The low rainfall seen in Malta in recent years is “obviously not a positive”, but agriculture faces more pressing challenges, says Marsovin CEO Jeremy Cassar, who paints a dire picture of the local industry and says the Government faces a stark decision: “Are they going to support farming, or are they going to let it die?”

As Malta faces what is being described by the local climate change supremo as “the first signs of desertification”, reached out to one of Malta’s most successful agricultural businesses to see where this ranks in their list of concerns.

“Lack of rain weakens whatever’s in the earth,” says Mr Cassar, whose passion for winemaking was profiled in a previous interview. “So if it’s a one off, if the following year is a good one, rain-wise, it can make up for the problem”.

He says the last five years have been worse than the preceding five years. “Now it’s all a question of what happens next year. If things continue as they’ve been going, we’re going to have a problem on our hands.”

Asked whether he expects to see an increase in costs, he says that is very possible.

“Almost everyone has drip irrigation in Malta, so we might indeed see an increase in cost related to water usage and supply, but that’s just part of the business.”

Regarding the actual product, low rainfall is not a make-or-break issue, with careful pruning ensuring that quality retained, although the yield of grapes would be lower. In fact, low rainfall can be better for red wines.

Another positive in the lack of rain is simply that it does not fall at the wrong time.

“Rainwater’s very welcome in the vegetative season, especially between February and April, while the water table is replenished when it rains between November and January,” explains Mr Cassar.

“On the other hand, when it doesn’t rain, it means you don’t have showers followed by warm weather in the summer months, which creates the perfect conditions for mould and rot to set in.”

Marsovin, for its part, is handling its vines with care, aware that there isn’t much its farmers can do at this point except pay attention and irrigate accordingly.

“We’re giving the vines a lot of TLC [tender loving care],” says Mr Cassar. “We’re being careful not to stress them as much.”

As for what Government can do to alleviate the problem, Mr Cassar, like the owners of garden centres, itself a sector much dependent on water, says the priority should be to improve the network of New Water, which treats water coming from household and agricultural waste to be used for irrigation.

“The Government can’t create rain. The New Water initiative is great, but it’s very limited so far. There’s quite a bit of agricultural land that does not have access to it.”

However, when asked whether water is in fact among his company’s top concerns, in relation to the sustainability of agriculture, the Marsovin CEO points instead to human resources and the availablity of land.

“The top challenge is incentivising young farmers to carry on the tradition,” he says. “Regardless of the viticultural aspect – all of agriculture depends on human resources willing to do the work.”

This directly ties into the availability of land, as young people eager to get into the sector are being priced out.

“Many farmers are aging and need to retire and move on,” says Mr Cassar, pointing out that the average age of farmers is 57. “Young farmers are coming through, and they want to start off something new. Yet they can’t get a hold of the land.”

He argues that the direct payments coming from the Common Agricultural Policy for farmers growing wheat is a key concern, with farmers opting to grow the basic crop that requires little by way of time, effort and resources, in order to get the subsidy, instead of putting it on the market for sale to young farmers.

“If that’s on the table, they’ll take advantage of it. Especially when you compare the costs and benefits to a crop that requires lot more.”

Closing off the discussion, Mr Cassar argues that agriculture is not about “printing money”.

“It’s certainly very rewarding, but not extremely profitable. Especially when you’re doing it on a small scale.

“So you need to have a passion for it. And that passion needs to be incentivised and supported, and not face every stumbling block possible.”

He says the Government faces a key choice for the coming years: “Are they going to support farming in Malta? Or are they going to let it die?”

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Written By

Robert Fenech

Robert is curious about the connections that make the world work, and takes a particular interest in the confluence of economy, environment and justice. He can also be found moonlighting as a butler for his big black cat.