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Maltese farmers struggle with rising costs, unfair competition

Joseph Muscat comes from an established Maltese farming family with nine hectares of land, but is still struggling to remain competitive in the current agricultural climate of rising costs, strict rules, and unfair competition.

Muscat, 55, is one of around 1,000 farmers on the small Mediterranean island of Malta who works long hours, including weekends and public holidays, to ensure that families have food on the table.

In his greenhouse in Mgarr, northern Malta, Muscat told Xinhua that he has five greenhouses equipped with irrigation systems, covering an area of 15,000 square meters.

“A farm with eight or nine hectares is considered to be very big here because Malta is a very small country,” he said.

This year, he and his brothers, their spouses and three part-time farmers are growing 21,000 tomato plants and 4,000 aubergine plants. His family produces around 250 tons of tomatoes per year.

“The tomato season is very long. We keep them in the greenhouse for nine months. We start the season at the end of August, start harvesting in November and keep it running until mid-June of the following year,” Muscat said.

“It requires a lot of work because tomatoes grow every week, so every week we have to prune and turn them.”

As spring approaches, they are preparing for the “final sprint of the season.” They also have open fields where they cultivate melons and watermelons, mainly in the summer months, along with some vines and olive trees.

However, rising production costs are reducing the profits Muscat makes from agricultural products, which also reflects the general situation of Maltese farmers. “Production costs have increased astronomically since the COVID-19 pandemic, and then the Ukraine conflict,” he said.

Particularly the price of fertilizer has risen, the farmer underlined. Previously, 1,100 euros (1,188.96 U.S. dollars) could buy a 1000-liter tank of fertilizer, but Muscat said he spent 1,700 euros to buy one in November. “Everything is up and our profits are down,” he said.

“Each year we make a turnover of around 200,000 euros per year, but around 60 percent goes into production costs which are increasing every year, and what’s left has to be divided between two families.”

“It is not easy, especially since we work all year round,” he added.

Muscat also complained about unfair competition from countries outside the European Union (EU) which have trade agreements with the EU.

“The EU imposes very stringent standards on us regarding pesticides and fertilizers,” he said. However, in countries such as Egypt and Morocco, standards of production are very different, he complained. “They are still using pesticides that were banned in Europe 20 years ago.”

“Most people go for the cheapest price. Some go for quality, but price makes a lot of difference in people’s choices,” he said.

Malcolm Borg, president of Malta’s Active Farmers Association, agreed that Maltese farmers are facing unfair competition. They also face other challenges such as a lack of water for irrigation, he added.

“Since we have very small areas and very limited resources, it makes our competitiveness somewhat challenging,” he said.

It is already difficult for Maltese farmers to compete with produce coming from Italy and Spain, Borg said, and now they must also compete with produce from non-European countries with lower standards.

European farmers are protesting for similar reasons, but Maltese farmers said they are particularly disadvantaged because everything they use has to be imported, adding shipping expenses to an already long list of costs.

“Subsidies are good and help farmers, but what we need most is some market intervention to assist the farmers to be more competitive,” Borg said. (1 euro = 1.08 U.S. dollar)

Famagusta Gazette