The problems prompting full-time farmers to give up on the career remain largely ignored, according to the founder of the farmers’ lobby group, Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi.
Quoting an Agricultural Ministry report which stated that up to 70 per cent of farming land is unused, Malcolm Borg pointed to the lack of traceability at the Pitkali vegetable market and the current construction boom as two of the main culprits for the “slow, agonising death” of the agricultural sector.
“Reality is that, unless the situation at the Pitkali is not tackled, it is going to be very difficult to improve the lot of local farmers. Farmers who go to sell their produce at the market in Ta’ Qali find themselves relying solely on the honesty of the middleman, who is in a position to fix the selling price without being accountable to anyone,” Mr Borg said.
The Pitkali market operates on an auction system, where the middleman negotiates with buyers – hoteliers, supermarkets, grocery stores and the like – in order to find a price that is acceptable to all.
“I still meet farmers who tell me that they had an entire box of cauliflowers which was supposedly sold for a grand total of 50 cents. Or, sometimes, they get told that no buyers were found for their produce and it had to be thrown away. There is no way of checking whether this is true or not, as there is no traceability of money and goods.”
The unfairness of the situation, Mr Borg continued, was one of the biggest contributors to the dwindling number of farmers.
“Farming is already a very tough job, in and of itself. There are so many variables to contend with, such as weather, climate change problems, nature itself, endless toil... But farmers are used to this, it is not the hardship that discourages them. It is when everything goes well and yet, they are cheated out of a fair selling price.”
To further illustrate his point, Mr Borg recounts how a few years back, a strike by the Pitkalija middlemen had caused farmers to sell directly to the buyers. On that occasion, he remembers, they made three times as much money as they would usually have.
What if Malta ends up isolated for a longer time period? We are not equipped to be self-sustainable, and the more time passes the worse it gets
“No traceability equals no accountability. Who knows what is happening behind the scenes? The younger ones, especially, start wondering whether this is worth the hard work, if they cannot even make a decent profit when the harvest is good,” he said.
Asked why no attempts have been made to address the situation, Mr Borg described this as “a mystery”, before going on to say that one of the contributing causes is likely to be the fact that there has never been either organised lobbying, nor political interest.
“Farming comprises only two per cent of GDP, so the frustration has never really been translated to action.”
Meanwhile the number of Maltese full-time farmers has been steadily dwindling over the years, with the total number standing at 1,372 as of 2013. In stark contrast, the construction industry is experiencing a long-term boom, with the number of residential building permits issued by the Planning Authority increasing by more than a third in 2015, the sharpest spike in recent years according to most recent statistics.
“It is a well-known correlation, that when the construction industry is at its strongest, farming is at its weakest, with many farmers who get discouraged opting for one of the many available jobs in construction instead.
“Farming is dying a slow, agonising death,” Mr Borg said, adding that he personally knew a number of full-time farmers who had invested heavily in their business but who still couldn’t make ends meet and who packed it in to try their luck in the construction sector.
Asked what would be the ripple effects of the death of the local agriculture industry – especially bearing in mind that many supermarkets stock fresh produce from Sicily – Mr Borg reminded me that it does not take a massive natural disaster to remind us that Malta is completely not self-sufficient.
“As has happened in the recent past, all it takes is for a couple of days of stormy seas for the ferry connections not to work, resulting in empty supermarket shelves. This has already happened. What if Malta ends up isolated for a longer time period? We are not equipped to be self-sustainable, and the more time passes the worse it gets,” he replied.
But of course, it’s not just about the practicalities. Heritage and cultural identity also present a reason as to why the Maltese should feel the need to protect the agriculture sector at all costs.
“The Maltese almond is pretty much extinct, as is the Maltese chick-pea. The latter used to grow in the wild. How often do you come across them, nowadays?” he asked.
“We expect high-quality food but we depend on others. And the truth is that most people remain blissfully unaware of exactly how unable to feed ourselves we are,” he concluded.