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Looking back at 2017 | Coming home to roost

Christmas Specials • A young farmer thinks naysayers about farming’s ‘harsh’ future have to meet consumer expectations for high quality

tia_reljic
Tia Reljic
2 January 2018, 12:30pm
Karl Scerri, a 25-year-old livestock farmer who breeds chicks
Karl Scerri, a 25-year-old livestock farmer who breeds chicks
Agriculture has been swallowed up by industrialisation, and farmers must be innovative and focused on growth in order to keep the sector alive.

Karl Scerri, a 25-year-old livestock farmer who breeds chicks, told MaltaToday that while the future of Maltese agriculture looks to be harsh, young farmers might still have a shot at remaining competitive in an increasingly industrialised market which has come to rely on imported produce.

This perspective from Scerri, an administrator of the Malta Youth in Agriculture Foundation (MaYa) – an NGO and network of young farmers – comes not long after the release of a report by the environmental NGO Friends of the Earth (FOE), ‘Agro Katina’, which gave a voice to stakeholders concerned about the future of farming.

Prior to joining the EU, the agricultural sector in Malta benefitted from a degree of protectionism, as imports were taxed and quotas on imported goods were enforced. Under EU law, such discrimination is not allowed, so after Malta’s EU accession in 2004, the sector became increasingly vulnerable. Imports increased and became cheaper, and farmers were left to deal with the competition.

The Agro Katina report highlighted concerns raised by stakeholders who say that they worry that the Maltese market might become completely dominated by foreign imports.

Scerri says foreign imports tend to fall into two categories: cheap products, and higher quality ones, the latter more expensive than local products, but which consumers would still buy.

“This is a clear indication that these imported products are more enticing to consumers, meaning that there are ways in which local products could improve, aside from price. It’s not a good attitude to have to say that nothing can be done, because this is not true,” Scerri says, explaining that there was more room for improvement on the presentation and packaging of Maltese produce. “The consumer is buying imported products because our marketing is not good enough.”

And although protectionist measures would benefit Maltese farmers, Scerri warns that liberalising the market is more important.

“Prior to EU accession, Maltese farmers were getting lazy, because our produce would get sold no matter what.”

Competition, he says, is a positive thing because it provides more choice to the consumer and pushes farmers to provide better quality produce.

Scerri, who does not think that competition should be curbed, says, “There is no real way to stop competition from abroad. The population is growing, people are consuming more, and Malta is not self-sufficient so a large amount of imports is always to be expected.”

But competition is not the only effect of importation.

“What really hurts local farmers is when foreign pests are introduced,” Scerri says, explaining how pressure is placed on farmers to reduce pesticide use, while new pests are being introduced through an increase in imported produce.

“Nowadays, the amount of shipments coming in has nearly tripled compared to the previous generation, so the need for stricter control is continuously increasing. If the authorities don’t have the manpower to deal with this amount of imports, it creates a problem.”

 

Education and enforcement

The FOE report revealed problems arising from the lack of a relationship between Maltese farmers and their customers – an unfortunate effect of industrialisation, where misunderstanding and mistrust, and uninformed consumers out of touch with the realities of farming and seasonality, also lead to farmers being out of tune with their customers.

“The label on the produce does not say everything that the product has been through before coming to the consumer, and there is a lack of consumer education,” Scerri says, lamenting the lack of resources available to consumers who do wish to inform themselves.

Scerri suggests including a barcode on produce, which consumers can scan with their mobile phones to learn more about the origin of their food. Meanwhile Scerri also stresses on the importance of traceability, transparency, and enforcement of the laws.

“If enforcement efforts are too lax, it’s impossible to solve other issues related to farming,” he says, revealing the serious problem of produce being mislabelled and the public being misled.

And the penalties for those caught mislabelling are not high enough, he says.

“As a result, farmers are not dissuaded from abusing the system. I don’t think it’s true that farmers have to break the rules to get by. You cannot sell more by producing the same amount you always have,” he says, insisting that farmers must think ahead with the changing industry.

“But this is no excuse for breaking the law,” Scerri says, expressing little to no sympathy for farmers who refuse to ‘grow’. “If you don’t grow, you’ll die – and that’s business.”

Scerri welcomes stricter controls on farmers, whom he says will not all agree with such controls.

“Enforcement results in more confidence and trust among consumers, which would benefit us. A solution to the challenges of farming would have to involve farmers themselves, and look at how the situation can be improved from all sides.”

 

Young farmers and the future

The FOE report also quoted stakeholders who said that they think farming will become nothing more than a hobby if drastic action is not taken, since the number of farmers is decreasing and young farmers are facing challenges.

“There were many more farmers before, but today farmers have more work,” Scerri says, speaking from his own experience now that he is growing more livestock than his father did.

“This is not a negative change, as each farmer is having a bigger share of the product.”

However, when it comes to agricultural farming, he says, the issue of land is the most pertinent.

“Unless the land is inherited, it is complicated and costly for a young farmer to come into possession of it. I think today it is impossible to start a farm from scratch, due to the laws, permits, cost of land, and cost of investments,” he says, adding that it takes a long time for farmers to start seeing profit with land prices, seeing a plot of 1 tumolo (1,124 sq.m or 0.1 hectare) costing some €20,000-€40,000 when a much larger plot of land would be necessary to turn a profit.

According to the report, farming is a rapidly aging profession, with the average age of farmers being 55.

“When the economy is doing well, this could affect agriculture negatively, as certain sectors become more profitable, pushing young people to seek jobs other than farming. Farming, on the other hand, is highly volatile and at the mercy of the climate. Climate change is affecting farmers on alarming levels. Dry years are a terrifying prospect and a bigger threat than competition,” Scerri says.

Surely enough, when he was just starting out people would tell Scerri not to continue in his father’s footsteps. “I could have listened to them, but I didn’t.”

Scerri is hopeful. “Although we are small in number, young farmers currently working in the industry have the potential to dominate it and make sure local farming doesn’t, in fact, become a hobby. It could be that people are not aware of the up and coming farmers and their capabilities.

“It’s to be expected that the number of farmers decreases in the modern day, with the economy the way it is. There are opportunities, and although there are external challenges, the drive has to come from the individual.”

tia_reljic
Tia Reljic joined MaltaToday in 2017