Training young farmers and butchers
There is little which tastes better on a summer evening than a hunk of crusty Maltese bread, dipped in a platter of extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper. And what could be better than Maltese produced extra-virgin olive oil?
When one thinks of organic farming the image of a young mother armed with a trendy nappy bag of organic cotton, having time to use and wash cloth nappies and puree organic vegetables for her offspring comes to mind.
However I believe there is more to organic farming than meets the eye, so one morning a couple of weeks ago I set off to meet Joseph Borg at his organic farm in Fawwara and find out more about what it is like, and how it works in Malta.
Mr Borg’s farm is far off the beaten track, to say the least, and actually getting there proves a rather lengthy business, but to use a cliché, it’s well worth the effort in getting there.
He greets us next to his truck and immediately guides us down to his pride and joy, his rows of olive trees, which he uses to make his main product, organic extra-virgin olive oil.
This area used to be known as Hal -Kbir in the past, he explains, as it was one of the main habitable areas. It had one of the first chapels, not far from the farm, but this has since been hidden by a wall which was built.
The farm also had the first reservoir on the island, back around 1770, which was very advanced at the time, with two systems. One was for drinking water and the other for water used for plants and the like.
Mr Borg explains that he’s not sure what the idea behind these two systems was, but the probability is that the water provided for drinking was purer.
“I turned my land organic in 1980, and before my fields there was nothing here, but in the past there was a network of paths leading to the seashore, for the carts to pass through. I still use these today”, he admitted.
An advantage of this area is the fact that it is not polluted or noisy, both due to the fact that it is so cut off from the hustle and bustle of more urban areas, he said.
It is so easy to turn this area organic, he says, as it is so cut off from other areas, so there is no seeping. Besides this there is also the advantage of the wind being in your favour.
The soil is very deep here, and although in the past there was a problem of soil erosion, today it is one of the best areas as it is often unaffected, even by heavy rainfall, when other areas have become a chocolate-coloured sea.
He looks out towards the vast area of Lapsi and says in a rueful voice, “all this land, save for two small areas, lies uncultivated and it is such a pity that it remains thus.”
The climate is so beneficial here that there is not even the need for a greenhouse, which I was advised, was a waste of money. “As it is I grow yellow peppers in that area, and all year round” he says.
As we walk through the fields, he stoops down and picks up a physalis fruit from a small tree growing at the side of the path, explaining that this is the ideal climate for them and they grow without much help.
He remembers when he first started working on this land, and an expert visiting his farm had told him that his olive trees were loaded with lead and he had no option but to fell them, even though they were already four years old.
He was reluctant to do so but finally acceded, and rightly so, he admitted, as the two which he left unfilled unlifted as a small test remain stunted until this very day, and have never grown beyond a certain height.
“I turned my farm organic sometime around 1980,” he said, adding that with organic farming one must remember to put back in everything that has been taken out.
Cleaning Herbicides is non-existent in organic farming, he explains, since this would damage the biodiversity of the area. An organic method of controlling pests is to prepare a mixture of Coke liquid cola, honey and Bovril in a sawn-off, inverted bottle top.
The pests will in turn be attracted to the mixture and fly in, but the narrow bottle neck will prevent them from flying back out.
Mr Borg explains that one of his practices is to plant a different, indigenous tree between every ten trees or so, since this will provide different benefits. One example is June pears, to attract insects and avoid monoculture.
Turning to the production of olive oil, he explained that the waste produced by the olive tree s is a very good natural fertiliser. Mr Borg has for the past three years used it for his tomatoes, and he has noticed that during that time they remained unaffected by the tuta absoluta virusinsect.
A French study has found that since the waste contains tannin, this is absorbed by the leaves plant and in turn is a repellent for the tuta absoluta, resulting in a strong and healthy tomato.
Turning to the production of olive oil, one of Mr Borg’s main products, he explained that he has around 46 varieties of olives in all. However over 880 varieties exist in the whole world, he pointed out.
Olives need only be watered some weeks before the harvest, such as some time in August, he explained, as long as it rains early on in the year. Olives must first be washed, to remove toxicity.
Four people work two shifts during the olive harvest and once the olives are harvested and are being pressed the temperature must not be over 27oC and the whole pressing process can’t take over four hours. If the fruit is cut and left to stand for more than four hours, the acidity starts to increase.
As a matter of fact it increases by 0.05 every hour, to the detriment of the extra-virgin olive oil being produced. “I only press my own olives to secure no contamination in my end product, as the machines can’t be cleaned, and one would therefore end up with a cocktail of flavours,” he explained.
“In my opinion it is very difficult to make a decent living out of organic farming in Malta as the land to cultivate is small and scattered in different area,” Mr Borg admitted , explaining that over the last year farmers’ earnings added up to some €17 million, however their expenses amounted to around €45 million.
Some farmers manage to yield six different products from one field in a year, and a number of fields are registered as growing potatoes, year in year out, he said. The change must be made from intensive farming.
A soil sample reveals that Maltese soil is low in organic matter, not good for more than one two products a year, so it has to be helped with synthetic fertilizers. This is a vicious circle as it adds more salts to the soil, so the plant absorbs lessneeds more water in future.
Soil is the basic pre-requisite for all agricultural activity and one of the most important natural resources, however it is a non-renewable resource and the prevention of further decline in European soils is an urgent matter.
Already, an estimated 45% of soils in Europe suffer from depleted organic matter. Organic farming practices protect soil from contamination, compaction, sealing and erosion.
There is little control over conventional farming, rather they get subsidies, he said, adding that this is a major factor as to why the 0.2% of organic farmers in Malta does not increase.
“People are afraid of the control body, and there is no such thing over conventional farmers, unless they receive subsidies,” he explained.
A large area should be found, he suggested, and dedicated to organic farming. There are many such areas in Dingli and Wied iz-Zurrieq, he added, as if the project is to be started it should be started on a good footing.
Another suggestion Mr Borg made is that Gozitan farmers be given adequate conditions to switch to organic farming. In order for this to be viable it must be coupled with eco-tourism or foreign university students visiting for the experience.
Source: newsroom - farmingnewsdaily.co.uk