February drought piles more pressure on Maltese farmers

Lack of precipitation will lead to a decrease in the quantity and quality for fodder crops, with the biggest headache for farmers being that of having to rely more on importing the animal feed

A sunlit February has spelt bad news for farmers, whose crops depend heavily on rainfall during what is normally considered the wet season for the country.

A Meteorological Office report revealed that the second month of 2020 was the driest on record since 1923.

This year only 0.6mm of precipitation was recorded, with the monthly average being 56.9mm.

Farmers who spoke to MaltaToday said Maltese agriculture was highly dependent on rainfall in the season between October and April. The replenishment of their reservoirs and artisan wells is crucial to avoid pumping water from the water table at an early point in the year.

Jeanette Borg, from the Malta Youth in Agriculture Foundation, said the sectors most affected by this year’s drought will be the production of fruit and vegetables, and fodder crops which depend heavily on rain water.

Fodder crops such as wheat, barley and clover are used for animal feed, and make up around 45% of Malta’s utilised agricultural land.

Borg said that lack of precipitation will lead to a decrease in the quantity and quality for fodder crops, with the biggest headache for farmers being that of having to rely more on importing the animal feed. “This will obviously increase the costs of production for farmers,” she said.

The lack of precipitation is also leading to higher vegetable prices for consumers. Vegetables are usually more abundant at this time of the year. However this depends on water availability. “We are noticing that broccoli and cauliflower prices, for example, have remained quite high in comparison to previous years,” she said.

Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi’s Malcom Borg shared Jeanette Borg’s concern, pointing out how the extraction of groundwater comes at a larger expense for farmers. “The extraction of water will put more pressure on the water table, making it longer for the resource to replenish.”

Asked how farmers will cope if the situation remains as it is, Borg said that ‘new water’ is helping some farmers to a certain extent. New water is polished, treated sewage water which has been made available to farmers solely for irrigation purposes. It is considered to be very high-quality water for agriculture, industry, landscaping and other sectors where drinking water quality levels are not required.

Malcolm Borg said the water was of very good quality, and insisted the quality of produce is not in any way affected, but lamented that the resource is not readily available to everyone. “We must ensure that all farmers are given all the help they need,” he said.

Jeanette Borg insisted that more research needs to be carried out on the ground to equip growers with practical solutions, since weather extremes are on the rise. “Last year we had the infamous February storm, and this year we have very little rain. We must be prepared or we risk losing the livelihood of rural areas,” she said.

She suggested that creating more synergy between growers, authorities and researchers can help in achieving long-term planning in terms of water resource management.

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