As I’m scribbling down these few paragraphs, I can breath a sigh of relief since I’m approaching the final stages of this journey. A lot of you have been following with interest this study, and I thank you all for the encouragement and motivation. I also feel obliged to relate what’s been happening in the past months and give you a taste of the main findings.
This research study
Over the past three years, I have embarked onto a research project with the aim to investigate the current characteristics and trends of young farmers in Malta. The methodology adopted for this dissertation is a structured and detailed one, based on deductive analysis as it investigates a large pool of respondents. Responses obtained through the paper based questionnaires were collected mostly during scheduled one-to-one meetings, the rest were gathered by means of electronic mail, or by post.
Data was collected from 202 young farmers located across Malta and Gozo. The cohort chosen aimed at having a representative sample of the total young farmer population in Malta and at having a balanced response from the various segments that exist, mainly geographical location, gender, age, sector and job status.
Overview of Agriculture in the Maltese islands
Agriculture may offer a wide range of benefits to society including food security, sustainable development, environmental and landscape value, food quality and safety as well as animal welfare, together with viable rural communities (United Nations, 1992)
The agriculture sector in Malta is the largest land user and characterised predominantly by small scale holdings. Growers and livestock breeders produce a range of products sold mainly through local channels. In 2019, the sector represented 0.9% of the Gross Value Added (European Commission, 2020)
Rural Areas are the remaining green lung in Malta. Protecting the livelihood of local farmers who provide food and are the guardians of farmland may be challenging yet necessary. Young farmers are an essential segment within the workforce and are considered to be the future of the sector. Generation renewal in farming continues to be given importance at a National and European level through policy instruments and funding (Atriga Consult, 2018; European Commission, 2020).
Preliminary findings emerging from the results indicate that the majority of respondents were male, residing in the Northern part of Malta and are full-time registered farmers. The job status (full-time, part-time or unregistered), is the most important determining characteristic of young farmers in Malta. It proved to be highly correlated to numerous other variables analysed such as gender, age, level of involvement, primary sectors, EU funding and affiliations to agricultural organisations.
Opinions about the relevance of training with regard to agricultural work were collated to learn about perceptions to training. Trading practices including sales and marketing methods were analysed, giving a better overview of how and what methods are being employed by young farmers. Feedback about the use of social media was also gathered, giving particular importance to its use in relation to trading. The absorption of EU funding and related opinions about such financial assistance was investigated. Attention was given to funding specifically aimed at young farmers. Also, more information about how youth are currently involved in local farming organisations was aqcuired.
On a more social and personal level, the motivations driving young farmers to work in agriculture, including positive and negative aspects related to their social life, are discussed in detail. An extensive list of challenges and opportunities have been identified by young farmers with the aim to shed light on the current situation. Significant feedback from respondents about the current challenges and opportunities indicates that more can be done to alleviate the pressures exerted on the farming community, be it through persisting traditional operations and customer perceptions, bureaucracy, market prices and competition as well as climatic changes. Knowing the opinions of young farmers made it possible to draw conclusions about current priorities which need to be addressed by policy makers and the rural community. Meaningful changes to the sector can only be achieved through the careful understanding of situations that prevail.
Considering that agriculture in Malta was, and still is, a small but significant sector, young farmers and those who are interested in venturing into agri-business need to be encouraged, supported and provided with the right resources in order to initiate or continue producing fresh local food and related services.
In conclusion, despite the challenges, it appears that young farmers are recognising the need to further invest in themselves, focus more on diversification and marketing, while striving towards more networking and collaborations. In parallel, policy makers, educators and non-government entities appear instrumental in achieving generation renewal in Malta and Gozo. Young farmers who are willing to persist despite the uncertainty, thus continuing to contribute to food production and environmental management, deserve assistance and the right framework within which to operate.
Cover photo – Tessa Mercieca