Keeping the land green is an added benefit we get from farmers as they grow fresh local products for our dinner plates.

Creating economic benefits while respecting the environment is a double plus for everyone- Anne Zammit

Farming is no nine-to-five job. Some farmers encourage their children to become doctors and lawyers instead. It is easier to go to university and get a job than to make a success as a farmer in Malta.

It was not an easy start when pre-accession negotiations for Malta’s agricultural package began. Before 2002, statistics on agriculture were few and far between, which hindered efforts to argue the case for EU funding.

Farmers – many of them in their 50s and 60s – found the concept of keeping records and filling in forms difficult. The amount of paperwork they had to plough through just to receive the ‘Less Favoured Area’ measure payment of €25 per tumolo was crushing.

Help is now at hand with a customer care centre set up at Ta’ Qali by the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs, designed to help farmers make better use of EU funding more easily.

However, availability of funds for rural development and farmers this time around is expected to be less than for the previous two terms. Since Malta became a member state there are today more countries tugging at the European Commission’s purse strings for agricultural funding.

The Common Agricultural Policy aims to preserve the environment while ensuring an adequate, secure food supply and a fair standard of living for farmers. But the 2014-2020 EU budget is expected to lean more toward ‘balanced territorial development’ as money is spread more thinly across member states.

So far we have been very successful in tapping rural development funds although we did not always manage to absorb the allocated budget. Malta’s insular nature together with an aging farming population made a strong case during negotiations for the first rural development programme.

As we move towards the next seven-year funding term, the Commission is expected to question why we are asking for more when the 2007-2013 agricultural aid package has not been fully absorbed.

Can agri-tourism exist in harmony with eco-tourism or do they occasionally clash?

They do overlap, for example when nature walks are designed to include a stop at a farm to taste some local products. Creating economic benefits while respecting the environment is a double plus for everyone.

“If it weren’t for farming we would have concrete blocks from Marsascala to Mellieħa,” muses Jeanette Borg of Merill Eco Tours. Borg is a Mediterranean agro-systems management graduate who has turned her past experience in securing funds, and fostering tomorrow’s young farmers, toward running an eco- and agri- tourism business.

At 16, Borg studied for a diploma in agricultural science and then landed a ministry job. The department of rural development turned out to be the best place to learn about cross-cutting themes that link agriculture to the environment.

Farmers have never had it easy. Even until very recently, at graduation time, agriculture students were looked down upon and called names, including ‘drop-out’ by students of other professions.

All that turned around with an initiative to hold an open weekend to showcase students’ work at the Agribusiness Institute of the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology. Now agricultural science students are holding their heads high.

It was at the first such event in 2010 that Borg became aware of an untapped desire on the part of the public to know more about farming and caring for the land that produces our food.

Directly involved in securing pre- and post-accession Common Agricultural Policy funds, Borg developed a particular brand of determination which proved useful for scaling the walls of both local and EU bureaucracy.

It was a learning curve, wading through the administrative part of funding in order for available funding to be absorbed.

Despite having to pass through a solid wall of bureaucracy, efforts to persist with measures to protect rubble walls paid off.

No longer handcuffed by institutional frameworks, she challenges clients who sign up for a rural experience, whether it be a guided country walk or local product sampling, to go the holistic road:

Will they be leaving anything to the farmer who is keeping the countryside green? Ms Borg makes sure that the farmers get something back for all the work they put in during a farm or nature experience.

The farmers, our only stewards of the landscape, are more likely to put up higher walls to keep people out, and may not behave very co-operatively toward EU-funded initiatives, if they feel they are not duly recognised for all their hard work. This is the philosophy behind the business plan.

“When you speak to the farmer he has his own world. Unless you try to understand his world he will never understand yours,” reflects Borg.

Curtailing a rural tourism event when it takes place in a hunting zone during open the season may be inevitable:

“You have to respect boundaries. We change the itinerary as there are some points that are pretty hot during the hunting season – but we don’t go there.”

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