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Spain is the largest orange production country in the European Union and produces about 50% of the oranges from this part of the world. The largest growing region in Spain is known as the País Valenciano and is comprised of the provinces of Alicante, Castellon and Valencia. The second largest citrus production area is Andalucía. While citrus grove area has been declining in Valencia due to urban pressure, planting of new groves in Andalucía has increased and are offsetting the decrease overall. These two regions account for about 90% of the overall Spanish production. The other areas of production include the much smaller region of Murica which sits between Valencia to the North and Andalucía to the South, and the area of Catalonia, in the most northern corner of Spain and bordering France.
Follow the Water
The historical information of the movement of the citrus culture in this area of Europe is vague but citrus can only survive with water. The typical Mediterranean climate is a semi-arid, wet-winter and dry-summer with a period of 4-6 months without ‘effective’ rainfall. This is not sufficient for citrus. The distribution of citrus into the Spanish citrus growing region has been attributed to the Muslim conquest of 711 A.D. Possibly, as research suggests, the remaining Roman aqueduct infrastructure was utilized to sustain citrus production in the Iberian Peninsula.
Windmills of Spain
Walter Reuther (1911-2010), renowned citrus horticulturist, describes how the present day water rights and water laws throughout the Iberian peninsula originated from the Moslem invaders. “Spanish documents,” Reuther writes, “indicate citrus fruits from windmill-irrigated orchards were being exported to Europe from Majorca [Spain] in the twelfth century. Arabic writers of the thirteenth century describe the culture, including irrigation, of citrus.” These same irrigation methods and laws were introduced to the New World by the Spanish in the early sixteenth century. Remnants of the Moslem irrigation influences are still discernible today in the southwestern United States.
Hieronymus Münzer, a German physician and geographer, made a famous journey in the years of 1494 and 1495 of the Iberian Peninsula documenting in detail his observations. As he traveled the Mediterranean coastal route and encountered the cities along the way he writes:
“On the 21st of this month [September 1494]…we arrived at the most noble city of Barcelona, situated on the banks of the Balearic [Mediterranean] Sea and the capital of all Catalonia…
It is on a most beautiful plain bathed to the south by the sea, and to the east, west and north, it is surrounded by fertile mountains in a sort of semicircle… It has… a very strong wall built all around it. And in the center, on a knoll, is the magnificent and superb Cathedral and Episcopal seat, dedicated in honor of the Holy Cross. This building is extraordinarily delicate, and in its periphery are more than twenty altars with magnificent and gilded panels, and an excellent library and a garden with orange trees, lemon trees and cypresses.”
As Münzer continues his travels along the Mediterranean Sea he notes the geographic beauty, fertility of the landscape, and the abundance of citrus in the city of Valencia:
“It is on a very big and very beautiful plain, like those around Milan and Cologne, ringed on all sides by mountains, except towards the east, where the sea is. This plain is well watered by rivers everywhere, brought from the mountains by various canals. It is extremely fertile in olive trees, pomegranates, lemon trees, orange trees, citron trees and other innumerable fruit trees. And I think that in all of Europe one can scarcely find such coastal crops of such perfection.”
From the documentation of his journey, citrus was well established in the agriculture of Spain during the period the Spanish reached the New World; and it was these Spanish adventurers who introduced citrus to the newly discovered lands across the sea.
Silk to Wine to Oranges
By the mid-1500’s Spanish cultivation of several varieties of citrus, through hybridization and grafting, is documented in the agronomic publications of several scholarly authors of the time: pomelo, citron, lime, lemon and orange trees are described. Spanish historian Gaspar Juan Escolano (1560-1619) reported Valencian oranges were selling as fine produce on the markets of Madrid.
Sour oranges were grown in the area of Sevilla and the fruit gained widespread recognition outside Spain at least as early as the 16th and 17th century. The fruit was even mentioned in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. The Seville sour orange has gained worldwide recognition for use in marmalades and jams as well as a primary rootstock in commercial citrus orchards.
The region of Valencia was the center of the citrus production; but up until the late 19th century, oranges (as well as other citrus varieties) were but one of several agricultural crops cultivated in Spain. Up until this time, citrus was grown primarily for consumption within the country and the largest agricultural export product of Spain was silk. Due to fate, and some believe luck, this would change. In 1850 to 1860, a silk blight destroyed silkworms and resulted in an economic disaster for Spanish silk producers. Rather concurrently, an outbreak of phylloxera destroyed French and Catalan wine vineyards. Former Spanish silkworm farmers saw an opportunity and turned their plantations into vineyards. Their hopes of capturing a share of the French wine industry were destroyed when they too were struck by the grape pest. It was this series of events that opened the door for the Spanish exportation of citrus (see Julia Anne Hudson-Richards 2008 PhD dissertation. "The Orange Proletariat: Social Relations in the País Valenciano, 1860-1939").
The Valencia Orange
Citrus became an important export item for Spain and as early as 1862 orange exports totaled 36,000 metric tons. The orange became symbolic of the local economy and the local culture during the latter part of the century. Art, buildings, and festivals depicted the orange- the Valencia region and the oranges produced there became synonymous terms. The name “Valencia Orange” is commonly used today with growers, shippers, and consumers worldwide.
Current Spanish Citrus Production
Oranges – For the 2013/14 marketing year, the USDA projects Spain will produce 3.4 million metric tons (MMT) of oranges which represents about 50% of the total European Union’s (EU) orange production. Spanish producers attempt to supply the entire marketing year by growing both very early and very late varieties. Oranges are grown for fresh consumption (as opposed to growing for juice production) and consist of mainly Navel varieties with late varieties of Valencias to increase supply during the last part of the season.
Lemons – Spain is also the largest lemon producer in the EU and the 2013/14 crop is estimated at 715,000 metric tons. The two major varieties of Lemons are ‘Fino’, a Spanish hybrid variety which represents 70% of total production and is favored by the lemon processing sector and the ‘Verna’ variety used for fresh consumption. This variety, representing the 30% balance of production, is a ‘tender and juicy’ piece of fruit with very few seeds. An interest exists to replace the Fino with the Verna as the latter represents a higher profitability and less competition with lemons imported into Spain from Turkey.
Mandarins / Tangerines – The Valencia region represents 75% of the total Spanish Mandarin and Tangerine production which is projected at 1.89 MMT for 2013/14. In actuality, the Mandarin is one of the three true citrus genus from which all varieties of citrus have evolved. The designation of tangerine represents a large group of citrus all of which are a result of hybridization stemming from the Mandarin. Evidence also indicates Mandarins have been cultivated in the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa for quite some time and probably concurrent with the arrival of the Muslims. Through hybridization many varieties now exist and are recognized, so much so, that the terms Mandarin and Tangerine are often used interchangeably. In particular the Clementine tangerine has gained notoriety through extensive marketing in the USA. Spain has become the leading producer of Clementines in the Mediterranean basis and the Valencia growing area produces 80% of Spain’s total Clementine production.