Fragmentation of agricultural land, often divided into parcels not larger than a few hundred square metres, has always been considered by academics and public administrators as a major obstacle that hinders professional, remunerative agricultural activity of any kind.
Professional and hobby agriculture are very different kettles of fish. For modern and remunerative agriculture, the priority should be placed on the former and not the latter, which will probably mean less enterprises but of a larger dimension. Very small enterprises are probably destined to exit the professional agricultural market.
Land fragmentation characterises many Maltese agricultural land. There is no doubt that this is a phenomenon which is having a negative impact on the sector.
For the negative socio-economic and environmental factors to be mitigated, one needs to support and develop projects and policies for a reorganisation and consolidation of agricultural land.
Fragmentation of land is always one of the major causes of a lack of innovative development in the agricultural sector.
A medium-term objective might be the setting up of innovative procedures for the re-organisation of agricultural land to rectify some of the excessive fragmentation in Maltese agriculture so as to enhance the agronomic and ecosystem value and services provided by such land.
The ultimate aim of such a process would be the building of a legislative framework to establish sound agricultural enterprises on consolidated land.
Such framework should seek to adopt measures to favour agricultural enterprises of a decent size while disincentivising the fragmentation of land and can include fiscal measures to entice such shifts.
This would lead to an increase in production capacity of growers but one needs to take good stock of the current situation and make the necessary, even if unpopular amends for the above to be seriously tackled.
The recent legislation that allows for the transfer of agricultural leases between one farmer and another is one huge step in the right direction. Let’s continue pushing in this direction and make the changes that are so direly needed.
For this to happen policymakers need to answer many questions that are loaded with political and social implications.
Land fragmentation characterises many agricultural lands... a phenomenon which is having a negative impact
What do we want out of our agricultural land? Are we comfortable having sons and daughters of retired farmers, completely uninterested in working in the agricultural sector, holding on to inherited land for the sake of having a rural get-away during weekends?
How are we going to strengthen entitlement of land that genuine farmers have been working for a very long time but could not be given any legal recognition of them doing so due to various barriers? How can we protect farmers working privately-owned land from the onslaught of owners continuously requesting their land back (definitely not to be used for remunerative agriculture) even through legal means?
This latter issue of owners of agricultural land trying to squeeze out, exhaust or out-manoeuvre the farmers that work their land continue to arise due to speculation purposes, but not only.
The unprecedented demand for arable land for picnicking, leisure farming and weekend getaways is a golden opportunity for such owners to lease out or sell their fields to individuals in search of land for such practices. And exorbitant prices are being requested for such land.
It is thus that our arable land is being negotiated and taken away from the professional food production domain.
The access to land is perhaps the highest of hurdles for new entrants who have no land or land lease to inherit.
While purchasing new land is prohibitively expensive, they have no department to go to or database to consult with to identify potential arable land they can get a lease on.
New young farmers – a potential lifeline in the agricultural sector – are having to abort mission before they have the opportunity to set foot on a patch of soil.
In essence, we are duty-bound to ask: how can we make sure that our agricultural land is in the hands of those that want to use it for the professional production of food and how can we strengthen their entitlement on such land?
We cannot continue to have this absurd fragmentation and de-agronomisation of our arable land. It is also worth remembering that every new fragment created would probably give rise to new requests for water sources, storage structures and other amenities required for the day-to-day operation of the fields. Can we afford to accede to such requests?
Let’s treat agriculture like any other business and any other sector. We don’t give away warehouses in industrial areas for leisure and hobbies and hence we must ensure that we don’t allow for the de-commercialisation of our agricultural sector by continuing to lose arable land that can be used for remunerative agriculture.
For the sake of food security, of our present and aspiring farmers, of our rural landscape and good agricultural management, we need to act fast before it is too late.
* The article was written in collaboration with the Ordine dei Dottori Agronomi e Forestali della Provincia di Ragusa.
Malcolm Borg is coordinator of the Active Farmers Association.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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