The last farmer at Wied il-Ghasel… | Jeanette Borg

Malta’s agricultural sector faces unprecedented threat-levels from foreign competition and land-use issues. But ‘Malta Youth in Agriculture’ founder JEANETTE BORG argues that there is still hope for the future of local farming, if we adopt a more realistic, innovative approach

Jeanette Borg
Jeanette Borg

There is a perception that traditional Maltese agriculture is being phased out: with fewer people taking up the profession, more farming land lost to development, more competition from foreign products… how true is this perception? Is agriculture a dying trade?

There are two aspects to this issue: one is that agriculture is a really difficult profession. This is something no one can deny: I’d be lying to you if I claimed it is ‘easy’. There’s nothing easy about it at all. But the other aspect is that there is also a deeply pessimistic, ingrained attitude towards agriculture, even among people who work in the sector. When I go abroad, for instance – to both urban and rural destinations – I am always impressed by how they manage to create quality products out of practically nothing. We have the potential to do the same thing here… not just because our produce is of high quality, but also because foreigners love coming to Malta. For all our negativism towards our country – I myself sometimes ask what tourists see in Malta in the first place – the fact remains that foreigners go crazy about Malta. Not just the sun and the sea… but also our food, our fresh fruit and vegetables, etc. So why are we not capitalising on this, by investing in our niche products and services for tourists? To be fair, some people are being inventive and creative. There are some young farmers who are working to preserve typical local products, and teaming up with a network of local restaurant chefs. So there are young people who are going against the odds: saying, ‘this is what we have; so let’s see how to make the best of it.’ And I think that, with today’s tools – social media, and the demand that exists for genuine local products – there is a lot of room for innovation. But we have to move away from our habit of always complaining. Yes, it’s true that the authorities are not giving agriculture the importance it deserves. That’s a fact. But at the same time, it’s not a doomsday scenario, either…

On the subject of the authorities not giving agriculture its due: Malta has traditionally always had a Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, but this has changed. We now have only a parliamentary secretary within a larger ministry. Did this have any impact on the sector?

What a sore point you brought up there! Yes, of course it had an impact. The minute we had a parliamentary secretary instead of a minister was the beginning of the end. Agriculture lost its priority. Ninu Zammit was the last Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries; following that, it was downhill all the way. But there are other institutional problems: especially regarding EU funds, which are not in the remit of the agricultural departments, but fall under the EU funds ministry. The scope may have been to have good governance; but the repercussions were very negative in many other respects. Not least, because bureaucracy increased as a result. Meanwhile, even agriculture educational institutions have ceased to exist on their own merit. At the University and MCAST, institutes previously dedicated to agriculture have become a section of something else… just like the ministry, in fact. It seems that institutions are now afraid of even saying the word ‘agriculture’…

Road widening and infrastructural projects also often take priority over agriculture. The Central Link project alone will eat into 40,000sq.m of agricultural land. Is this another indication of agriculture losing its priority?

Let me put it this way: Malta’s total agricultural land amounts to 11,450 hectares… just a tiny fraction of what other EU countries have available. Every single patch of it counts: also because – let’s face it – agricultural land is the only green lung left, on an island as overpopulated as Malta. To lose even a tumolo, is to lose a lot. So 40,000sq.m is quite a large chunk. Having said this, I am not against infrastructural projects – even the Malta Youth and Agriculture Foundation, that I represent, is not against such projects. On the contrary: we agree that our infrastructure needs to be improved. Nobody wants to live in a country where the roads are full of potholes. But when we talk about such large areas being gobbled up for urban sprawl, or new roads… I think we need to be a bit more careful and sensitive. I’m not saying this project isn’t necessary; but have we exhausted all the options? I don’t think we have. I think that agriculture is being forfeited too easily in such projects. The attitude seems to be: if there are farmers on the land, we just pay them the worth of the plot… and that’s it. Give them a sum of money to shut their mouths… and say goodbye. I don’t think that’s a healthy attitude, myself.

This brings us to something you mentioned when you addressed last week’s ‘Enough is enough’ protest: i.e., that farmers are being pressured to sign ‘konvenji’ by developers. Can you elaborate?

The fact that farmers are approached by estate agents is no news to the rural community. In fact, I was very surprised that so many journalists picked up on that. If you go to places like Bahrija… Manikata… Mgarr…  Mqabba… Hal Safi… these are all villages that were previously just a handful of old houses built around a church. Today, there is a chance you won’t even recognise some of them anymore. Bahrija, in particular, has been developed beyond recognition in the last 10 years alone. When you look at all the new apartment blocks that have been built on the outskirts of these tiny villages… what was that land before? It was all fields. So what happened? Someone will have seen an opportunity to make money out of a plot of land bordering a road… so they approach the landowner, buy out the tenant farmer, etc. This is nothing new…

True, but that doesn’t necessarily amount to ‘pressure’, either. What if the farmers want to be bought out?

