Aged 15, when most of her classmates were dreaming of a career in law, medicine and education, Alexandra Spagnol had only one thing on her mind – her family’s fields. In the young girl’s mind, there was no doubt about what her future would hold, and that was a vocation in farming.
“Classmates could never understand me; they used to make fun of me and found farming a strange choice to make. But agriculture and livestock are in my blood. My mother’s side of the family has always worked the fields and I have never wished to do anything different,” she tells me, before stopping off to check how a flowering zucchini crop is faring.
Fast-forward 10 years and the now 26-year-old mother-of-two is one of a dying breed – a full-time female farmer who does the donkey work on her own, spending seven days out of seven in the fields and working as hard as the next man.
“As soon as I finished secondary school, I started working the fields full-time, and I haven’t looked back since. But to this day people still stare when they see me driving a tractor. Because I’m a woman, they look at me in disgust, and most will even go so far as to tell me that women should not be doing this. Mind you, these will usually be complete strangers,” she says.
It would appear that sexism is still very much alive when it comes to certain sectors of the industry. But Ms Spagnol is not having any of it.
“Women are as efficient as men, and this applies to all industries. I do get those who question whether I am capable of carrying out the physical labour aspect of the job. My reply to them is that I regularly handle 300 sacks of potatoes in a morning, each sack weighing 25 kilos give or take. So there’s their answer,” she says with an impish smile.
In fact, what makes Ms Spagnol remarkable in the agricultural industry is not her gender; there are many women hailing from farming families working the fields in Malta. Ms Spagnol takes it a step further, with the bulk of the work divided equally between herself and her uncle.
People do not understand the importance of farming
“My husband is a livestock farmer but we keep our work separate most of the time. I spend all day, pretty much everyday, in our fields together with my uncle. He reaps the harvest and I sow the crops... or vice-versa, depending on what needs to be done.”
When she says she spends every day working the fields, Ms Spagnol means exactly that, with no hint of hyperbole. Every week brings with it a basic schedule from Monday to Sunday, allowing for the sometimes unexpected turn of events that Mother Nature can bring with it.
She recites her timetable matter-of-factly: “Mondays and Fridays I prepare the vegetables for the Farmers’ Market the following day, which takes pretty much all day. Tuesdays and Saturdays I’m at the Farmers’ Market in Ta’ Qali at 5am sharp. Wednesdays and Thursdays I plant the crops, water them and so forth...” And on the seventh day, the farmer rested? No.
The last ‘holiday’ was when I gave birth to my daughter.
“There’s always something to do on Sundays too, you know. There’s always watering, unexpected problems, new crops to plant... the fields are a 24-7 job.”
So, when does she get to have a rest and maybe holiday a bit? This question provokes peals of laughter. The answer to that, clearly, is very rarely.
“I haven’t been abroad in 10 years. Since I started working full-time, in fact. I’ve forgotten what it means to visit another country. As for rest I don’t know. I don’t sleep much that’s for sure. Sometimes I’m still watering crops at 8pm. The only days I try to keep sacred and work-free are Christmas and New Year’s Day.”
She stops to think for a second, and adds, as an afterthought: “Come to think of it, the last ‘holiday’ was when I gave birth to my daughter. Mostly because it was by Caesarian section, so I had to stop for a couple of days whether I liked it or not. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been away from the fields for that long, that’s for sure.”
How does this work out with taking care of a two-year-old and a nine-month-old, I wonder out loud. This provokes another peal of laughter.
“What did I say about women being as capable as men, earlier? I’d hazard to add that we are even more capable in some instances. I multi-task like there’s no tomorrow. Parents help with the babysitting aspect, of course, we all need that little bit of help on occasion. But I’m there to oversee the kids’ homework, to spend time with them and put them to bed. Not that there haven’t been days when I’ve had to nip down to the fields for some emergency watering or general upkeep at night, mind you. But I still get to spend time with them.”
The young farmer’s fields cover a various array of crops – she exports potatoes to the Dutch market; she grows any veggies you can think of, such as kale, tomatoes, onions, zucchini... She is currently planning to experiment with asparagus, despite the knowledge that it’s a big gamble and that the plants take about two years to flourish.
She also makes the ever-popular ġbejniet, thanks to a herd of goats that she keeps in a separate field.
“They are one of the main reasons why I can’t really take a day off, more so than the crops. My uncle would cover for me in the fields for a couple of days, but with livestock you can’t do that. They get very attached to the person who feeds them everyday and tend to shy away from new people. This affects the yield, of course. They love me; the family always jokes that you can easily figure out which part of the fields I’m standing in, as there will be all the goats right behind me.”
The goats are also used to her little ones, she adds, particularly her son, who already has an affinity for the land and for livestock.
“He loves it. He is exactly like I was at his age, wanting to spend every single spare minute of the day in the fields, on the tractor or with the animals. And they are used to him, they love him back,” she says with a proud smile.
This begs the question: given all this hardship, how does she feel about a future in farming for her children? It is easy to see that my question produces mixed reactions, that the young mother is torn between pride and caution.
People stare in disapproval when they see me driving a tractor
“I love the land, so of course I feel proud that my offspring seem to love it just as much. At the same time, it would set my mind at rest to see them with a ‘normal’ job, and a secure paycheque every month.
“It is not so much the hardship that makes me cautious. Farmers are used to that. It’s the lack of appreciation, the assumptions that we are rolling in money when it’s anything but the case. The system is stacked against us,” she says, a reference to the way that the infamous Pitkali market operates as well as to the fact that Maltese consumers nowadays do not attach value to local produce.
“I’ve almost stopped using the Pitkali; the Farmers’ Market has been a game-changer for me. I prefer to deal directly with the consumer, anyway. The feeling of satisfaction of actually selling something that you yourself nurtured is incomparable.”
But even this is not without a downside. Customers are increasingly reluctant to pay a reasonable amount for produce and expect local farmers to sell their crops at a much lower price than imported fruit and vegetables that are found at supermarkets.
“People will not negotiate at a supermarket, of course. But they continuously haggle with me, when I’m already charging rock bottom prices. When you consider the expenses involved in farming, if you do the math you will figure out that we’re not rich pretty fast,” she insists.
The expenses don’t only include the obvious capital expenditures for crops and equipment but also the unexpected disasters wrought by nature. This year, Ms Spagnol tells me, was particularly cruel, with the weather acting up from one extreme to another.
“So many crops destroyed, and we have to foot the bill for everything. There was a lot of rain and wind this year, but also a lot of ġlada.”
Ġlada, she explains, is a thin layer of ice that forms over the crops when the air is particularly cold. The result typically tends to be a field full of dead plants.
“When it’s a particularly cloudless day in winter, we can tell immediately what’s going to happen later at night. We usually go down to the fields at around 9pm to hose down the crops in order to melt down the ice,” she explains.
Writing that it’s a tough life is somewhat redundant, but Ms Spagnol repeats that the hardships don’t really bother her as much as some people’s attitudes.
“At school they used to make fun of me for wanting to be a farmer. In all truth, not much has changed now. People remain uneducated about agriculture and what it entails. And they still do not understand the importance of a Maltese farming industry. This is what hurts, not the hard work,” she concludes ruefully.
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