopped raining; and there is no more water in the ground”). This is particularly concerning because, as he explains, the new ultra-intensive production of olives – based on replacing centenarian olive trees with young super-productive trees – requires irrigation: “los olivos superproductivos, con sus vidas útiles de 25 años, necesitan agua, pero producen mucho más» (“Super-productive olive trees are useful for 25 years, need water, but produce much more”).

Towards “Adiós muchachos”?

Further south, in Andalusia, these fixed, steady witnesses to Spain’s history and generations are also being uprooted to plant solar panels instead. This also seems to go against the strength of the collective and individual memories intertwined around the tree and its products. Since Roman times, olive trees have shaped the Spanish landscape, and in rural areas, many families still own a few olive trees, preparing their own olive oil. In this way, the sector is pulled between advancing towards modern intensive production systems and maintaining traditional olive groves, a source of wealth in rural areas, but also a hallmark of cultural and social identity in many Spanish regions.

There are other mounting reasons that complicate the medium-term outlook for the olive tree and olive production, as Raúl quietly asserts: the increase in the price of gasoline and fertilizers linked to the war in Ukraine, and the disappearance of farmers. The rural exodus has massive. Few young people dream of being farmers; it is rarely perceived as an attracting profession. Moreover, according to Raúl, the arrival of new farmers in Madridejos is unlikely, since it requires owning a lot of land, knowing how to handle large agricultural machinery, and also being able to integrate into village life, a tightly knit social system. In conclusion, he says: "Dentro de treinta años, habrá tres agricultores que se repartirán toda la tierra de la región“ (“In thirty years, there will be three farmers who will divide all the land in the region among themselves”).

Spain is the world’s leading producer and exporter of olive oil. Indeed, it produces more than 51% of the world’s olive oil, and Spanish olive groves continue to expand. Moreover, almost 80% of its oil is destined for foreign markets – over one million tons in the 2020–2021 season. Olive oil ranks third among Spain’s most important agri-food exports, behind pork and citrus.

But the situation is not without drawbacks. First, the duality of the farming system – with intensive and super-intensive olive farms versus traditional, lower yield farms – is a challenge.  Although still a minority, the super-intensive olive groves that drive industrialized high-yield production are on the rise. It has negative consequences on the environment and agrobiodiversity.

Spain’s dependence and Italian brands

Additionally, in some regions, particularly in Andalusia, the olive monocultures create profound dependence on production of a single crop, which necessarily varies from one year to another. This makes the olive oil price very volatile and farmers’ lives more unpredictable.

Moreover, the added value of selling olive oil through brand positioning is often lost, because most Spanish exports occur in bulk. For instance, Spanish olive oil is sold to Italian markets in bulk, with Italian brands packaging it and selling it under their own label.

In this way, the Spanish olive oil sector is characterized by fragmentation, including industries ranging from oil mills and refineries to bottling enterprises.  

More information (in Spanish)

Street of Madridejos in December 2022. Photo: Léa Lamotte

Rural exodus and Spain’s development

One day after my exchange with Raúl, I walk through the streets of Madridejos. They are almost empty, silent. There are shuttered houses, and some elderly residents. Before, in the 1980s, there were two cinemas and a discotheque where the most famous singers from all Spain performed. It is difficult to picture now. Under the Franco regime and then trends of urbanization and industrialization, Spain’s rural exodus was more intense than that of other European countries, and today’s deserted streets attest to its consequences.

In Spain, the hinterland is mostly depopulated. Wealth is concentrated in a few large metropolitan areas. In some regions, the population density is comparable to that of northern Sweden, with less than 30 people per square kilometre – far the European Union average of 177 people per square kilomere. This phenomenon was dubbed “La España vacía” – “Empty Spain” – by Sergio del Molino, a Spanish writer, in 2016. He describes rural territories as characterized by precarious economic situations and a gradual over-masculinization of the population.

The high prices of Spanish olive oil currently prohibit most Spaniards from buying good quality olive oil from their own country. In an effort to fight inflation linked with the Ukrainian war, the Spanish government has lowered the Value Added Tax (VAT) rate on necessities, but olive oil is not considered a basic need like bread, for which VAT has been temporarily eliminated. So, olive oil offers an example of the paradox of a country whose domestic consumers lack access to a product from their own territories.


The sky is low, the countryside is flat, interrupted by some points on the horizon – windmills. This is rural Spain – a world away, yet not so far from Toledo and Madrid. This is a Spain where people’s modest conditions belie their generosity. I was welcomed with open arms, sliced Manchego cheese preserved in a jar of olive oil, delicious tortilla de patatas, and infinite kindness.

View of the countryside and the famous windmills of La Mancha. Photos: Léa Lamotte

The author

Léa Lamotte is a PhD student at CDE, working in the project "Deliberative diets - scenarios for a sustainable food system". Her research takes her to Ecuador and Spain, where she investigates how co-creating knowledges about chocolate and olive oil with the consumers can modify their purchasing and eating behaviors, even in their kitchens. In her Blog posts, which she dedicates to the persons she writes about, she brings us along on the journey and reflects on the realities she meets.