Europe can be divided into five major agricultural regions. Each is distinguished by characteristic types of vegetation and their respective ecological requirements.
The boreal coniferous forest zone
The boreal coniferous forest zone in northern Europe is occupied almost exclusively by forests. In many areas, forestry provides the basis for entire branches of production, such as the wood, furniture, paper and cellulose industries. The northern grain cultivation boundary runs roughly along the Arctic Circle but shifts northward along the Norwegian coast due to climatic influences associated with the Gulfstream. In contrast, the line turns toward the South in the Scandinavian and Ural mountain ranges. Farming operations in this zone are insular and of local significance only north of the 60th parallel. Agriculture is concentrated along the coast and in the immediate vicinity of rivers. This is largely attributable to differences in soil characteristics. Good lowland soil is found along the Dvina River, whereas marshland with unfavourable soil characteristics predominates in the inland regions of Finland. Northern Europe is a good example of a region in which the natural cultivation boundary deviates significantly from the profitability boundary.
The evergreen zone
Contiguous evergreen areas comprised of meadow and pasture land are found above all in the maritime north-western part of the continent, which is characterized by mild, wet winters and cool, wet summers. Ireland has the highest proportion of evergreen land at approximately 70 percent. Areas at higher elevations in the mountainous regions, such as the Alpine Foothills and the Alps themselves, also have appreciably higher proportions of green land. The distribution of evergreen land in the mountains depends largely on topography and elevation. Most of these regions also contain large forested areas. Examples are the French Massif Central, the Dinarian Mountains, the mountain ranges on the Iberian Peninsula, the Taurus Mountains and the Caucasus. Due to profitability considerations, the ecological cultivation boundary ordinarily lies much higher than the actual cultivation boundary, which is defined in the Alps by the presence of evergreen land or forests.
The lowlands along the Narev and Bug Rivers in eastern Poland are examples of areas in which utilization as green land is dictated by aspects of landscape ecology (expansive marshland areas with high groundwater levels and frequent flooding). Much the same is true of the lowlands along the lower reaches of the major rivers of Central Europe (such as the Elbe, the Weser and the Rhine).
The rye and potato zone
The agricultural landscape of north-eastern Europe is dominated by a region of contiguous farming areas devoted primarily to the cultivation of rye, barley and potatoes. In addition to crop cultivation, many of these areas are characterized by intensive animal husbandry operations, most notably hog and cattle farms. This zone is climatically distinct from the boreal coniferous forest region to the north and the evergreen region to the west.
Rye is not only the most frost-resistant type of grain but also the variety with the least demanding requirements with respect to soil and climate conditions. Rye tolerates both cool summers and dry conditions, for example. The total area under cultivation with rye is diminishing, however, as wheat farming has advanced northward at an accelerated pace thanks to the development of new varieties. Wheat is replacing rye and other types of grain largely because wheat farmers can expect higher yields and higher grain prices.
Barley is grown primarily as feed and as a raw material for beer production in Europe. It has a short vegetation period and poses stringent requirements with respect to soil quality. Certain varieties of summer barley have approximately the same requirements as rye, however.
The potato has become a basic food staple in Central and northern Europe over the course of the last few centuries due to its high crop yield. It is highly adaptable to different climate conditions and tolerates cool, humid weather. Potatoes thrive in the Alps even at elevations of 1,500 to 2,000 metres. Many lowland regions with poor soil conditions as well as higher regions in the Central Uplands contain heavily wooded areas.
The wheat and sugar-beet zone
Like the rye and potato region, the wheat and sugar-beet region is characterized by a agricultural diversity, which encompasses the cultivation of feed crops and thus also supports intensive animal husbandry. Yet the soil in this zone is considerably better than in the aforementioned region. Eastern Europe also benefits from the advantages of a highly favourable climate (and the resulting regular north-south sequence of cultivation zones).
