AGRICULTURAL DISCOVERIES – Rice and Cotton Growing in Andalucia

On one of our discovery trips we went towards Sevilla through the countryside which brings you to the wetlands and river delta of the Rio Guadalquivir and the Brazo de la Torre. There we found to our delight and amazement, considering the drought conditions around our area, extensive cotton and rice fields. And also a lot of the bird life, that we normally find in the Doñana National Park, when the water table rises again in the winter. In the paddy fields were any amount of storks and ibises looking for juicy snails and frogs. Also crabs are plentiful as the netting traps show that are submerged in the drains of the rice paddies.

We headed from Almonte to Villamanrique, then towards Isla Mayor. Just outside Villamanrique we came across this white stuff along the side of the road and soon found the reason; a cotton factory. Huge bales of white fluff were stored there and more lorries came to unload.

Earlier in the year we saw the still young cotton plants and had to guess what they were. They belong to the Malvaceae (mallow family) family and I had never seen them before.

A little further on the rice fields started and we could observe the system of dams and canals to flood the fields when planting was done. This time the harvest was in full swing with big harvesting machines on tracks, so they don’t sink in the wet muddy soil. As you can observe from the photos some farmers burn the stubble and others may plough it in.

According to https://www.culinarycollective.com/the-world-of-paella-rice/ it were the moors, the Arab invaders, that brought rice, Oryza sativa, to Europe and the Spanish word ‘arroz’ originates from the Arabic word arruzz.

Any article I read says that the rice is sown and then flooded and after growing the bushels of rice plants are pulled out and planted by hand in rows. We would like to see that happening, it seems an extraordinary amount of labour. But then here in Spain are still a lot of traditional methods being kept alive and labour is imported from Northern Africa and Romania.

I bought some guide books for our bird loving guests and the ‘Birdwatching Guide to Doñana’written by John Butler has a chapter on ‘Rice Production In The Doñana Region’.

It tells us that when rice was introduced to the Doñana Region environmentalists and conservationists were concerned about the negative impact on the wildlife and bird population. The opposite occurred, as the rice fields are submerged in shallow water and create more habitats for molluscs, amphibians, worms and insects. In turn, this increased the population of birds. Even when the waters in the Doñana National Park have receded and dried up the extensive rice growing fields of Isla Mayor, which extent to over 55,000 ha retain a water level to feed many hundred thousands of Storks, Ibises, Egrets, Herons, Gulls, Terns and even Marsh Harriers and in turn raptors.

Another import is the Red Swamp Crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) from America, which competes with the native crayfish species and is used as ingredient for the famous Paella.

The Cotton plant has a totally different growing habit than the rice, which is a grain, whereas the cotton plant is related to the hibiscus family, Malvaceae and will need some irrigation as well.

The plant itself is a bushy green shrub and grows to about 1.2 m in height with a tap root of 1.5 m deep. The flowers are a pretty yellow-cream to pink colour and develop into seed pods called cotton bolls after pollination occurs. When these bolls spring open, the fluffy, soft, white fibres appear. Within these rest up to 45 seeds, which are pressed for oil and the seed cake is used as animal feed. Nearly all parts of the cotton plant are used, even the stalks as mulch and organic matter for soil improvement.

The European Union’s 2020 information leaflet on cotton production lists Greece as the main cotton grower, with 80% of European cotton area, followed by Spain (mainly the region of Andalucía) with a share of 20%. Bulgaria produces cotton on less than 1,000 ha [https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/plants-and-plant-products/plant-products/cotton_en].

Other countries with cotton production are the USA, China, Paraguay, Mexico, Pakistan, Australia, former Russian States (now C.I.S), Turkey, Sudan and Egypt.

Most of the cotton produced here in Spain is exported to Morocco and other European countries, with Spain being a net exporter of cotton lint.

We witnessed the harvesting with big combines, which cut the upper parts of the plant, leaving stalks behind, which are ploughed into the soil later. The fluffy cotton is then transported for ginning to the factory, where the fibre is separated from the seeds.

Cotton lint makes up about 42% of the picked cotton by weight, and contributes about 85% of the total income from a cotton crop. The other 15% of income comes from cotton seed [source: https://cottonaustralia.com.au/the-cotton-plant ].