European agriculture has been shaping up after a health check while we were all at the beach this summer. Keeping a lid on spending and checking that new priorities in EU agricultural policy are respected in all member states is the result of a more streamlined approach.

The EU allocated €100 million for agriculture in Malta for the period 2007 to 2013. Another round of applications for assistance will be submitted by farmers next month.

After sweeping reform in 2003, a refreshed Common Agricultural Policy shifted gear to facilitate a stable supply of affordable and safe food while ensuring that the environment is protected for future generations.

The CAP reform gave farmers more freedom to produce what the market demands while respecting the environment. Payments began to be made directly to the farmer under an obligation to respect regulations on habitats, animal welfare and product quality.

With the market firmly in mind and a backdrop of rising food prices, Europe's agricultural sector now finds that it is facing challenges in 2008 that were not as pronounced five years ago.

Our island's heritage is rich when it comes to wild flowering plants. Encouraging a wide range of different types of flora in a living-farming system such as permaculture would match updated EU farming aims.

Along with biodiversity, use of collected rainwater could set a new pattern for young farmers while getting the most out of farmland in a natural way. Preparing to weather climate change is high on Europe's political agenda. As an island in a region predicted to become hotter and dryer with more seasonal flash floods, the need for rainwater catchment and erosion control is more pressing than ever.

EU farm payments are already linked to how well the farmer follows standards in a system ensuring cross-compliance, with 19 directives related to animal welfare, plant health, food quality and environmental codes.

Failure by farmers to respect these conditions can mean forfeiting some or all of the direct payments.

Putting CAP reform and cross-compliance into action, in an atmosphere where relations between departments and authorities can be strained, was attempted by means of a memorandum of understanding.

Responsibility has been delegated to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority in the hope of improving cooperation with the Agriculture Department's paying agency.

The agency needed assurances that farmers were complying with other directives before utilising EU funds.

Twenty-eight councils in rural areas of Malta have grouped together as a 'Local Action Group' to qualify for funds and develop a bottom-up strategy for their use. Under Axis Four, local participation is encouraged to integrate a more local approach. This is based on the idea that adaptive, workable solutions to local rural problems are unlikely to succeed as mere hand-me-downs from Brussels, or from the government in member states.

Local Councils' Association executive secretary Jimmy Magro wants government to ensure that all departments have the required capacity to implement such EU programmes and are provided with enough competent staff.

Last week, the Malta-EU Steering and Action Committee joined the scramble to avail Malta of millions of euros on offer for rural development within the next four years. Rather than applying for the funds itself, the MEUSAC office will be 'hand-holding' to help councils identify when and what to target when submitting applications.

Under its newly appointed head, EU law expert Vanni Xuereb, the committee's mandate is to harness different energies within civil society to own the process of accession so that it is not left solely in government hands.

Setting aside arable land and paying the farmer to keep it in a natural state has been substituted by new funding for creating a buffer strip near watercourses. Incentives for voluntary environmental set-aside measures will be kept.

Providing a healthy forage area for bees or conserving traditional rural structures which create a natural habitat for fauna and flora, such as giren, are acceptable as funded agri-environment measures.

Growing up in a rural setting, Peppi Gauci observed traditional farmers and now hopes to qualify for a piece of the rural development cake to help use the experience in alternative agriculture that he gleaned from travels in India and Australia. Hitchhiking around the outback, aged 24, a stop at permaculture station became a two-year stay during which he rekindled his passion for natural stewardship of the land.

Picking up sustainable living and farming skills through hands-on experience, Gauci noticed similarities between modern permaculture and traditional knowledge of the rural communities he visited.

A valley in Baħrija seems the perfect place to put all this energy and vision into practice.

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