There are different types of pressure. Land tenureship is in itself a very complicated issue, and farmers are often caught up in the middle of a tangled web. Basically, there are three forms of tenureship: ‘raba tal-gvern’, whereby farmers pay a relatively low rent (il-qbiela) for government-owned land. In this system, the government reserves the right to expropriate that land for infrastructural projects. Then there’s ‘raba tas-sinjur’... where the land is owned by a land owner, to whom farmers pay rent. There is also ‘raba frank’...which means the owner/farmer has full rights over the land. This is of course the safest form of tenureship… but nowadays, it's become a very expensive way to go! But whatever the form of tenureship, some landowners - who are not farmers – are becoming eager to put their land where the money is. They have properties in rural areas which they now want to exploit in a way that is more profitable... so they are either increasing the rent to farmers, or just asking them to leave. Quite a number of genuine farmers are going through this sad situation: especially those surrounding derelict structures/farmhouses which can potentially be converted into luxury dwellings. Other tenureship problems have also been created, albeit indirectly, by EU funding schemes: like one particular agri-environmental measure funded by EAFRD. Land-owners soon realised that their tenant farmers were paying less rent, when compared to the funds available under this measure. So those farmers who did not have a long-term legal contract with the land owner, signed by a notary, were politely asked to ‘let go’. Obviously, this was not the intention behind making those funds available – ironically, the scope of this scheme was to preserve agricultural land, and certainly not to evict farmers. So I think that EU agricultural funds need to be developed with more care, in such a way as to avoid such situations that are to the detriment of genuine farmers.

Could it also be, however, that agriculture is simply not a profitable venture in this day and age? Is it even possible to make a career out of agriculture in Malta: especially if you do not own any land?

This is the crux of the entire matter: those situations I just described, arise mainly because farmers do not make enough profits to afford higher rents. It’s an indication that agriculture, in its present form, is not profitable enough for some. And ultimately, farming is a business like any other. In business, if you’re not profitable, you close down. Now: I’m not saying that local agriculture should ‘close down’. I’m saying the opposite, in fact: Malta cannot afford to lose its agriculture sector. Farmers are our unsung heroes, at the end of the day. Yet no one seems to give them any credit. Recently, for example, there was a news item about the inauguration of the ‘Gnien L-Gharusa Tal-Mosta’ [where this interview took place]. Everyone talked about what a beautiful view it is from here: you can see all of Burmarrad. But who is contributing to that view? You and I? Certainly not. It is the farmers who are tilling the land, growing vines, and keeping the rubble walls in place. If we lose them, we will lose all that, too. Admittedly, however, their job is not giving them enough in the way of financial return. But surely, the answer to that is to revamp the entire sector, in a way that it becomes more profitable…

Easier said than done, though, isn’t it? Local farmers now have to face competition from other European markets… not to mention the proliferation of large international supermarket chains, which import foodstuff in bulk. Foreign produce is now being sold everywhere… with supermarkets even offering ‘bajtar tax-xewk’ (prickly pear) from Sicily. Are Maltese farmers facing an impossible battle?

The problem with the EU is that we were unprepared when we joined. No question about it. Before EU accession, Maltese farmers were protected by a system of levies: imported olive oil, for example, was subject to a tax which was prohibitive enough for local importers to decide to sell those products elsewhere. But when we joined the single market, everyone was suddenly free to import whatever they liked: including all types of agricultural products, all at much lower prices. It was like being taken to Alaska, wearing only a T-shirt and shorts. Local agriculture experienced a shock. But if, five years before joining, Maltese farmers were told the truth about accession – for example, that to compete with imported goods, your products have to stand out – it might have been a different story. At the same time, however, some of these effects have been self-inflicted. ‘Making your product stand out’ can only be achieved through marketing… and this is something local farmers have been denying and resisting for years. Many still argue that ‘marketing doesn’t work’. But it does work…  and Maltese products do need to be marketed better, if they hope to compete in a liberalised market.

Can local produce realistically compete, though? Is Malta’s fruit and veg of a high enough standard to hold its own against imported products from Italy, France, Spain…?

I see no reason why Maltese products should not succeed, if properly marketed. Let’s face it: our fresh fruit and vegetables are not just ‘good’; they are second to none. But we have to get the message out there. Another thing we have to put behind us, is this attitude that there is no real demand for local produce. I don’t know where people get this idea from. Currently, we are importing 80% of our foodstuff from overseas. So very clearly, there is a local demand for agricultural products. Something does not tally in this equation: if we manage to sell other country’s products… why can’t we sell our own? The truth is that we can. But it can only be done by placing your products at the right locations; you have to pay a little extra, to get your products prominently placed on supermarket shelves; you have to pitch it to the right market segment, and so on. Above all, however, farmers need to stop expecting that a system which is not giving them the fair worth of their product, will change by itself. Like the Pitkalija, for example. I’m not saying there aren’t aspects of this system that need to be changed: or that there isn’t serious fraud in our system that needs to be investigated, either. But these are jobs that have to be done by the authorities. Only institutions like the police can investigate such matters. But instead of complaining about an unfair system… what are we doing, ourselves, to change it? To be fair, there are already farmers who have stopped depending on Pitkalija: such as those at Farmers Markets, or who sell directly to the end-client. Some farmers are middlemen themselves, as they sell their neighbour’s product, or need to satisfy a client by procuring a specific product from another producer. There is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is complaining about a system in which you don't fit. It is useless trying to stop someone else’s business, because it doesn’t suit you. Instead, farmers need to find other ways to sell their product. They need to change their own modus operandi... team up with other small-scale farmers, and sell as a group. They should standardise, brand, and sell their products to clients who are willing to pay a decent price. In a nutshell: our agricultural sector has to wake up and face reality.