Luke Wilkinson spoke to Montserrat about the benefits of a well-placed business, her pride in the products of her region and how EU subsidies have promoted pulses among its hard-working farmers.
Montserrat San José Cabezas is the owner of Legumbres Victor: a wholesaler of pulses in rural Castilla y Leon in Northwestern Spain. The region, once dubbed ‘Spain’s Granary’ for its vast cereal production, is now also the country’s thriving center of pulses, where Legumbres Victor has spent decades working in packaging and distribution.
When did Legumbres Victor get started in the pulse industry? How long have you been the director?
In May 1975, my father Víctor San José was fired from his job as an agricultural machinery salesman and, while looking for another job, he decided to sell fruit over the summer season. Then he began to bring small amounts of pulses from Zamora, carefully chosen with the help of my mother, Fe Cabezas, which he sold in different markets and town squares. They then moved up to bigger companies, mostly in Valladolid, Zamora, Avila and Leon, and so began the company - all thanks to the hard work they put in and a real love for the product.
My father died in 1998, and that’s when I took charge. Currently, we are quite a small, young team trying to make space for ourselves in quite a traditional world; we’re working hard to evolve and keep things fresh. More than anything, we want our brand to be known for quality, great service and working hard, all the way from the farm to your plate.
What pulses do you work with?
We work with whichever products our clients need: all different varieties of white beans, chickpeas and lentils from both inside and outside of Spain. We try to be alert to any changes in the sector and adapt to any of the products that rise in popularity like soy, quinoa, rice and anything else the market might demand.
Where are your products produced? Are they mainly Spanish in origin?
Castilla y Leon, I always say, is the best place in the world because in our region we have the most pulses with the IGP stamp (Indicación Geográfica Protegida/Protected Geographical Indication - an EU certification that a product comes from and has met the quality standards of a particular region) and direct contact with all the farmers of Valladolid, Salamanca, Leon, Segovia and Zamora. From here, we are able to attend clients all over Spain and, in the last few years, we've even been exporting internationally to countries like Austria.
Around 70% to 80% of our products are from Spanish origin, mostly from Castilla y Leon. Of course, there are some varieties of pulses that we're only able to get hold of from outside of our borders but, if there is a way to find it from inside Spain, then we’ll do it.
How important have the Protected Geographical Indication stamps been for you?
Actually because we package our products outside of the PGI zone, we can’t use the stamp! However, the crops that we receive come from farmers that belong to the protected zones and are of exactly the same quality.
Of course, the protected zones have been really important and despite the fact that we can't take advantage of the stamp ourselves, we certainly applaud the benefits it passes on to the workers all along the production chain. It's something that gives a little bit of extra value to the workers and allows the farmers to feel that their efforts all the way out in the countryside are appreciated in wider society.
What does the average Castilla y Leonese production look like? What pulses do they grow and what kind of yields do they tend to see?
We work with farmers that seed white beans, lentils and chickpeas. Some rotate every three years, some every four. Some can have 20 hectares dedicated to pulses, and others up to 80 hectares. It tends to be the case that white bean yields are much bigger than those of chickpeas or lentils, some reaching up to 3,000 kg/ha. Not all bean yields are so high, the black Tolosana bean, for example, might only reach around 1,500 kg/ha. Castilian lentils tend to come out between 700 and 1,000 kg/ha, Pardina lentils probably a little more, around 1,500 kg/ha. Chickpeas aren't too far off lentils: bigger ones have a smaller yield than Pedrosillanos, which tend to be around 1,000 kg/ha in a good year.
Have producers begun to feel the impact of the changing climate?
Due to the excessive heat in June, July and August, seeding has started to begin several weeks earlier - for example, chickpeas used to be seeded in March, but now they’re sown in February. However, this also means there is a significant risk of frosts destroying the flowers. It’s not such a worry for the plants, which are hardier, but the flowers are very delicate. We've seen some change with the planting of lentils as well as nowadays the hot weather arrives in May, which is early enough to suffocate them.
