It has already been a month since we experienced the first Malta AgriFair. Finally, we can say that it was a highlight this year, since we had been waiting for this event since 2020, when it had been cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. Now that it was held, we feel it is a positive milestone for local agriculture, and a sign that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. As the Malta Youth in Agriculture Foundation (MaYA), we can also say that we gained new experience by participating at a national fair, which means a great deal to us. It required dedicating a lot of time, considering that all the team members are volunteers who must juggle family and work at the same time.
Several encouraging aspects make us look back with satisfaction, while looking forward to the next one, hopefully. The Agri Fair was a significant event for many stakeholders including the MaYA Foundation, presenting an opportunity to network and promote one’s own activity. Outreach has always been one of MaYA’s main aims and reaching out towards the community is always an effective way to raise awareness. Many farmers participated in one way or another and, in our opinion, it served as a morale booster, especially for those who could showcase their produce or livestock. We feel we must wholeheartedly thank the organisers, who were very professional and committed to managing the event successfully.
Having said this we would like to bring forward a few considerations that might be conducive for change in the future.
The Ministry of Agriculture organised several discussions about animal welfare and organic farming. These discussions complemented the AgriFair and gave the event a European dimension, given that these topics match discussions about the Green Deal and the Farm-to-Fork Strategy.
We only got to know about these planned discussions only through our supporters. Farmers were sent a letter at home, notifying them of details of discussions and urging them to participate, but we were seemingly overlooked. We have long urged the Ministry to keep us in the loop about such initiatives and events, and unfortunately, this is not the first time that this has happened. As MaYA, we have been striving to act as disseminators of information, urging farmers to participate in consultations (with success), especially the younger ones. How can we possibly act as disseminators of the Ministry’s information, if we are not even informed in the first place?
Officials from the Ministry of Agriculture often point out that cooperation is lacking from stakeholders in the agri-sector, especially amongst farmers. We perfectly agree. However, the Agri Fair once again confirmed that the willingness from ‘high up’ to embrace the pro-activeness of civil society is sorely lacking.
The lacking bottom-up approach
Soon after we got to know about the planned discussions, we reached out to the organisers and other government officials. First, organic farming and animal welfare are indeed two important areas, however not the ones deemed most salient by our farming community at this moment in time. Secondly, the Agri Fair was the first national event of its kind and as MaYA we believe that farmers should be given the opportunity to bring forward any issue they deem important.
We shared this idea to the Ministry and, after some discussions, it was agreed that the conference area would be made available to organise a debate on Saturday evening. The theme we gave to this debate, aimed at food producers, was ‘X’Se Nieklu?’ (What are we going to eat?). Given the unprecedented current food security problems, coupled with land tenureship troubles faced by farmers, we thought that this would be the question that stimulates debate from the end of the farmers.
The debate was moderated by Karl Agius and was well attended. The farmers present, including several young ones, came from different sectors. This was important to bring out a broader overview and perspective of current issues. A small cohort of politicians from all major political parties attended, with the intention to listen to those raising issues about the challenges and opportunities being faced. Several government officials also joined once the debate warmed up.
The one question that crops up vis-à-vis this debate is that the Ministry had all the resources to organise an open discussion driven by the need for food producers to raise their concerns. Yet, this was not deemed a priority. As MaYA, we are glad to have pushed the agenda of creating a space where farmers can speak freely, in spite of our limited resources. Organising this would have been simpler had there been a sense of cooperation between the entities involved and sector representatives. We hope that next time round, perspectives of government entities would be slightly different, and more collaborative towards agri NGOs.
A question of resources
It’s taken as a given that, to organise good quality events, one must have a decent budget. Thousands of euros were spent to organise the Agri Fair and we are glad that agriculture was prioritised. One also needs to acknowledge the fact that this Fair was an initiative announced in the 2021 Budget and its financing was through taxpayers’ money. This investment was partly responsible for the successful professional aspect the event showed.
On the other hand, participation from our end required considerable effort due to limited resources. The MaYA Foundation is a non-profit organisation with no support from government (like other young farmers’ organisations elsewhere in Europe). We paid a fee for having a stand and forked out money for all the printed materials from our coffers. We relied on one sponsor to embellish the stand with a brand new tractor, which proved to be quite an attraction. As an organisation, all our team worked on a voluntary basis and took care of all the manning necessary. Although one could say that the MaYA stand was relatively modest, it still made an impact and allowed us to achieve the desired outcome.
Why are we saying all this? Stands of government agencies and departments were well featured in the Agri Fair, occupying a sizeable portion of all the available space at the MFCC. Although we believe that outreach by government entities is necessary, the budget they had at their disposal was way higher than ours, therefore we had publicly-funded stands overshadowing all other agri NGO stands, something that we and our supporters considered as being patronising.
If the Ministry believes in agri NGOs like ours, as well as in the whole concept of promoting young Maltese and Gozitan farmers, then it was necessary for the Ministry to support our presence at the AgriFair, and not to outshine us. NGOs are the part of the community that provides a link between authorities and civil society. We are more than sure that, with support or without it, NGOs will continue to be present in spite of all challenges faced.