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Agriculture, forestry, and fishing employed 17.8 percent of Portugal's labor force but accounted for only 6.2 percent of GDP in 1990. With the principal exception of the alluvial soils of the Rio Tejo (Tagus River in English) valley and the irrigated sections of the Alentejo, crop yields and animal productivity remained well below those of the other EC members. Portugal's agro-food deficit (attributable mainly to grain, oilseed, and meat imports) represented about 2.5 percent of GDP, but its surplus on forestry products (wood, cork, and paper pulp) offset its food deficit. Portugal's overall agricultural performance was unfavorable when viewed in the context of the country's natural resources and climatic conditions. Agricultural productivity (gross farm output per person employed) was well below that of the other West European countries in 1985, at half of the levels in Greece and Spain and a quarter of the EC average. A number of factors contributed to Portugal's poor agricultural performance. First, the level of investment in agriculture was traditionally very low. The number of tractors and the quantity of fertilizer used per hectare were one-third the EC average in the mid-1980s. Second, farms in the north were small and fragmented; half of them were less than one hectare in size, and 86 percent less than five hectares. Third, the collective farms set up in the south after the 1974-75 expropriations proved incapable of modernizing, and their efficiency declined. Fourth, poor productivity was associated with the low level of education of farmers. Finally, distribution channels and economic infrastructure were inadequate in parts of the country.
Portugal is made up of the mainland and the Azores and Madeira islands, which altogether include an area of 91,640 square kilometers, about the size of Indiana. The mainland's land area of slightly more than 9.2 million hectares was classified as follows (in thousands of hectares): 2,755 arable land and permanent crops (including 710 in permanent crops), 530 permanent pasture, 3,640 forest and woodland, and 2,270 other land.
A useful categorization divides the mainland into three distinct topographical and climatic zones: the south (the Alentejo and the Algarve), the center, and the north (the Entre Douro e Minho, the Trás-os-Montes, the Beira Litoral, and the Beja Interior).
The north is mountainous, with a rainy, moderately cool climate. This zone contains about 2 million hectares of cultivated land and is dominated by small-scale, intensive agriculture. High population density, particularly in the northwest, has contributed to a pattern of tiny, fragmented farms that produce mainly for family consumption interspersed with larger and often mechanized farms that specialize in commercial production of a variety of crops. On the average, northern levels of technology and labor productivity are among the lowest in Western Europe. Extreme underemployment of agricultural workers accounts for the north being the principal and enduring source of Portuguese emigrant labor.
The center is a diverse zone of about 75,000 hectares that includes rolling hills suitable primarily for tree crops, poor dryland soils, and the fertile alluvial soils of the banks of the Rio Tejo (Tagus River in English). A variety of crops are grown on the productive areas under irrigation: grains, mainly wheat and corn, oil seeds, and irrigated rice. Farms located in the Rio Tejo Valley typically are 100 hectares in size.
The south is dominated by the Alentejo, a vast, rolling plain with a hot, arid climate. The Alentejo occupies an area of approximately 2.6 million hectares, about 30 percent of the total area of mainland Portugal, and produces about 75 percent of the country's wheat. Although much of the area is classified as arable land, poor soils dominate most of the area, and consequently yields of dryland crops and pasture are low by West European standards. The Alentejo is also known for its large stands of cork oak and its olive groves. The Algarve, less than a third the area of the Alentejo, occupies the extreme southern part of Portugal. This dryland area is characterized by smallholdings where animal grazing and fishing are the principal occupations of the inhabitants.