Farmers say that court cases threatening their eviction from land their family has tilled for generations is leading to heightened mental stress and anxiety they have not experienced before.
“The stress is eating me from the inside. Fields are being sold and bought complete with farmers still tilling them,” a young farmer who has seen his father fall into depression over the years, told Times of Malta. “The new owners then try to kick out the farmers and sell the fields at exorbitant prices that do not reflect the actual value of arable land.”
The man, who studied agriculture at post-tertiary level, explained that the owners of the land his family tills have been challenging his father “about every little thing” in court, in a drive to evict him. The young man himself, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is now suffering from anxiety.
“When one is brought up in farming, it becomes part of who you are. If they take farming away from you it’s like they’re ripping your heart out. I’ve tried my hand at alternative jobs, but my heart wasn’t in it: I had left it in the fields.”
I’ve tried my hand at alternative jobs, but my heart wasn’t in it: I had left it in the fields
Ever since a court in 2020 declared that the rural leases law is unconstitutional, dozens of farmers have ended up in court, with private landowners challenging the so-called qbiela law. Only last month did the cabinet approve changes to agricultural lease laws in a bid to ease the transfer of land between family members, but this only applies to public land.
Malcolm Borg, coordinator of Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi told Times of Malta farmers are used to temporary mental stress linked to unpredictable seasonal patterns. This mental stress is short-lived and usually does not threaten their future income. It is also something that farmers have learnt to live with over several centuries. “Being evicted from fields is considered as something long-term. I am increasingly being approached by farmers reporting psychological issues, including anxiety and depression.”
For the older generations, the court cases threaten the bond that entire families have with arable land. For the younger ones, some of whom would have even taken up tertiary-level agricultural studies and invested heavily in the maintenance of fields and tilling equipment, eviction threatens their future livelihood.
And buying their own land has increasingly become financially impossible for farmers. Last year, an exercise carried out by Times of Malta found that one tumolo of land was being advertised for at least €40,000. Advertised prices spiked to €266,000 for two tumoli of arable land in Rabat and €1.5 million for three tumoli with one large room in Siġġiewi. Farmers looking into acquiring arable land are being asked for up to €80,000 per tumolo, and this is unaffordable for most, as an average of 12 tumoli are needed to start a full-time agribusiness.
One young woman who plans to take up organic farming full-time and introduce the concept to schoolchildren has been fighting eviction in court for three years after the death of her father. She admits she would not be able to buy the land at the current asking price.
“Having been brought up on the fields myself I continued from where my father left off. I’ve spent nearly four decades in the fields, and I cannot imagine my life without farming.” Listed as a part-time farmer on paper, she explains she must tend to the fields every day and spends whole weekends there.
Apart from the time and money invested in tilling the fields and maintaining their infrastructure, she has now invested all her resources in the court battle and has not turned a profit in three years. “It’s stressing me out – I spend sleepless nights thinking about it, and I’m always unwell after court sittings. Sometimes I do wonder why I keep it up… but how can I give up my life?
“Every day I look around me and realise that more and more fields are being bought out by developers and turned into recreational spots. Bidding farewell to fellow farmers is just turning me into a stress ball about my own future farming prospects.”
If farmers need emotional support, they can call Richmond Malta’s helpline on 1770. Alternatively, type OLLI.Chat on their desktop, mobile or tablet browser to chat with a professional 24/7.