Agrivoltaic and intensive olive growing, and the farm returns to the fore

In Italy, the spread of photovoltaics can be accelerated through solutions that make farms protagonists, without replacing crops with plants, but integrating them so as to become a factor in supporting agricultural income. We understand intensive olive farming better.

A new model called "agrivoltaic" or "agri-solar" introduces photovoltaic production on farms, harmonizing it with cultivation and breeding. This form of "coexistence" is particularly interesting for the decarbonisation of the energy system, the sustainability of the agricultural system and the long-term profitability of small and medium-sized companies in the sector.

The main objective is to find a balance between the profitability of the photovoltaic installation and agricultural production within a cultivation business plan that binds the farm not to disperse its production base. The integration of corporate income with that produced by photovoltaic installations makes it possible to prevent the abandonment or decommissioning of the production activity, consolidating its production structure with respect to dependence on the subsidies of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Today, photovoltaics is a mature source from a technological and economic point of view that can replace fossil sources in electricity generation. The availability of surfaces is a limiting factor for installations, but agri-voltaics is a model in which electricity production, soil and vegetation maintenance are integrated and concurrent with the achievement of the productive, economic and environmental objectives of the land.

In Italy, renewable sources meet almost 40% of electricity needs and photovoltaic represents just over 8% of electricity generation. However, by 2030, photovoltaics will have to replace at least the 40-60% of electricity generation, to reach a production of around 100 TWh. This will require the installation of over 75 GWp of power, or a panel area of over 50,000 hectares. To achieve this, land surfaces need to be found to accommodate a significant share of photovoltaic systems.

Among the agri-voltaic solutions, one of the most performing and compatible is the integrated olive-growing system. 

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What could this type of system look like?

The integrated olive plantation provides for the cultivation of low vigor plants with self-fertility, high productivity, resistance to parasites and uniform maturation. Possible cultivars are Oliana and Lecciana, well tested for this intensive use. The plantation density is around 1,000 plants per hectare, with a planting distance of 10 meters between the rows and 1.10 meters along the rows.

The plants are intended for self-rooting from cuttings, grown in small pots and planted at an age of 6-8 months. The form of farming is the hedge with a central axis, with the plants supported by end poles and PVC section breakers, with protections against rodents.

The harvest is mechanized with straddle machines and mechanical pruners, with lateral cuts (hedging) to contain the plant according to fixed values in height and width and to favor correct execution of the harvest. 

The production of the Oliana and Lecciana cultivars is very fast, reaching 50 q/ha already from the third year of cultivation, and could reach up to 100 q/ha for the Oliana and 80 q/ha for the Lecciana.

Soil management involves plowing and controlled grassing of the inter-rows to avoid soil compaction and erosion, improving irrigation efficiency and olive grove productivity.

It is also advisable to adopt other practices such as shredding the shoots and mulching with exhausted pomace. Fertilization is done through a basic fertilization with macro elements based on the agronomic and chemical variables of the soil, while the nitrogen supply will be proportionate to the productivity of the olive grove (about 70 kg/ha of nitrogen and potassium by August). For phosphorus and potassium, the expected ordinary values are respectively 30 and 110 units/ha. Fertilization is carried out through the practice of fertigation, but foliar treatments can also be carried out with nutritional contributions associated with phytosanitary defence.

In super-intensive plants, in addition to parasites such as the oil fly and moth, other plant diseases that can cause significant damage must also be controlled, such as margaronia, weevil, the cochineal-sooty mold complex and peacock eye. Mange (bacterium) can be controlled through copper plating immediately after the olive harvest and pruning. Pest control should be based on the "Integrated Production Regulations" of the National Quality System for Integrated Production (SNQPI) published by the MiPAF. A weekly field monitoring technical phytosanitary service, supported by the DSS Integrated Management System, should be used for pest monitoring and control.

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Mechanized olive harvesting is an important operation to ensure the efficiency and productivity of the olive grove.

For example, the New Holland integral trencher has a working width of approximately 3.60 meters and has proven to have a high yield and to be able to harvest up to 98% of olives without damaging the plants or drupes. The harvesting capacity of the machine can reach 1.5 – 2.5 hours/ha. Mechanized harvesting can be very advantageous compared to manual harvesting in terms of costs and time spent. However, it is important to control the quality of the harvest to avoid damage to plants and drupes and to ensure a quality product.

The irrigation practice is fundamental for a good management of the olive grove, especially in environments with a high evapotranspiration demand. The annual water requirement for integrated super-intensive olive groves varies between 1,000 and 1,300 cubic meters/hectare, and depends on the type of soil, the climatic trend, the number of plants and the phenological phase. The management of the irrigation system must be oriented towards the use of low volumes to pursue water savings during the olive grove's production cycle, with the introduction of integrated digitalised DSS systems for calculating water balances and consumption.

For the rational irrigation practice, the micro-irrigation technique is appropriate, which allows for rapid vegetative development in the first years of planting, early production, an increase in yield and quality, as well as a reduction in production alternation.

In summary, the super-intensive olive grove integrated with a photovoltaic system turns out to be a highly sustainable and economically advantageous production solution. In addition to having good olive-oil productivity per hectare and high agronomic and economic sustainability, it also guarantees full mechanization of cultivation operations and olive harvesting, with a consequent reduction in annual management costs.

Furthermore, it has a high positive environmental impact thanks to the ability to absorb CO2 and the eco-compatible production processes and cultivation techniques, it complies with the conservation requirements of agricultural land use and ecological protection according to the national landscape and environmental protection directives and community. 

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