As a characteristic grain, wheat poses more demanding requirements than rye with respect to climate and soil conditions. Soil must be rich in humus and lime, and the most fertile types are loess and black soil. Important prerequisites for high yields are mild winters, sufficient precipitation during the main growth period and dry summers preceding harvests. Wheat yields depend on the intensity of such farming methods as the use of fertilizers and irrigation. The needs of sugar beets are similar to those of wheat, and thus sugar beets and wheat are often grown in neighbouring fields. Exceptions to this rule are certain areas south of the Volga and in North Africa. Ideal growing conditions for sugar beets include very good, loose soil, a maritime climate with high humidity and exposure to strong sunlight toward the end of the growth period.
Wheat farming is complemented to an increasing extent from south to north by large-scale cultivation of grain maize and sunflowers for oil production. Sunflowers require a warm climate in order to achieve full ripeness. Grain maize is a warm-weather, short-day plant which requires between 130 and 150 frost-free days per year. Farming methods are similar to those used in viniculture. Grain maize used in food production is distinguished from feed corn.
The wheat and sugar-beet zone is almost entirely devoid of wooded areas. In the South, it crosses over into the Mediterranean cultivation zone, while its southern boundary lies near the border to the arid farming zone east of the Volga. Many areas in the transition zone between the semi-arid and desert regions are home to animal husbandry operations.
The Mediterranean cultivation zone
Mediterranean agriculture is characterized by the cultivation of a diverse range of warm-weather crop plants and a preponderance of orchards, vegetable farms and special crops. Mediterranean agriculture has been traditionally defined by the presence of olive trees, subtropical plants which require mean annual temperatures of between 15 °C to 22 °C and annual precipitation of between 500 and 700 millimetres. Because the olive tree is extremely sensitive to frost, its cultivation boundary lies in southern France.
A second group of characteristic plants comprises the family of citrus fruits, which have temperature requirements similar to those of the olive tree but need between 1,200 and 2,000 millimetres of rainfall per year and are thus cultivated in many place with the aid of artificial irrigation. One of the most commonly grown vegetables is the tomato (most notably the bush or field tomato). Located in Italy, the most important rice-growing regions of Europe also lie within this zone. One of the most important fruit plants in the world is the grapevine. It requires mean annual temperatures of only 10 °C to 12 °C, which explains why it is also found far beyond the borders of this zone in Germany and the Netherlands. Grapes need a vegetation period of from 180 to 200 days per year and temperature of at least 19 °C during the maturation phase.
Cork oaks are grown in Europe and above all in Portugal and Spain. Other plantations are located in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. The cork, which originally protected the trees against damage from frequent forest fires, is not stripped from the tree until it is 20 years old, after which it can be harvested at ten-year intervals for approximately 120 years.
Tobacco, which was cultivated on a larger scale in Germany as well in earlier centuries, is still grown in the entire Mediterranean region from Portugal to the Aegean today, although it is now an economically significant crop only in Greece, Italy and Bulgaria. Soy beans and cotton are grown in small quantities relative to other regions of the world, although production has recently been on the rise in Italy. Other major soy producers are Russia and the Ukraine. In Europe, cotton, which is produced in the U.S.A., China and India with the aid of extremely large quantities of insecticides and fertilizers, is of economic importance only in Greece. Small crops are still grown in Spain. Date palms are cultivated only south of the Mediterranean. Their sugar-rich fruits are consumed fresh or dried or processed for use in other products, such as palm wine and date honey. Crop cultivation in the entire Mediterranean region is supplemented above all by sheep, cattle, hog and goat farming operations.
A good example of the complete decoupling of agriculture from natural ecological factors is the large-scale commercial cultivation of tomatoes north of the Alps. Due to prevailing climate conditions, tomatoes can be raised only under glass in this region. The Netherlands have attained a particularly high level of tomato production during the past several decades. However, the highest total tomato yields are still achieved in Italy and Spain, in that order.
U. Zahn; Ü: J. Southard
Keywords: agriculture crops cultivated land Europe land use primary sector viniculture
View the map frame in Google Earth. open
Map frame in Google Maps
View the map frame in Google Maps. open