Produce growers in sunny south Spain brace for Brexit pain

ALMERIA, Spain (AP) — Spain’s southeastern Almeria province used to be so parched and barren that Italian movie director Sergio Leone chose it in the 1960s as the shooting location for his spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood.

Nowadays, thanks to extensive irrigation and vast greenhouses, a corner of Spain with a hot desert climate prospers, growing fruit and vegetables that mostly goes to northern European countries where cold, grey weather limits the range of locally grown produce much of the year.

Britain’s impending departure from the European Union (EU) could punch a multi-million-euro hole in that business, however.

The trade in fresh produce hinges on getting goods to market promptly. By throwing up borders with the 27 countries remaining in the EU, Brexit could mean long, costly waits for trucks at customs posts.

The prospect of UK import tariffs, volatile exchange rates and a potentially wounded British economy also is setting off alarms among farmers, workers and officials on the Mediterranean coast.

Moroccan workers collect tomatoes at the Gava group greenhouses in Almería, in the autonomous community of Andalusia, Spain. – AP

“The fruit and vegetable produce for the UK market is of top quality, so the prices paid by the supermarkets there are very attractive for us,” farmer Andres Gongora said, standing amid row upon row of tomato plants in the humid air of one of his Almeria greenhouses.

Gongora sells most of his produce to a leading British supermarket chain, Tesco. Other Spanish growers ship their crops to other top grocery retailers, such as Sainsbury’s or the Marks & Spencer food stores.

Tomatoes, zucchini, watermelons, cucumbers and lettuce flourish here while northern Europe shivers in the winter.

Almeria delivered almost 285,000 metric tonnes of farm produce last year to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, making the UK the province’s third-largest market after Germany and France, according to Spain’s General Directorate for Customs. The sales brought just over 274 million euros (USD310 million) in revenue.

Britain’s divorce from the EU bloc will be bad enough, locals say, as the UK adopts import procedures and tariffs applicable to a non-EU country. But if the UK leaves as planned on March 29 without a deal on future trade, potentially sending the British economy into a tailspin, it could have catastrophic spillover effects for Almeria’s growers.

“If the British economy goes through a tough period, in terms of the people, their wages … we’re wondering what their purchasing power will be like,” said Gongora, who represents fruit and vegetable growers in a national association of farmers and ranchers.

Alicia Sanchez, a Ministry of Commerce official dealing with foreign trade, says the immediate hurdle will be border delays due to new formalities.

For Spanish growers, the nightmare scenario is fruit rotting on trucks while drivers wait to have their paperwork stamped and permission to enter the UK.