Meet the new farmer: confident, entrepreneurial and proud

Jeannette Borg's vision of agribusiness as a creative enterprise offers a refreshing contrast to the bleak picture of a sector often associated with a declining breed of elderly farmers struggling to earn a living from increasingly fragmented holdings

Jeannette Borg
Jeannette Borg

Jeannette Borg – a founder of social enterprise Merill and an advocate for young people in agriculture through the MaYa foundation – recounts an incident that happened to an 11-year-old boy whose father is a full-time farmer when the students in his class were asked to mention different professionals.

“All the kids started naming conventional professions such as being a lawyer, a police officer, a mechanic, and the teacher concurred. Then a boy raised his finger and told his teacher ‘a farmer’. Guess what answer he got from his teacher? ‘No, being a farmer is not a profession’. The boy was very disappointed since he knows the reality of being a farmer,” Borg said.

This incident embodies the stigmatisation of farmers in society as backward looking or ignorant.

Yet the times are a changing. Students in secondary schools can choose agribusiness as a subject on equal footing with other SEC subjects. And while difficulties persist Borg brims with confidence while speaking about the countless opportunities, which arise from the business of growing food.

Her vision of agribusiness as a creative enterprise offers a refreshing contrast to the bleak picture of a sector often associated with a declining breed of elderly farmers struggling to earn a living from increasingly fragmented holdings.

She does not ignore the many challenges facing the sector. The draft agricultural policy published some months ago, which she commends, made sober reading of these challenges.

Diversification and facilitating land ownership for young farmers are among the recommendations made at policy level.

But growing food can also be a thriving business for entrepreneurs who may not even own land but whose ideas can bring ‘added value’ to existing farming activities.

Borg started off Merill, an agritourism venture set up in 2010, which is still up and running eight years after it was set up. For five whole years Merill was her main occupation.

Borg is also active in the MaYA foundation (Malta Youth in Agriculture) which acts as voice for youths studying or working in agriculture and a strong advocate for innovation in the sector.

Despite not owning any land, Borg created a co-operative business, which involves farmers.

This has created a network of farmers and artisans who produce food and goods offered to tourists during rural tours.

“There are so many business ideas that can be taken up locally. I know entrepreneurs who have limited access to land and still make wonders.”

For Borg success in the field is “all about creativity and entrepreneurship”.

For example, the growing interest of tourists in rural areas triggers an ever-growing demand for traditional skills like restoring rubble walls.

But can one realistically earn a living from farming activities?

According to Borg it depends on the level of commitment one is ready to put in the business activity.

“Having assets like land and water surely makes a huge difference but being creative is also crucial.”

Yet to succeed farmers, like other entrepreneurs, need to understand markets. That is why Borg advocates agribusiness and not farming for its own sake.

“If the market is showing us that certain vegetables are not profitable then why do we (the farmers) keep producing them? If it makes more sense producing a variety of crops rather than one product, let’s diversify, if possible”.

The same counts for irrigation.

“In areas where water availability is an issue, we can still grow trees that require very little water and even process products from them”.

She gives two concrete examples of products, which are ideal for Malta’s arid conditions, which offer much scope for diversification; the carob and the prickly pear.

“We barely harvest carobs anymore because of our short-sited mentality and thus we are ignoring many opportunities which would add value to this product.”

Not only can one produce health products from carob pods but also selling carob flour can transform an under-utilized tree into a money-making unit. With regard to  the prickly pear, both its fruits and the leaves can be transformed into other products.

Surely Malta suffers from diseconomies of scale as the quantities potentially produced from such endeavours locally are small compared to that produced in other countries.

“Nonetheless, working hard on marketing and focusing on sales at domestic level can help to achieve better prices. Health shops are full of products which we can do ourselves”.

Unfortunately, red tape limits development in this sector. This includes a very stringent process for setting up a small-scale processing unit.

