Malta is my introduction to Mediterranean culture. I am interested in the popularity and health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, as an example of what terroir or identity of place can offer society, from a pride of growing to consuming foods like locally grown vegetables and typical Mediterranean food, such as capers, olives, sundried tomatoes and cheese from sheep and goats.
I headed to the smaller island of Gozo, where the pace is slower and more rural. The pastoral countryside is mainly terraced, as most of the island is hilly limestone with layer upon layer of coral material. The yellow limestone is seen everywhere, from being carved away by the sea into cliffs to the bricks in all their buildings. They continue to build their traditional stone buildings. Gozitans are renown for their skills as stone masons. What really amazed me was how no space was wasted. They often carved into the limestone to create living spaces.
Like everywhere it seems, Malta is also concerned about loss of local food, the small farm and culture. One website had the banner: Is Malta steering away from the self-sufficiency of traditional farming? This is one reason why I am here. From what I gather, Maltese have held on to their craft from lace making to local food, to sustain themselves, not to ‘get rich’. Perhaps subsistence living is enough? Malta also looks to tourism to help the local economy, as do many rural areas, to value add to the agricultural /rural economy. And so, the second question I explore here is, Can agri-tourism save small scale farming? There are benefits for sustaining our small farms as it offers a way to reconnect with how our food is produced, and provide a rural life experience and a way to connect with the local people. Agritourism, done well, brings benefits to small-scale farmers across the globe and strengthens rural economic development.
The biggest opportunity for agri-tourism farmers is that it brings people to them saving them shipping and distribution costs. This can help save the small farm, and visitors get the benefit of an authentic on-farm experience. Its win-win.
One guide book claims that Gozo in particular, has deeper, more tasty vegetables since traditional farming practices are used. Vegetables are sold at the side of the road off the back of farmers’ vans, and towns still have butchers, bakeries and fishermen selling their fresh caught fish.
The island is so small that you can walk almost anywhere. The first ‘agriculture’ I witnessed were the salt pans, carved into the limestone for harvesting sea salt. This labour intensive endeavour is now only used for selling local salt in the many touristy local food shops.
Next, I was photographing rows of vegetables and fruit trees in well tended plots. There is little land flat enough to get to field size, so the rototiller is the biggest piece of equipment used. A lot of labour is involved and so it seems that organic production is the way to go, to compete with all the imports from the rest of the EU, and to support the direction of agri-tourism here in offering local food along with local fish in many restaurants.
A desperate cry for help is what I hear here in Gozo, not unlike home in Ontario. Millions of dollars are being spent to add agri-tourism, but working within EU regulations is hard. Although the talk is good for local food, farming and agri-tourism, policy is not enabling. It can take up to 10 years to get permits, and despite the talk, government doesn’t seem to care that not supporting these enterprises, means that Gozo could look like a desert, if farming is abandoned for cheap food imports.
I also found some dairy operations. Squeezed into tight spaces, I found them in rugged places or hilltops, where there was space enough for a barn, concrete structures that looked more like an overpass go me. Farming is definitely a hard go here.