Spain: where sunshine organic and non-organic farming work together

Kernel Export's organic lettuce
Kernel Export’s organic lettuce

You would think that a farm producing organic vegetables would on no account be involved in anything washed, treated and packed, right? Those of us who are fussy foodies might even turn up our noses at anything packaged (I did –note the past tense and read or scroll to the end to see why).

Kernel Export is a family run company in Murcia, southern Spain that works with nine growers to grow, produce and pack vegetables, fruit and Halloween Pumpkins for export to the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Switzerland. Just under half of the business is organic. Kernel’s organic farms are outside Murcia, as well as within the Natural Park of Cabo de Gata Nijar. The rest of the business is non organic vegetables and packaged salads.

For a business like Kernel to survive it has to produce what the market demands, and the demand for packaged is high. In one building there are organic lettuce packs in biodegradable plastic made from potatoes. ‘Some customers complain this packaging is noisy,’ smiles the patient fourth generation farmer-manager José Antonio Cánovas Zafra. And in another building there is a whirling machine that cost over £350,000 that looks for ‘foreign bodies’ in washed salad leaves to be packed.

What’s evident and admirable is that the company aims to attain the highest standards of quality and that attention to ecological concerns applies to the non-organic and packaged side of the business too. Last year Kernel succeeded in being selected for a Climate Change Project with the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

‘We are passionate about agriculture,’ says Swiss university educated José Antonio. ‘Competition is high and demands are high. Supermarkets focus on price not quality. Growers everywhere are struggling. Electricity costs rose by 45% and we invest a lot of money in the best machinery and a quality control team.’

lettuce

Organic customers are by no means easy. ‘Consumers complain about an insect in organic vegetables. They don’t know that a ladybird in lettuce is proof that there no chemicals,’ explains José Antonio.

Virtually all the organic produce (95%) is exported.  Linda Jaern (who left Switzerland  to work for Kernel) is passionate about increasing awareness of organic produce in Spain itself through an organic box scheme.   ‘The biggest benefit of organic is for the environment,’ she says. ‘There are birds and bugs on an organic farm,’ adds José Antonio. ‘Growing against season is a fight against what is natural. In season means less to no pesticides.’

Visiting Kernel had a profound effect on me.  When I see baby leaves like lollo rosso or spinach, brassicas like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, any lettuce, herbs like dill and chives, or any melons from Spain I now see the family businesses like Kernel and I’m aware that ecological farming is a prime concern even if the produce is not labelled as such.

When I see packaged salad leave I stop to check if these come from Spain.  Having been anti packaged-salads (because the taste is inferior, and packaged vegetables are often treated with chemicals) now that I’ve seen the quality control at Kernel I’ve adjusted my foodie views. If, for example,  I have to choose between loose spinach that has come from outside Europe or packaged spinach leaves from Spain I will choose the latter knowing that hygiene and quality are top grade.

My concept of local (thanks to the We Care You Enjoy campaign) now extends to Europe. Yes, I’d like to buy UK-grown fruit and vegetables all the time but we don’t have the sunshine to produce sunshine tastes. British parsley and coriander really cannot compete on flavour with their sun-drenched Cyprus grown counterparts.  Since I always look to buy anything from Cyprus and Greece, thinking of Europe as being local is not such a big shift for me. It just means I have more to smile at when checking greengrocers’ boxes.

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