As we approach Bidni Organic Farm, we navigate narrow country lanes, where tarmac quickly turns to dirt and any glimpse of urban life starts to fade into the distance. For those of us who live and work in Malta’s overbuilt areas, it is easy to forget that large expanses of undisturbed agricultural land still exist.
Stefan and his wife, Antoinette, manage an organic farm in the village of Haż-Żabbar. The project officially began around six years ago, in 2016, but Stefan’s foray into the agricultural sector long predates this project.
He explains, “I used to come here with my father when I was around fourteen or fifteen years old.” He adds, “When I was around sixteen and I was studying for my O-levels, I found that coming here for an hour served as a good break.” These study-breaks continued well into Stefan’s university days and it is here where his love for farming began.
There was also a spark of curiosity for what lay beyond his father’s land. Peaking over the dividing rubble walls at a nearby limestone structure, he used to ask himself, “I wonder what’s inside that room?” Years later he satisfied his curiosity by acquiring the adjacent patch of land.
Interestingly, Stefan is an accountant by profession and only practises farming on a part-time basis. He comes from a long line of part-time farmers, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him.
Stefan tells me, “When I began, things struggled to catch on. But over time, I improved.” To start, Stefan and his family just grew things for themselves, but eager to find out more, he sought help and attended a meeting by the Malta Organic Agricultural Movement (MOAM), where he met Joe. He also found encouragement from Emanuela de Giorgio of the Veg Box, who pushed him and his family to continue. His shift into organic farming was also triggered by studies which showed the link between pesticide use in conventional farming and cancer. Today, Stefan and Antoinette are the only certified organic farmers in the south of Malta.
As we tour their land, Stefan points out potatoes, beans, strawberries, and herbs. We walk by rows of kale, which is now at hip-length as it comes to the end of its season. Weed mats line the ground to help control the wild plants which would otherwise grow with abandon and would likely suffocate Stefan’s produce. They also raise chickens to cater for a great demand for free-range eggs.
Nowadays, Stefan and Antoinette sell their produce directly to the consumer. Upon examining their options at the Pitkalija, where produce is traditionally sold to middlemen and then distributed to shops, they realised that they would not make their money back. Stories of farmers who have fed their produce to livestock because it will not sell are not uncommon. He believes that the system requires an overhaul to make it fairer for the farmer and to reduce food waste.
Stefan explains that they struggle to keep up with the amount of work on the farm but he believes that working the land part-time offers many advantages. He says, “Part-time farmers have more room to experiment. If a product fails, this is not your primary source of income.”
Part-time farming offers hope for the agricultural sector and Stefan believes that it is the best way forward locally. He says, “In the future, I think that there will only be part-time farmers in Malta.”