“Let’s say that authorities sometimes are adopting the motto ‘holier than the Pope’ in a way which stifles progress in this sector”.

While Borg sees no need to build new accommodation facilities in the countryside to serve as agritourism establishments, she believes that tourism offers countless opportunities for farmers.

She notes that a number of B&Bs, particularly in Gozo, are offering home-made jams, scrambled eggs made from local eggs and ġbejniet for breakfast.

“They aren’t even identified as agri-tourism outlets and yet some of them are supporting local buy trading with local farmers to bring about delicacies on the table of their guests”.

The same interest in local produce should be cultivated amongst the Maltese.  Moreover, local products have a lower carbon footprint as these do not have to be transported over large distances.

“Tourists are head over heals when they taste local products, be it fruits, delicacies or meat. Maltese people need to believe more in their product. It’s all about passion and pride”.

The key to encourage more young people to opt for a career in agriculture is through education.

This is not a difficult process when considering that children have a natural curiosity on anything, which grows from the land.

“The vibe created by
agricultural projects in primary schools where young children can actually see and touch their own produce
is immense.”

Positively at secondary level agribusiness has become a subject in its own right and is now recognised on equal footing with other SEC subjects.

Unfortunately, in the post secondary sector the Institute for Agriculture at the University of Malta has been rebranded as the Institute of Earth Systems while the MCAST Institute of Agribusiness fell under the “Applied Sciences” umbrella.

Giving recognition to agriculture as a subject in its own right is very important according to Borg.

“Having a ministry wholly responsible for agriculture as used to happen in the past instead of relegating it to a parliamentary secretariat would do give it greater attention and recognition.”

Moreover, agriculture on its own involves many different stakeholders and covers a wide range of topics ranging from environmental sustainability and landscaping to food safety and the economic well being of rural communities.

One major thing lacking in Malta is the recognition of agriculture as a profession.

“When one needs expert opinion on architecture one relies on an architect, when one needs an opinion on law one relies on a lawyer. Do we give the same recognition to agriculturalists?”

She laments the anachronistic mentality, which depicts farmers as “people lacking qualifications who are often stigmatised as being ignorant”.

“Nothing can be further from the truth as farmers are able to practise different disciplines like science, mathematics and management together…Not only do they learn to grow food but also have to run a profitable establishment.”

Yet not enough is being done to assist farmers in further education and to grant them recognition for skills, which they have practised for years in the absence of formal certification.

Despite increasing recognition of agribusiness as a subject on equal footing with others, one still encounters episodes of prejudice.

Added to latent prejudice is the bad press agriculture often gets in matters related to food safety. A case in point was an article decrying the high pesticide residues in products sold in Malta, which should not be taken at face value.

For example, the report also shows that 60% of cereal samples tested showed pesticide residue, something which one cannot blame on the Maltese farmer as these products are imported.

“Surely there is room for improvement to safeguard consumers but the report depended on statistical interpretation rather than facts on the ground and leaves behind many questions about what is safe and what is not”.

While “scaremongering is damaging the income of farmers”, Borg insists that it useless for the agricultural sector to constantly depict itself as a victim. Instead stakeholders in this sector should take a more pro-active role.

“Communication is key and we need to use it more to show our side of the story…there is a lot going on but not enough is done to relate it to the public”.

One notable absence is the lack of exposure the sector gets on the media.

“Programmes related to food production and agriculture are mainstay of Italian TV on Sunday morning… we need to see more of this in Malta”.

Events like Festa Frawli and Lejla Mgarrija also help to foster a sense of community and pride in rural communities while offering a platform for different stakeholders in agriculture. For food, according to Borg, is a big part of what defines us as Maltese.

“For what comes to mind when we think of what to get along when representing Malta abroad? Yes… Food! Ok, we need to move a bit away from the usual Twistees, Cisk, Ġbejniet and Galletti routine, but the gist of it all is that almost inevitably we revert to food whenever we look at who we are”.

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