Some men examined tomatoes on May 25 in the corn exchange of Mazarrón.ALFONSO DURAN (EL PAÍS)
The objective of the report is apparently simple: to track a tomato, a kiwi and an orange, from the moment they are picked in the field until, with their label of origin, they are sold in a store or on the shelf of a supermarket. It is also about recording the progressive increase in the price of the product in times of inflation, as it passes from hand to hand until the final hand of the one who buys it to take it to his table. All seemingly simple. Only apparently. Because the life of the tomato is complicated.
And controversy: a question repeated since the price escalation began is who has benefited from it, if anyone has benefited at all. The response has divided government partners. Unidas Podemos has accused supermarkets of getting rich thanks to inflation; The Socialist ministers of Agriculture, Finance and Economy have replied that the problem is reduced to a matter of costs and supply.
Meanwhile, Juan Acosta, known in the region of Mazarrón as Juan Pinilla, is heading to his farm. He is 62 years old and has been growing, picking, storing, selling and reselling tomatoes all his life. A few years ago it had 60 hectares of various crops that produced 20 million kilos of tomatoes, watermelons and lettuce, among others, throughout the year, and managed a warehouse where they could be sorted by size (by size, say the experts) and packaged for direct sale to Carrefour, Ahorramás or Eroski. But all that vanished in 2009, with the crisis. Juan was ruined, closed the warehouse (now empty, a step away from the beach) and sold much of his land.
In one of the mesh greenhouses that it still maintains is the tomato of our history. It's salad, big. Pinilla employees just picked him up. This also seems simple, but it is not. There are days that they collect 1,000 kilos. Another 4,000. There are many imponderables: rain, lack of rain, heat, cold, climate change that upsets everything, pests ... Among the last-minute adversities, Pinilla and the other farmers in the region have been facing for several years a strange virus, known as Rugoso Virus, which they fight based on hygienic measures (hand cleaning, change of clothes, mats at the entrance of the plantations), similar to those of the times of the coronavirus.
Our tomato, once picked and crudely put in boxes, will take one of these two paths: it is auctioned to the highest bidder in the corn exchange of Mazarrón or it is sent to a packaging warehouse like the one that, in the good times, Pinilla ran. In the first case, a runner, by order of a Mercamadrid or Mercabarna stand, will bid for the required kilos. These kilos will be resold in turn, either in Madrid or Barcelona, to a neighborhood greengrocer. In the second case, the packaging warehouse in Murcia buys the merchandise from Pinilla and resells them – conveniently labeled and stuffed in meshes or cardboard boxes – to a supermarket chain. Pinilla will choose one way or another depending on the price he is paid. Sometimes path A will suit you, sometimes path B.
Juan Acosta, known as Juan Pinilla, on his tomato farm near Mazarrón, in Murcia. ALFONSO DURAN (EL PAÍS)
In general, warehouse prices are quoted weeks before and move less. In the auction they close daily and are more volatile, sometimes reflecting the upward or downward trend of the Almeria corn exchange, which opens and closes earlier: a bit like when brokers in Europe and New York look sideways at the Tokyo Stock Exchange to see where the market blows. In any case, the selling price of Pinilla tomatoes – both in one way and in another – always ranges between 0.50 and 0.80 cents per kilo, of which the net profit for the farmer is around 0.10-0.20 cents per kilo, since the cost of the labor of the collectors must be discounted. water (increasingly expensive and a real problem in Murcia) and fertilizers, among other things. In short: our Murcian tomato will find some intermediaries if it goes to a supermarket chain and will run into different ones if its final destination is a neighborhood greengrocer.
The kiwi adventure
Much further north and west, in the municipality of Lousame, in A Coruña, a farmer with a small plantation of kiwis, José Pérez Somoza, waits for one of these days the cooperative of which he is part to inform him of the price of the approximately 2,500 kilos he collected in autumn. Then, one weekend in November, Somoza, helped by his wife, children and some other relatives, picked the fruit from his small farm. He put them in boxes as they came out of the tree and gave them to his cooperative, Kiwi Atlántico, based in Ribadumia (Pontevedra), which manages about 10 million kilos of kiwis a year, 40% of all Spanish kiwis sold in Spain. It is no coincidence: Galicia, due to its climate, is perfectly suited to the production of this fruit, originally from China and New Zealand.
An outbreak of kiwi, at the beginning of May, on the farm of José Carlos Somoza, in the municipality of Lousame, in A CoruñaÓSCAR CORRAL (EL PAÍS)
The cooperative, after collecting the kiwis, analyzes them (literally one by one, since it has a kind of scanner that examines each fruit in order to calibrate it and discover its defects), classifies them, stores them and keeps them at zero degrees in gigantic ships, the size of paddle tennis courts. The kiwi allows this treatment without losing its properties. In this way, the manager of the cooperative has almost eight months to sell the fruit and negotiate directly in the meantime with central markets and supermarkets. The starting price of the cooperative will vary over the months, depending on supply and demand. When the season ends, in June, accounts are made and the obtained is distributed among the members of the cooperative after deducting expenses. Last year, Pérez Somoza, the cooperative paid him – like everyone else – 1 euro for the kilo of medium-sized kiwis (30 gauge), plus a supplement of 20 cents for being an organic fruit. This year the farmer is confident that it will be more or less the same. A batch of non-organic kiwis, from this cooperative of this size packaged on May 9 were sold in the supermarket of Mercadona de Noia at 2.88 euros per kilo. The price, obviously, can fluctuate and become more expensive depending on the time and place: this week the kilo of kiwi was sold in a supermarket in the center of Madrid, from a different brand, at almost 4 euros per kilo.