Beans like the plancheta or the yellow bean also suffer quite a bit in the heat of July and August, despite the fact they are grown with irrigation. There are just some varieties that don't get along at all well with the rising temperatures. Global warming does worry us a lot, as a rise of 1°C or 2°C might not seem much but, in terms of agriculture, it makes a massive difference.
Do you expect any changes in acreage for the upcoming seeding?
We think that there will be more hectares of Castilian lentils but less of the Pardina as, in the last season, there was such low production - some of our farmers only took in around six tons from 60 ha, which was terrible. White beans have gone up in price this year and that always makes farmers decide to seed a little more than usual. In truth, the thing that alters acreage more than anything are the conditions that are put in place in order for farmers to receive help from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). 10 years ago, 1,500ha were seeded in Leon and now more than 4,500 ha are seeded. The farmers are obliged to leave 5% of the land fallow or to seed pulses. Seeding pulses might be a little more work but at least you get something out of the land.
What effect will the ‘Quality Pulses’ subsidy from the European Union’s CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) have on seeding?
Farmers receive between €50-€70/ha in the protected geographical zone for La Armuña lentils, which is clearly something of a benefit, as with any subsidy. With irrigated crops, it is between €30-€50/ha, which makes it less of a determining factor. Pulses leave behind fertile ground for the next crop so, when you add in the money they receive from the CAP, it's an easy decision for farmers to seed pulses.
Beans are different as they require irrigation and therefore have a different economic yield. With beans, I would say that farmers get to decide the price of sale, unlike with lentils and chickpeas, whose price is decided by the market. We believe that farmers should always be able to set their own prices as that way they’d be able to start making money from lentils and chickpeas again. It often seems as if lentils and chickpeas have become somewhat neglected.
What about the CAP’s ‘Protein Crops’ subsidy?
It could have an effect on acreage but it won't justify the CAP. We think it's great that the farmers are incentivised this way but what would be really beneficial is if everybody was simply able to make money from the work they invest – very often lentils and chickpeas don't make any net profits or even cover costs. This means that farmers end up keeping one eye on the aid in order to decide whether or not to seed certain pulses. It would be much better if each producer was able to make similar profits from each of the crops in their rotation.
Average pulse consumption in Spain still sits far below the level recommended by nutritionists. Do you see any way this could improve?
In my opinion, pulse consumption in Spain needs to be pushed at an institutional level if we want it to grow. Also, it helps when older generations remind younger generations of the great qualities pulses have: they’re very economical, delicious and full of healthy energy. I don't know anybody who doesn't enjoy at least one dish made of pulses. Whether it’s a white bean stew made by our mother, lentils made by our grandmother or the cocido shared between work friends on a Wednesday, these are the kinds of dishes that comfort us in the winter time and make up our salads in the summer. There are 1,001 recipes of all different varieties - with pulses, the possibilities are endless!
I'm convinced that consumption will go up as we are seeing a huge amount of renewed interest in pulses. Every day, it seems that people value them, especially for the high levels of protein, which wasn't something people really cared about in the past. Previously, people didn't want to cook with them because of how long they took but these days we’re seeing varieties that are much easier to cook with. It's really important that we understand what people want in their day-to-day lives and work on campaigns to communicate all the benefits to our health, the climate and the countryside.
What about Legumbres Victor? Where do you see the company heading over the coming years?
As with pulses, I think the possibilities of Legumbres Victor are infinite, too! We try to be constantly growing and evolving along with the rest of the pulse industry. We have a very clear idea of who our customer base is: smaller clients and not so small companies, family establishments, groceries, butchers and so on – this is a business of people. If we work with a farmer in Salamanca, we then bring his beans to a grocer in Valladolid, then to a restaurant nearby to make delicious soups. We're all about evolution but in the end the essence of our business is stews and soups after a cold morning’s work. This will never change because they are the types of food that pass along through the generations, enjoyed as much by fifty-year-olds as twenty-year-olds. We are excited about what the future will bring and still just as excited to be working with the best product in the world!