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I'm A 22-Year-Old Maltese University Graduate, And I Want To Become A Full-Time Farmer

'It's extremely difficult to an outsider like myself'

Steve Zammit Lupi is a 22-year-old University of Malta graduate. With a degree in European Studies and a love for photography, Steve has become more and more drawn to Malta's natural beauty as he grows older. He is an educated young person with no farming background in his family - but he wants to include farming in his life. However, doing so turned out to be a bit harder than he expected. 

I have no relatives or close friends that are farmers or own agricultural land. Both my parents had specialised jobs - my mother is a medical doctor and my father is a pilot. 

I was very lucky to live in a townhouse that had a backyard citrus orchard. From a very young age I was exposed to soil, and watched my mother grow plants and flowers in the garden. 

My late grandfather use to come every Saturday to water the orange trees during the dry period and it was always a good excuse to get dirty playing in the mud. 

When I was seven I developed an interest in the micro world of insects. I used to spend hours searching for insects in the garden, and putting them in jars to get a closer look before setting them free again. 

At eleven I shifted to wild birds; since wild animals in Malta are practically non-existent, I turned to the sky for inspiration.

Monticola Solitarius Spain 1

Encouraged by my late grandfather who bought me an educational book about birds, I got myself lost in the world of birds. 

As I grew older, the natural next step would be to take interest in the trees and shrubs that most of the birds perch on, or resting and feeding in the fields. This sort of naturally-developed journey showed me how interdependent our environment is, as one group depends on the other for it’s survival, as do we. 

One of the issues that frustrated me the most is the lack of tree cover around the island, not only around rural habitats but even in our built up environments. This worries me, but also gave me encouragement to turn a problem into an opportunity to get my hands dirty and contribute to social change. 

I converted a small part of my garden and roof into a nursery and started growing indigenous trees at home. What really got me sparked to keep sowing was the creation of a Facebook group called The Grow 10 Trees Project, which I was a member of from the very start. 

It’s been a few months now, and the group now has more than a thousand members. Here I found like-minded individuals with who I could share information and also learn from. 

Aleppo Pines 2 In Milk Cartons

I now have over 300 saplings, mostly grown in recycled milk cartons from the kitchen. 

Carob Trees, Oaks, Aleppo Pines, Cypress and Lentisk, and dozens of other species which I still need to try grow. You see it’s a learning curve, and the satisfaction of watching a seed you sowed germinate into a sapling and eventually grow into a tree to be finally planted outside is the greatest natural gift I could invest my time in. 

I’ll be around for only a few decades but the trees I grew will keep giving shade and life for hundreds of years to come. I’ve also started a vegetable patch, planting my first onion bulbs, and broccoli and cabbage shoots.

I was never a fan of sitting behind an office desk, I rather looked at the natural environment as my office. My dream is to own a farm, grow my own food and earn a living off the land. 

Aerial 1

But farming today is tough, not only the physical work it entails but the barriers to entry are bureaucratic and expensive. 

Having no family connections to agriculture makes it even more complicated. Finding a piece of agricultural land for sale on an island so small is a challenge itself, and the prices are super expensive. 

They’re mostly commercial prices, the equivalent of buying a flat or small house. What is worse is the parcels of land are small, so even if you take out a loan to pay for the land, the surface area is so small you would not be able to grow enough crops on it to make a profit at the end of the harvest. 

Unless you’re in a farming family, and till the land of your father that was given to him by the generations before him, it is extremely difficult for an outsider like myself to become a full-time farmer owning land. 

In fact as years go by, the population of full-time farmers keeps shrinking, and the larger proportion are part-time farmers, or now hobbyists which themselves are also part of an ageing community.

Aleppo Pines Close Up

The future of farming in Malta is rather pale, not for myself but for everyone. I’m worried, and we all should be. 

Do we really want to live on an island full of mega-supermarkets but fields without farmers? While we all have a choice to buy imported food, being almost 100% dependent on imported products at the expense of throwing out our local fruits and vegetables would be dangerous and unsustainable. 

Our island is home to almost half a million people - and counting - with an active geopolitical climate in the Mediterranean and looming climate change and environmental challenges of all types. 

When a crisis hits us, and food cannot come in, how do we feed ourselves? Food scarcity is a threat, and if it comes it will hit us hard.

Aerial 2

I don’t think there is one simple solution to all of this. All sectors of work and services have undergone change and adapted to the market and needs of modern society. I feel that where Maltese agriculture is concerned, we always gave it the backside. 

Start young, and educate kids that their food doesn’t grow on supermarket shelves. Get their hands dirty and introduce farming lessons at school. Transform our school roofs into urban fields, and teach them the importance that the farmer plays in our communities. 

On a policy level, educate farmers in marketing their products. More initiatives and subsidies to help farmers cut on costs and cut down on the red tape would be helpful too.

Too often farmers are overwhelmed in their fields, and when their crops are ready to harvest they earn little in return at the centralised Pitkalija or else struggle to sell their produce individually to consumers elsewhere. Farmers must be part of the digital and social market. 

A Facebook group called Dilettanti tal-agrikoltura, sigar u pjanti has exploded over the last year. It now has more then 6,000 members, and farmers from all over the island have joined. It’s a living encyclopaedia of information and platform of ideas and discussions.

Farmers must embrace challenges, and adapt to changes. Consumers must also make informed and ethical choices. Ribbon development and urban uptake are intensifying and pressure farmers to sell off their land for commercial gains. Water scarcity is also an increasing reality. 

Farmers strive for a bigger harvest from the land they work every season, but we must embrace this activity in a sustainable way by limiting the damage to the environment (example misuse of pesticides, mismanagement of water, over-exhaustion of soil and removal of natural species which eventually undermine the quality of the product to be harvested). 

There are many interesting concepts such as organic and vertical farming, roof farms and hydroponics that are at their early stages locally in Malta. These can enhance the lives of farmers and our communities. 

Growing my own vegetables, planting my own trees and allowing chickens to roam freely is the farmland dream. Communities depend on the natural environment to sustain our way of living, and it is in our own interest to safeguard it. It is very easy to alienate oneself and forget about the natural link with land and nature. I’m always looking for ways to keep connected with it. 

Farms

Do you think young Maltese people can make a living in farming nowadays?

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Written By

Johnathan Cilia

Johnathan is interested in the weird, dark, and wonderful contradictions our late-capitalist society forces upon us. He also likes music and food. Contact him at johnathan@lovinmalta.com.

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