Challengers farmers cannot meet
Farming is a very important economic activity in any economy. Before industrialisation it often used to be the primary economic activity in many countries. Industrialisation and post-industrialisation developments have attracted many workers away from farming into manufacturing or services jobs. That has not spelled the end of farming.
People must eat. Fast foods or otherwise, few people would wish to live on synthetic food, or on pills containing necessary daily vitamin and other life-preserving doses.
Farming in has followed the principal trend elsewhere. With the extension of activities by the British military forces, especially after World War I, thousands of people left the land to work in the naval dockyard or the military airport, and in ancillary activities. Over the years, farming was also affected because too much arable land was taken over for building purposes. Incredibly, construction and residential development were also allowed to block a number of the few natural springs that existed in Malta and Gozo. From the second part of the last century, although the naval dockyard and the military facilities at the airport were in terminal decline, many workers were still lured away from the land into the manufacturing and tourist industries.
Nowadays, the full-time farming community is at its lowest for many years, along with those in fisheries numbering 1,517, or 0.9 of the gainfully occupied population, according to the last count in March. If it were not for the support of thousands of part-time farmers, numbering some eight times the full-time sector, farming would be much weaker as an economic activity.
Farming has changed in other respects as well, even beyond the greenhouse revolution. Pesticides have enabled modern farming to grow. They also largely destroyed the natural ambience of the sector. Butterflies, for instance, have become practically non-existent. The bee population has become far less dense.
Ironically one positive change – positive from the farmers’ point of view – has taken place in the supply of water for farming purposes. Water was as precious as gold to the farming community. Many decades ago they used cut out boreholes using pickaxes in search of precious water, apart from harnessing natural springs wherever they existed. Wind-driven extraction of water also became very popular among those who sat on underground supply of water.
Still, water was the main constraint to extensive farming. The change referred to lay in the fact that most farmers were moved by the example of those who began to mechanically drill boreholes to depths hitherto unheard of, not infrequently piercing the water table.
This helped farming but damaged the present and future supply of good water, as hydrologist Marco Cremona has so frequently warned. The government made weak efforts to get those who had drilled boreholes illegally, and they were not only farmers, to register their boreholes. There is now some record of such boreholes and farmers are very apprehensive of the threatened metering of their water consumption.
That is not to say that a sound water policy has been drafted and is being implemented. But the minimal enforcement affects farmers – as it should, provided the few are controlled but the many, farmers and others, continue to sing their own sweet song.
Despite the improvement in their water supply many farmers are unhappy. Whether operating individually or organised in cooperatives they lambast the pitkali model, whereby prices are set by middlemen who still adopt the hoarse whisper in the ear system. The authorities have opened a window. On given days, farmers can sell their produce directly to consumers at a price which benefits both because it bypasses the middlemen’s cut.
Still, even this arrangement has its weaknesses. Farmers have to leave the land to sell their produce on the given direct selling days, meaning that they have to leave their fields and crops unattended. There is another much bigger challenge to farmers – competition through imports. Until not very long ago vegetables and fruit were imported such that they maintained supply when domestic provision was moving out of season. Even then farmers were affected – imports came in when they could obtain the highest price for their produce because of short supply relative to constant demand.
Nevertheless farmers got along. Now imports have soared. Efficient sea communications with Sicily has made it possible for fruit and vegetable importers to bring in produce daily all the year round, for it to be sold in direct competition with local produce.
Farmers say, and consumers mostly agree, that Maltese fruit and vegetables taste better than the imported substitutes. Yet all too often it is price that prevails.
Domestic farming is essential to a small island economy. Fresh efforts and measures are needed not to allow it to die out. It is not that the authorities are ignoring the sector. The challenge lies in change, a challenge that cannot be met by restricting imports, even if that were possible, or by the farmers alone, even though they receive preferential treatment in the way they are taxed.
Fresh thinking is required.