The oranges of Castellón
In the region of Plana Baixa, in Castellón, at the end of May the last oranges of the season are harvested, called Valencia-Late, which are sold especially for juice. The harvest this year, in general, has been lower than last year, according to Carles Peris, citrus producer in the area and general secretary of the agrarian union Unió Llauradora i Ramadera. For a few years now, the harvest has always decreased, season after season. "The weather is never the weather," says Peris, referring to climate change. Peris works for a cooperative in the region, Cocalmi. There is a difference with that of kiwis: orange cannot be kept so long in camera. At best, a month, but there are varieties that have to be served within 48 hours. So the time farmers have to sell it to supermarkets – and supermarkets to sell them to the consumer – is much more limited.
The farmer and trade unionist has in mind the cost of each orange: a kilo of small size, for juice, costs0.25 cents to produce; collect it, approximately, 0.08 cents. Transport to the cooperative takes another 0.03 and packaging, another 0.04. That is to say: this orange costs to put it in the direction of a supermarket 0.40. The manager of the cooperative, Pascual Beltrán, does not negotiate directly with supermarket chains, but with distributors who act as intermediaries: "A large supermarket only wants one interlocutor, not fifty." The price can fluctuate depending on supply and demand, the contracts acquired, the thousand variables that influence the field. But Peris calculates that the benefit to the farmer for a kilo of small-sized oranges for juice does not exceed 0.18 cents per kilo. In summary: the orange is acquired by the distributor at approximately 0.58 cents per kilo. A bag of 4 kilos of this type of oranges was sold last week in a Carrefour in the center of Madrid for 5 euros. That is: at 1.25 euros per kilo.
Less for more: drought and inflation shake the 'garden of Europe'
We had left Juan Pinilla's Murcian tomato salad before the great decision of his life: to go by the Mercamadrid or Mercabarna route or by the one of the large supermarkets. You will have to do it quickly, because you have a week or at most 10 days to live. If you choose the central markets there will be more hands to go through (farmer, auction, auction broker, central market stall owner, greengrocer, consumer). If you opt for large supermarkets, you will jump from the farmer to the warehouse-packer and the supermarket. And that will affect prices. Sometimes upwards and sometimes downwards. But in both cases, the tomato will leave Murcia with a price of approximately one euro per kilo, from which the farmer, hopefully, will take his 0.10 cents of profit. Those same tomatoes, or others like them, in Madrid, can now be found at a price ranging between 2.5 euros and 3 euros per kilo.
Felipe Medina, technical general secretary of Asedas (one of the main supermarket associations, which brings together Mercadona, Lidl and Dia, among other companies), recalls that "each product is a world and each season of the year another". He also points out that prices at origin have become more expensive due to inflation, a phenomenon that revolutionizes and stresses all links in the chain. In April, the food CPI moderated to 12.9%, 3.9 points less than in March and the largest drop in the historical series, which encourages the idea that prices have already peaked. However, the whole of the shopping basket continues in general with prices at maximums.
Medina recalls the expenses faced by supermarkets: transport to the logistics platform (one per large city), from where the products are distributed to the stores, the losses, the necessary personnel on these platforms, transport to supermarkets, the expense of staff in stores and the cost of supermarket land, many installed in the center of cities. "In the end, fierce competition between certain supermarkets and between stores ensures that the price is as low as possible. It sells a lot, at very little margin. Juan Roig, from Mercadona, already said it when he explained the balance of last year: of every euro he sells only two and a half cents are profits". That day Roig announced profits of 718 million euros. The representative of the large supermarkets adds: "Farmers have contracts with their buyers; The only ones who do not have any type of contract with those who are going to buy from us are us. The consumer can enter the supermarket or not."
Although sometimes everything goes wrong in one day: on Thursday, May 25, the same day that Juan Pinilla went to the corn exchange of Mazarrón with his tomatoes, an apocalyptic storm broke out in the nearby region of Molina de Segura, in Murcia. The almost entire harvest of lemons, Paraguayans and nectarines in the area was lost in a quarter of an hour, says the farmer and secretary of organization of the agricultural union COAG, the Murcian Paco Gil. "Mercadona always wins in the end," concludes Carles Peris. "We don't."
Kiwis are examined almost one by one in the Kiwi Atlántico cooperative, in Ribadumia, in Pontevedra. ÓSCAR CORRAL (EL PAÍS)
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