Elegy for farmers

We have to strengthen vocational education in agriculture and veterinary services, at both secondary and post-secondary level.

L-Aħħar Bidwi f’Wied il-Għasel is one of the more famous Maltese songs. But despite its popularity, few seem to have heeded the warning contained in its lyrics. The song relates the plight of the last farmer at Wied il-Għasel and unless we act now, all farming in Malta and Gozo is at risk of suffering the same fate as that implied in this popular song.

Farming has been in constant decline for many decades. Agriculture is dwindling for many reasons. In six years’ time, the number of farmers in Malta and Gozo will go down from around 19,000 to 9,000. People in agriculture are an ageing population, with almost a third of farmers over the age of 45.

It has stopped being a hereditary industry, primarily because it is no longer deemed to be a profitable business. In fact, for a one Euro value of agricultural produce, only eleven cents are actually paid to the farmer. 

Furthermore, the insecurity of the title of land that farmers hold does not encourage investment. This has led to children of ‘traditional’ farmers to seek greener pastures.

The number of students in agriculture and veterinary science is a mere 0.4% among students in higher education institutions. Figures for students in agriculture and related studies show that whereas the number of students was 61 in the scholastic year 2007-8, it was only 46 during 2011/12.

This trend must be reversed. Agriculture has played an important part in the growth of civilization and it is still a very important sector of our economy and that of the EU.  On our islands, farming-orientated villages were the backbone of Maltese society.

The role of farming in modern days is different but equally important. Agriculture is essential to the environment and a lack of farming will lead to abandoned farmland. It will also have repercussions on the food sector, leading to a shortage of local produce, thereby promoting more importation of food.

The Labour Party has always stressed the importance of agriculture. In the 2013 election manifesto, we specifically mentioned facilitating the transfer of agricultural land from generation to generation and we identified a plan to attract more youths to this sector.

This is a national plan that will help in creating the right environment to help farmers and food producers and that will contribute towards a better tourism and agro tourism product for Malta and Gozo.

The Rural Development Programme launched by the Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change is an exercise that will provide support for rural development.

Above all, we pledged to maximize EU funding and to help the agricultural community benefit from directives issued by the European Union. Earlier this month, together with ‘Koperattivi Malta’ and with the help of EU funds, we launched a project that will be a major step in promoting sustainable agriculture.

This is a European project that rewards and opens up opportunities across Europe to those with qualifications in agribusiness. But first we have to ensure that we achieve these qualifications. We have to strengthen vocational education in agriculture and veterinary services, at both secondary and post-secondary level.

We will introduce adequate syllabi pertaining to the specific needs of our islands and not copied from other EU countries. This is because in Malta and Gozo we have a different scenario that needs different approaches. We have ensured that ‘agribusiness’ will be offered to our students from September 2014.

Vocational training in farming and agriculture is indispensible. We need more apprenticeships and we need to promote, once again, family farming. L-Aħħar Bidwi f’Wied il-Għasel, written years ago, is an eye-opener. We must ensure that the negative trend is reversed. We must generate more jobs in agriculture and related industries.  The future is green jobs and nothing is greener than jobs in agriculture. 

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