Farming will not survive another 10 years, according to Paul*, a 40-year-old born into a family of farmers.
This gloomy forecast is rooted in several issues – from a lack of appreciation of local produce to competition from abroad.
“The work has always been tough, but it has become tougher as expenses increase and farmers’ profits decrease. Salaries in other sectors keep going up but ours, after working day and night, keep going down,” he says.
Like the majority of his fellow farmers, Paul takes his produce to the Pitkalija in Ta’ Qali, where pitkali (middlemen) sell it to vendors, who in turn sell it to consumers.
The farmer has no say over his product’s price tag, and there is no traceability of the amount of fruit and vegetables not sold and therefore thrown away, Paul explains.
Recently, Paul was told that his cauliflower was sold at three different prices by three different middlemen: €4, €3 and a mere 10c per box, each containing seven cauliflowers. This means that in the latter case, the farmer made 1c5 on each cauliflower, which could ultimately be bought for 80c or €1 by the consumer. In this case, Paul made a loss, as each seedling cost him 5c.
Farmers often feel like they are ‘playing a lottery’ when deciding which crop to grow
Malcolm Borg, deputy director at Mcast’s Institute of Applied Sciences, pointed out that this excluded all other farming expenses, such as fertiliser, pesticide and energy costs.
Mr Borg is in charge of Mcast’s Centre for Agriculture, Aquatics and Animal Sciences. He told this newspaper that locally, farmers have no leverage. And while the hard work was time-consuming, their income was threatened by imported fruit and vegetables.
When there is low supply of a particular produce in Malta and farmers are earning a decent amount, crops are imported. This increases the supply, therefore reducing the local farmers’ profit once again.
Fellow farmer Mark* spoke of the ever-popular strawberry. If a farmer does not make, on average, between €1.75 and €2 per (kilo) pot, they would not cover their expenses, he said.
At the Pitkalija both farmers have been paid anything between 60c and €2.50 per pot. While it is in the pitkali’s interest to sell the produce at an adequate price, because of commission, Mr Borg believes that harvest should be graded, and a minimum price set for each produce. As things turned out this year, Paul is hoping he manages to cover the expenses. The market drives the price, so the higher the supply, the lower the profit. Farmers often feel like they are “playing a lottery” when deciding which crop to grow.
At the same time, there is no insurance that covers farmers, meaning they could lose their investment overnight if, for example, strong winds wreaked havoc among their greenhouses.
Mr Borg said that according to latest data, there are around 1,200 full-time and 17,000 part-time farmers.
Several rely on another income, and most often, farmers themselves discourage their children from taking up farming.
There are farmers who prefer selling off their land to developers than using it for farming, he said, urging the authorities to give more importance to this sector.
Paul, who has had to cut down his full-time farming job to part-time because “it’s not worth it”, recounted how his wife recently complained that whenever he made some profit, he had to spend it on the following season’s crops.
“I realised I was addicted to this job. Not even having to work on Sundays puts me off. I know that I making a little profit, which is not equivalent to the sacrifices I make, but I love it.”
*names have been changed
At the Farmers’ Market in Ta’ Qali
The produce at this market, set up in the early hours every Tuesday and Saturday, lands on consumers’ tables directly from the field.
Here too, the farmers fear their trade will not last long, although they are a bit more optimistic than Paul.
Perched on a green vegetable box, turned upside down, one farmer says that if things remain as they are, local farming will only last 20 years.
He is one of the 35 farmers at this market that toil the land rain or shine, living off the sale of the produce that he grows in his own fields.
He too has to face the ever-increasing expenses.
“For most of us, we feed our whole families from what we make on Tuesdays and Saturdays. But it has been getting tougher with each passing year.
“People don’t appreciate the work and money that goes into growing vegetables, and sometimes, they come here and want to set a price for the produce themselves.”
One of their constant battles is people’s “inflated” fear of pesticides, which increased since recent reports that some local produce was found to contain excessive pesticide levels.
The farmers explained they are not against tests being carried out on their produce but, they complained, it should not take so long to get the results.
The pesticide results are received some six months after being conducted, when all the produce from that harvest would have been sold.
“This means that if a test actually shows high pesticide levels, the ban would be put on a fresh batch of harvest, which might not have the same level of pesticides.”
The farmers insisted on making a distinction between the Ta’ Qali Farmers’ Market, which is where they sell their produce, and other markets in Malta, such as the Pitkalija market.
At the beginning of this month, Agriculture Parliamentary Secretary Roderick Galdes reported that 18 farmers had been banned from the Pitkalija, which is also in Ta’ Qali.
Some – a handful according to farmers who spoke to this newspaper – of those at the Ta’ Qali Farmers Market received letters informing them they would face legal action. However, their lawyer had told this newspaper that “none of the farmers at this market have been banned from entering the market.”
A young farmer said that excessive levels of pesticide had been found in some four batches of peaches, which, he believes, probably originated from the same farmer.
Why don’t farmers just stop using pesticides?
“We decided not to use pesticide on peaches last year… but when the reaping season was up, we didn’t harvest a single peach,” one farmer told this newspaper.
She explained that the local climate made it impossible for farmers to avoid pesticides, especially in summer.
And when the island is hit by a dry spell, like the previous winter, vegetables like cauliflowers become replete with bugs.
The country is humid and warm, which is ideal for mould and insects, and the spread of disease. So how about using organic means to keep pests at bay?
Organic pesticides could not be used for large quantities, the farmer said, noting that she knew of people who had tried to give it a go but could not live off their produce, because of the limited amount harvested.
The farmers who spoke to The Sunday Times of Malta insisted they were very careful with pesticides. Abuse was not only detrimental to the consumers’ health, but also to their pockets, because pesticides were “very expensive”, they said.
“People have told us we are killing their families but they fail to realise that our own families eat from the produce that they eat. Would we do that to our own?” another farmer asked.
Farmers are also aware that overuse of pesticides eventually backfires, because pests or weeds could actually become resistant.
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