Farmers are being approached to sell their fields to prospective cannabis cultivators – and the struggling crop growers are viewing the offer as a lifeline, according to those who spoke to the Sunday Times of Malta.

The farmers report that property brokers, or sensara, have gone to them in recent days asking whether they are willing to part with their land for the cultivation of medical cannabis, which the government is promoting as a new industry for Malta.

Farmers said they were being offered at least €100,000 per tumolo of land they own which hosts greenhouses with all the necessary permits.

The land in question has been passed down from generation to generation, with farmers having invested even up to €1 million to cultivate it and install greenhouses on it.

Promises of sale have been made by word of mouth, farmers have told this newspaper. This is because the Production of Cannabis for Medicinal Use Bill is still in its third reading in Parliament and has yet to become law.

Farmers being offered €100,000 per tumolo

One farmer believes that about 170 tumoli of land to the east and west of the island have already been promised for sale.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has said in Parliament that only “small-batch cultivation for research purposes” would be allowed.

“To be honest, it is a blessing in disguise,” the farmer said. “For those of us who feel desperate as they are incurring losses every year, or have no one to pass their fields on to, selling our land will give us peace of mind.

“At the same time, if a fraction of the existing 900 tumoli of greenhouses is sold for the cultivation of cannabis, this will lessen competition between those who grow conventional crops in greenhouses.”

Another said: “Selling the land is a lifeline for many of us who are on their knees. The sensara came at the right time. Selling our land could save us.”

MCAST head of agriculture Malcolm Borg. Photo: Matthew MirabelliMCAST head of agriculture Malcolm Borg. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

When contacted, the head of the Centre for Agriculture at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology, Malcolm Borg, said the prospect of selling agricultural land to cannabis cultivators was enticing because it was unlikely that farmers would make that much money during the remaining years of their lives.

However, he also warned that the selling of land to foreign companies would see a sudden erosion of Malta’s rural heritage and deal another blow to the island’s already weak food security.

The farmers who spoke to The Sunday Times of Malta said that one of the biggest impacts on the farming sector has been lack of controls over the importation of fruit and vegetables, often grown in countries with more lax pesticide controls.

This produce is grown in large quantities and sold cheaply in Malta. Sometimes it is even passed off as Maltese produce, said one farmer.

Another said it was not even worth applying for EU funds for rural development. “Why would you set up shop when you know you will not be able to sell anything,” he asked.

According to Mr Borg, the competition from imported produce and the lack of an agricultural policy are two of the factors making farming economically unsustainable and killing off local crop growers. If no urgent action is taken, the local farming sector could die in just 15 to 20 years, he said.

And if this year’s profits are an indication of what’s in store, one farmer believes it won’t even be that long before local agriculture disappears.

The farmer, who has been tilling inherited land for more than two decades, has barely covered his expenses this year, pocketing only the equivalent of half of last year’s profits.

The future looks so bleak that he has been mulling the idea of leaving farming and moving to the construction sector, which is what some other farmers have done.

Another farmer who has discouraged all his children from taking up farming and would willingly sell part of his land – for cannabis cultivation – in return for some peace of mind.

Young farmers are scarce all over the island. Mġarr, which boasts the largest number of full-time farmers – around 60 – has produced only five new farmers in the last few years.

“It is very difficult to part with our land because we were born and bred there. It is part of who we are,” said one farmer.

“But no one wants to make losses and end up with no money. The farming sector has reached rock-bottom, and the only way up is to give up the land completely.”

The Ministry for the Economy in a statement said  legislation and policy for production of cannabis for medical use provides that production and any related cultivation for designated purposes and parameters can only be carried out in designated and secured industrial areas and under GMP conditions. No production or cultivation of cannabis will be licensed or permitted outside designated industrial areas.

The ministry said that any reported “buyers” approaching farmers to sell their agricultural land on the pretence of it being used for the cultivation of cannabis were being deceptive or misguided, as no other scenarios for cultivation except the ones outlined previously will be permitted, as per legislation.

PN seeks clarity over Australian cannabis facility

The Nationalist Party said government should inform people whether it has authorised a private Australian company to operate a medicinal cannabis facility when the law making this possible has not been approved by Parliament.

The PN was referring to a report in Times of Malta saying that the government had failed to explain how an Australian company had been given a contract to develop a 4,000 square metre facility to construct a medical production and cannabis cultivation facility in the south. This when the law on the production of cannabis for medical purposes is still being debated in Parliament and MPs are yet to vote on its approval.

If the Australian company’s statement is true, the government has ignored Parliament on a sensitive issue, PN said yesterday.

“The government should, without further delay, state whether it is true that it has issued a letter of intent, a contract or any other authorisation to this company or others, allowing activity related to the production of cannabis for medicinal use,” it said.

In reply the Ministry for the Economy said the company in question was given a letter of intent from Malta Enterprise, subject to more than 20 provisions and conditions including those which clearly state that the letter of intent is only valid and effective if/once the law regulating medical cannabis manufacturing is enacted.

“The LOI makes a clear reference that there will be conditions, regulations, and provisions in laws that will regulate the subject matter. It is clear that if the law is not approved by Parliament, the LOI has no value or legal validity.

“This letter of intent can only be converted into an executable contract (eventually through the signing of the lease agreement with Malta Industrial Parks) once the law is enacted. The conditions in the lease agreement shall mirror the same conditions as stipulated in the letter of intent,” the ministry said.

But the PN in a later counter-statement insisted the Australian company had spoken of being awarded a contract. Which was the correct version? The Australian company’s “contract” used to raise €5 million or the government’s “letter of intent”.

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