The Malta Independent 26 February 2024, Monday
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Prices for local produce set to continue increasing due to a series of shortages

Kyle Patrick Camilleri Sunday, 3 December 2023, 07:30 Last update: about 4 months ago

Due to shortages of produce experienced in the local agricultural scene, the pricings for local fruits and vegetables are expected to continue to rise in the short-term, Joe Cassar, manager of Malta’s largest farming cooperative, the Farmers’ Central Cooperative Society (FCCS), said.

“We know that, at the moment, prices are going to increase because we had many shortages,” Cassar told The Malta Independent on Sunday. He also noted that this series of shortages has produced a level of scarcity, meaning that this low supply is not matching up to the market’s high demand.

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What has caused these shortages?

Aside from recent years’ external shocks affecting the local market, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukrainian War, a number of factors brought about by meteorological trends, climate change and an array of expected and unexpected events are making life more difficult for local farmers as they struggle to cultivate homegrown fruits and vegetables.

Indicating that local pricings vary on a near day-to-day basis based on product availability, Cassar told this newsroom that the local farmers’ struggles to cultivate local produce as efficiently as desired will naturally be reflected in the price of the product.

While discussing the lack of rainfall in 2023’s autumn season – including the fact that this year’s October was the driest October Malta experienced in the last 101 years – this newsroom was told that “when it does not rain, a number of factors go against local farmers”. Moreover, since temperatures were higher than normal in the past months, local farmers’ land preparations for the colder weather will not reap the rewards expected; this is because “the produce that grows in colder temperatures will struggle to grow and will take much longer to mature”.

Subsequently, he described how fruit trees “hibernate” and “get themselves ready for the following season”. On this point, Cassar stated that “if cold weather does not come, then we can expect a shortage in the production of fruit in the following season”.

Cassar said that while it is normal to have a dry year every five to six years, what happened this October, with just 0.2mm of rainfall, had a more negative effect. Furthermore, the lack of rainfall during the first part of autumn forced local farmers to use a lot of water and energy to irrigate their crops, which added to their costs.

While irrigating produce during this time of year can be costly, Cassar explained how, despite the added expenses, farmers are balancing this out by benefitting through an observed jump in prices over the previous year-and-a-half. In his own words, “prices here at the pitkalija (open market) have increased from last year… this is helping farmers avoid making losses”.

This newsroom was also told that “the produce is not going to be of its expected quality, considering it will not be harvested truly in its season”.

Cassar said that “the consumer will have to pay a higher price than usual for that product due to all these factors coming about through climate change”. Part of this pricing increase may or may not reflect the added work and stress brought onto farmers and their plants respectively.

He said that “the prices are not increasing [simply] because of us [or] because it is not raining”. Produce shortages are a result of other factors, such as plant diseases and lingering pests.

 

Discussing quick bursts of heavy rainfall

One aspect playing a role in these added pressures is the kind of rainfall that has been hitting the Maltese islands as of late – quick sudden bursts of powerful rainfall or hail.

The manager of FCCS spoke about the ramifications of these bursts of precipitation, saying that “when a lot of strong rain occurs, damage is always done”. Cassar said large volumes of water typically break through farmer’s field walls and lead to loss of soil. He continued that farmers “have no control over the damage that can take place in these scenarios” and that as a result, they can only pray that no (or minimal) damage is done whenever these bursts of rainfall come about.

Malta is more prone to flooding as a small, developed island. He also explained that these kinds of rainfall are expected annually as the temperatures cool following the summer and as the winter season develops, rainfall will become more tranquil by becoming slower and more constant.

In this regard, Cassar said that if “regular rain returns, then everything will fall back to normal where, automatically, the market’s supply and demand would stabilise”, also leading to more stability in pricing. He, however, remarked that the adjusting of local pricings is also affected by the price of imported products.

 

Recent positive observations and developments

The local market has a reportedly stable number of clients, ranging from regular consumers to hawkers to local restaurants. While talking about the number of hawkers in the country, Cassar said that this number does not fluctuate – someone new always comes in whenever someone decides to stop selling, he said. Additionally, since many locals seek local produce, “sales are always retained”.

Cassar then mentioned how Malta’s growingly diverse population is opening new doors within local agriculture. He explained how as a result of the diversification of people’s diets and through the influx of people coming from foreign cultures (namely from Nepal, India, and eastern Europe), local farmers have new demands for the cultivation of new crops that were not grown locally a few years ago, such as okra, baby aubergines, passion fruit, Chinese cabbage and even certain herbs.

“At the end of the day, we must follow what the consumers want, not what we want. If the consumer wants potatoes to be peeled, then we must give them peeled potatoes. We are evolving, and as farmers, we must follow these evolving needs to try and accommodate everyone,” Cassar said. “It’s quite a challenge to grow new produce that you have never grown before, see that it grows well, and incorporate it into the local market. That’s a positive that keeps us active.”

Cassar described the difficulty in being a farmer plus his cooperative’s aim to lower the average age of farmers in the country. While mentioning the long hours they work from Monday till Sunday, Cassar told this newsroom that “the average age for a farmer is between 55-65 years old” and that “there are very few who are under 40” despite the many avenues people can take up to enter this profession.

He said he and his peers work against the elements to harvest their produce, how they must be very knowledgeable to quickly identify any plant diseases present and treat them in a timely manner, and how they work through all the obstacles to sustain their livelihoods while ensuring food security for the Maltese islands.

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