In the early hours of Monday morning, we witnessed how farmers managed to avert "total chaos" by sticking together and working towards one main goal. The intended disruption from the Pitkala Association didn't come without losses, and the real consequences are yet to be fully evaluated, however this confirms that the sector can indeed flourish if there is a long-term investment in collaboration.
The situation would have also been worse had there not been a dedicated ministry with a sufficient set of decision-makers to intervene and assist in a timely and decisive manner.
The Farmers' Central Cooperative Ltd. (FCCS), which has been inhibited from operating inside the Pitkalija premises through a court order, played an important role in organising the ad hoc market at MFCC car park in Ta' Qali. The cooperative mobilised a workforce to assist both its members and non-members, and managed to handle quantities larger than usual in a provisional setup for which they had limited time to prepare. A farmers-led co-op active since 1948, the FCCS is made up of a number of other farmers' cooperatives who altogether represent over 26% of the products sold at the Pitkali.
Over the weekend a large number of farmers also managed to sell their produce directly from their fields or by teaming up together.
Our appeal now goes to the retail sector especially hawkers, green grocers and supermarkets, who should not take advantage of the current situation since they are not carrying the highest risks. We also reiterate our call for the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Animal Rights to persist in showing its support towards growers. Finally, we urge consumers to keep on asking for local fruit and vegetables and to choose outlets which offer locally-sourced produce on their shelves.
Further insight on the subject
As a nonmembership organisation, the MaYA Foundation is able to oversee the local agricultural sector from different perspectives while allowing us to take an unbiased approach towards challenges and opportunities. One of our top priorities since day one has been to liaise between stakeholders in order to improve the supply-chain management.
We've ever since had a close-up view of the shift in opinion and the emergence of a more collaborative mentality. However, a constant source of torment (both for farmers and the consumers) persisted and actually intensified in the past couple of years. The term Pitkal (middleman) has been demonised and oversimplified up to a point where discussions on the matter always led to a dead-end. This is far from being a recent phenomenon - here's an excerpt from a seminal 1960 report on the "individual and changing rural society in Malta" by Beeley, B. W.:
"It is clear that the system of marketing produce is the main weakness at present. Up to now most farmers have marketed their produce through a pitkal. This pitkal is a selling middleman who maintains a stall at one of the pitkaliji centres at each of which is a Government-appointed clerk.
While the farmer does not favour the co-operative movement at present he is generally dissatisfied also with the pitkal system and complains of the excessive profits being made by the pitkal, the sensal (a broker and transporter of produce) and the retailer. Very few do however venture to evade these middlemen completely by selling their produce directly to the consumer
The farmer is characteristically suspicious of any change in such a long-established part of his farming, even though he is loud with complaints of it."
These exact same sentiments are clearly felt in the current posts on social media and news channels comments sections, yet what most people, including farmers, fail to understand is that in order to achieve and maintain a sustainable operation, some sort of broker or middleman will always be needed. It could be a member of the same farming family, a salesperson of a co-op, or anyone else - but the farmer alone, like any other solo entrepreneur, will always lose out to a team of people.
This is not to say that the Pitkalija system isn't broken - this week's escalation is proof of that, even though the recent effort towards the much needed Pitkalija Reform was a glimmer of hope - yet a brokerage system is not at fault. Any kind of supply-chain network depends on a number of different individuals with varying roles. The real issue and what has been, up to now, lacking is transparency which in the long term builds into an element of trust between all stakeholders, from producer to consumer. Apart from other things, this was the main motivator behind the Pitkalija Reform.
For the sector to strive, farmers need to keep on focusing on production and researching innovative and more sustainable practices, but as any 1st year marketing student would tell you: the Product is just one of the '4Ps'. In order for that product to reach the targeted market at the desired price, a farmer needs to invest significant resources in other areas. If she or he doesn't want to pitch in time and money towards marketing, logistics and other elements tied to self-employed business, these roles need to be entrusted to someone else - that is if the farmer is aiming for a sustainable operation.