(7 Mar 2019) Until a few decades ago, Almeria in southeastern Spain was so parched and barren that movie director Sergio Leone chose it as the location for his spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood.
Nowadays, thanks to extensive irrigation and vast greenhouses, it prospers, growing early-season fruit and vegetables mostly for well-paying northern European countries.
Britain's impending departure from the European Union 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 EU - potentially bringing long and costly waits for trucks at customs posts - Brexit is setting off alarms among farmers, workers and officials here on the Mediterranean coast.
The prospect of U.K. import tariffs, volatile exchange rates and a potentially wounded British economy are other concerns.
"The fruit and vegetable produce for the U.K. market is of top quality, so the prices paid by the supermarkets there are very attractive for us," says farmer Andres Gongora, standing amid row upon row of tomato plants in the humid air of one of his Almeria greenhouses.
Gongora, who is also a national representative of Spanish fruit and vegetable growers, sells most of his produce to leading U.K. supermarket chain Tesco.
Other farmers here send theirs to other well-known U.K. chain stores such as Sainsbury's or Marks and Spencer.
The Almeria region delivered almost 285,000 metric tons of farm produce to the U.K. last year, making it the third-largest market after Germany and France, according to Spain's General Directorate for Customs.
The sales brought just over 274 million euros in revenue.
Britain's divorce from the bloc will be bad enough, locals say, as the U.K. adopts import procedures and tariffs applicable to a non-EU country.
But if the U.K. leaves without a deal on future trade, potentially sending the British economy into a tailspin, it could have catastrophic knock-on effects for Almeria's growers.
The Almeria landscape leaves no doubt about what makes this Andalusian region's economy tick.
Hundreds of giant, closely-packed white plastic greenhouses blanket the flat landscape, stretching to the horizon. Locals refer to it as the "sea of plastic."
The plastic covering intensifies and traps the heat while maintaining humidity.
That allows farmers in this sunny region to harvest fruit and vegetables one month earlier than they would be able to if they were growing in open fields.
It also means farmers can double or even triple the number of harvests per year.
Tomatoes, zucchini, watermelons, cucumbers and lettuce flourish here while northern Europe shivers in the winter.
At the Monte Rosa farm in Almeria, workers wearing tight-fitting gloves move along the rows of bushy, vertical plants, snipping off the ripe tomatoes. Some tomatoes are as big as a fist, others are the size of golf balls.
The tomatoes are packed into shallow boxes which are stacked above head height and then placed inside trucks for the two- or three-day journey north to the U.K. where customers are willing to pay top dollar to have such out-of-season luxuries on their table.
Brexit, however, could ruin that business, says Frances Llonch, director-general of the international fruit and vegetable group which owns Monte Rosa.
"At the moment, to export to the U.K. is completely easy," he said in English in a recent interview.
At the customs posts "there's going to be problems," she says. "Probably."
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