The cultivation of wheat in Mallorca

Ever since Neolithic times, wheat has been a staple food on Mallorca. During the Talaiotic period, which was prior to the Roman conquest, wheat and livestock formed the base of both the diet and the economy.

Wheat from the Balearic Islands has been praised in sources from the Roman period, and was cultivated in a classic Mediterranean combination together with vines and olives. During the period of Moorish rule (from 903 to 1229), in which the island had a good water network that supplied water to the city and nearly all the cultivated areas, wheat wasn’t very important. In fact, the irrigated lands were mainly used for fresh vegetables and animal feed, as well as for some production of rice and cotton. Following the feudal Christian conquest that was carried out by the Crown of Catalonia and Aragon in 1229, the Moorish cultivations were substituted and cereals became the alimentary base for the population. Wheat then became the most important cereal, followed by other cereals such as barley, which were used as animal feed and also for human consumption during times of hunger.

Until modern times, the irregularity of the crops was always a problem, this being due to the Mediterranean climate and the inefficient cultivation techniques of the times; there was thus a dependency on wheat imports from other parts of the Mediterranean. Problems with maritime transport in this period meant that the imports were often delayed, and the fixing of prices, storage and distribution of wheat became a monopoly of the governing institutions. A bad year brought with it hunger to a section of the people, who, once malnourished, became easy prey to the pestilence which flourished under the sanitary conditions of the time. Another consequence was the chronic debt of the public purse of Mallorca, which had to provide money to pay for the imports of the wheat.
From the eighteenth century onwards, Mallorca achieved a greater degree of integration into the international trading circuit, and this together with improvements in maritime transport, meant that wheat could be regularly supplied from abroad. This brought about a decrease in the proportion of land dedicated to wheat cultivation, which was substituted by commercial crops such as vines in accordance with international demand. This trend continued until the second half of the twentieth century, since which time traditional cultivation has been progressively abandoned for the lure of the tourist economy, and wheat production has consequently been reduced; in fact, wheat cultivation only manages to keep going thanks to public subsidies.

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