The farmer who's beating pests - the natural way

He uses as little pesticides as possible

Video: Jonathan Borg

Farmers have adapted their cultivation and pruning methods, relying more on local wild flora and only using pesticides as a last resort, according to young farmer John Gauci.

Born into a family of farmers, the 25-year-old is the youngest of three siblings – and the only one – who opted to study agriculture.

“My father, whose parents and siblings are all farmers, questioned my choice of studies because he knows that it is getting harder to earn a living from toiling the land,” said Mr Gauci, who has a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture.

Photo: Jonathan BorgPhoto: Jonathan Borg

His words echo those of farmers who in the past few months have told The Sunday Times of Malta that farming could become economically unsustainable in 15 years’ time.

However, Mr Gauci believes that there is a future for farming in Malta if everyone – from the farmer to researchers and consumers – pull up their socks.

The Sunday Times of Malta met up with him at one of his family’s fields in Rabat, where they grow pomegranates and grapes, among other crops.

Photo: Jonathan BorgPhoto: Jonathan Borg

Mr Gauci explains that they grow fruit, including cherries, plums, peaches, figs and olives, with an integrated pest management approach and use nearly no pesticides at all.

We could adopt a system whereby pesticides can only be acquired through a prescription

Among others, they have introduced an insect trap system that allows them to monitor pests. They are also adopting what is known as a fruit thinning process, where they reduce the amount of fruit growing on the trees, thereby increasing ventilation and making it more difficult for pests to thrive. They have further increased ventilation by putting more space between trees.

Although this might reduce the crop’s quantity, it improves the quality and the size of the remaining fruit. The process requires removing the fruit while it is still in flower. In the case of pomegranates, for example, the flowers could be turned into tea, meaning that farmers could even profit from a pest-control method.

Mr Gauci’s family has also turned to wild flora, which is more resilient to pests and diseases.

The young farmer said that along the years, people have ‘domesticated’ wild plant varieties, modifying, for example an olive’s size or the amount of oil that it produces. It now seems that going back to these wild species is part of the solution.

Photo: Jonathan BorgPhoto: Jonathan Borg

“We plant a wild variety of the crop (known as rootstock), and after two years, graft it with a locally cultivated species. By avoiding the use of imported species, we are increasing the plant’s chance of adapting to the local climate and surviving.”

This system is increasingly gaining popularity, and some have just resorted to growing what is known as the crop’s wild relative, such as when it comes to the quince (sfarġel).

Meanwhile, they refrain from removing wild creepers that grow around the fruit trees, as they help the farmer identify and prevent diseases that could actually attack his crops. One such example is allowing the growth of field bindweed (Leblieb tar-raba’) around grapevines because of a particular fungi that attacks both. This way, the bindweed acts as a warning system for the farmer, who upon noticing the fungi on the wild plant would be in time to save the grapevine.

When it comes to peaches, a fruit that is very susceptible to pests, the family limited the plant varieties, cutting down on the species that grow in summer, when they are more prone to diseases.

Photo: Jonathan BorgPhoto: Jonathan Borg

Pests are one of the biggest headaches for farmers – and the introduction of new ones is a continuous challenge. In 2000 for example, a pest that attacks mulberry trees was introduced with wood imported from Cameroon.

More recently, the cultivation of figs took a blow with the introduction of insects from abroad that attack the bark, completely destroying the fruit tree.

Ultimately, researchers should join forces with farmers when it comes to dealing with pests and diseases, Mr Gauci said. “We could adopt a system whereby pesticides can only be acquired through a prescription. This would require farmers to consult with agronomists who advise them on systems that they could adopt to treat diseases and pests, in order to limit use of pesticide.”

At the end of the day, farmers are the front-liners when it comes to the application of pesticides, so they too are trying their best to avoid pesticide use.

Read: 'L-aħħar bidwi' could be a Maltese reality in 15 years' time

Is there a future for young farmers?

Mr Gauci works in the fields part-time, as he juggles toiling on the land, lecturing at Mcast and working as an agriculture officer within the Civil Service.

According to recent data, only a fifth of farmers in Malta are aged under 35, however he believes there are ways of making the sector attractive – and sustainable – to young people.

One of the biggest challenges for young farmers is gaining access to land.

As things stand, Mr Gauci does not feel encouraged to invest in much of his family’s land, because the fields are spread all over the island – from Rabat to Mġarr, Chadwick Lakes and St Paul’s Bay.

The land is so fragmented that it is not worth toiling, especially those parts which cannot be accessed with machinery or a private vehicle, but are only accessible through a footpath.

One solution could see the government reclaiming back all the land and re-entrusting farmers with the same amount of land in one area.

He also believes that farmers can earn a living through growing produce, however, this would require a revision of the pricing system.

“How do we value agricultural products? We have seen cauliflower being sold at €2 per kilo, with the price falling drastically to 10c per box. What does Pitkalija base the prices on – foreign produce or how much it costs to grow the produce?

“A recurrent fear among young farmers is that after five years waiting on a tree to bear produce, they are not sure whether they will cover their expenses.”

Mr Gauci thinks that the whole pricing system should change and products should be distinguished according to their quality, which is determined by a quality assurance board.

This could be substantiated by cooperatives that see farmers come together, and ‘brand’ their product. For too long, farmers have been cut off from the commercialisation process – this has to change, the determined farmer says.

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