Throughout the years, I have been approached by various farmers and enthusiasts about the need for proper agri marketing for Maltese produce. It is now even clearer that even locally, media leaves a huge impact on consumer behaviour.
Those who appreciate the food culture are well acquainted with Italian TV programs that exalt their regional produce together with producers, processors and networks. Locally, we are still far away from all this. Recently we have been flooded with news items (very often lacking or twisting facts) that demonise Maltese farmers and place local products into a category which is inferior to foreign ones.
Organic or not, all products offered on the market should be safe for consumption! Moreover, the benefits of consuming local products do not relate only to our health, but effect also our environment. Our ‘green’ surroundings depend almost exclusively on the local agriculture sector – if this disappears, so will our few remaining green patches.
It’s all about creating win-win situations…
The general public is thirsty for knowledge. We need to know the truth behind what we are eating. Nutritional content and health benefits can nowadays be learnt through research and the expertise of nutritionists. However, knowing where and how the food has been produced is becoming increasingly tricky. Labels can shed light about the origin of the produce but rarely on how the fruit or veg has been cultivated.
Maltese fruit and veg products are rarely properly packaged while market channels are unfortunately still disorganised. This is hardly news in the local context – such weaknesses have been pointed out even in studies dating back to 1960.
The best way to ascertain facts about the cultivation (who produced it; where has it been produced; how; has it been treated with pesticides? and if yes, have safety time frames been respected?) is to buy directly from farmers or their representatives.
Asking a farmer about cultivation methods should be part of our purchasing ritual, if there is indeed a keen interest in knowing what’s behind the product. If we don’t find the time to ask, then we can’t complain about not knowing. Farmers who sell their own produce, or buy from trustworthy sources, know a great deal of information about it – this is a fact. This provides reassurance about possible health concerns. I’m not saying that the horticulture industry in Malta is perfect, far from that, however, if consumers regularly demand to know about these facts, it will push farmers to label and package better.
The struggles to keep an ever growing list of pests at bay, and getting the crop to the finishing line, is becoming a real challenge! Nonetheless, if we, as consumers, do not support farmers (by buying their produce), how can they feel motivated enough to improve their products? It’s a vicious circle, the less we consume local, the less available it will be in the future.
Farmers are in dire need of promoting their seasonal produce to consumers who appreciate products for what they really are. How can we connect these? Education is the missing link. It’s useless pushing for farmers to invest in technical advice and research, if none of the outcome is shared with consumers.
Over this past weekend I became aware that an Italian plant disease expert has visited some local farmers who needed advice on how to keep a particular crop healthy. Engaging experts in plant protection is one of the ways how fruit and veg quality can be guaranteed. This very often happens without any of the consumers knowing as it’s a regular exercise, especially for full time farmers.
Many consumers have the impression (and I don’t blame them since there is a lot of badmouthing local products on local newspapers) that farmers spray their products with pesticides as if there’s no tomorrow, when they encounter a plant pest.
First of all let us all bear in mind that treating crop diseases is necessary in order to obtain a harvest. Secondly, treating crops with pesticides is expensive. No fool would spend more on pesticides than necessary! The more pesticides a farmer uses, the less profits will stay in his or her pocket. Many health conscious consumers seem to fail to understand this simple, yet crucial concept of crop production.
Proper marketing using all kinds of media can bridge the producer-consumer gap. Media professionals are always on the look out for quality content to engage with viewers, listeners and readers. Positive and informative content can in turn help us address the burdens afflicting the agri-industry.
A recent food tv program on TVM highlighted the benefits of consuming pomegranates. This was aired at the right time, since we are during the peak of harvesting this delicious fruit. Such initiatives are to be highly commended. In fact, quite a few farmers have come forward to comment that their sales of pomegranates have soared due to interest gained after such a tv program.
What about tourism? The rural is definitely becoming part of the Maltese tourism product, though not as strongly promoted as the historical and cultural assets of the country. From my experience at Merill, visitors want an authentic experience of what the country has to offer. No staging… no actors dressed up as farmers, no fancy words on local restaurant menus just to make the dish more appealing. In other words, no BS! If it does not rope in a local farmer in some way or another, then it cannot be truly linked to Malta’s rural aspect. Visitors simply want to learn about the hidden, but authentic, treasures we have.
Recently, a group which was led by the Mayor of Serrone (IT) visited Tan-Nixxiegħa Olive Grove for a rural experience as part of a cultural exchange organised by the Ħamrun Local Council. It was encouraging to see the interest the small group showed towards pomegranates and other local products. They commented that in their area, pomegranate juice is sold at €4 a glass and is considered a delicacy. Goes to show that adding value to a product can boost revenue of an agricultural product. The Mayor also commented that we should focus on quality rather than quantity… Golden words!
Recently we have been blessed with some showers that turned the Maltese countryside green after a long and atrocious summer. Farmers were in desperate need of rain water to irrigate their fields and to refill reservoirs. Growing crops is becoming increasingly challenging. Climate change is not something we just read in books anymore, but a harsh reality we are all experiencing.
Rural areas are the only green lung left on the Maltese islands and that’s why they deserve our protection. Let’s face it, most of us prefer a patch of land full of blooming pomegranate trees rather than more concrete!