20 Jun

Organic farmer breeds foreign interest in olive oil

By Cynthia Busuttil,

Organic farming might be a new concept for Malta but for Siggiewi born and bred farmer Joseph Borg it is something he has been practising for over two decades.

Although coming from a family of farmers, Mr Borg distanced himself from the land and held different jobs before deciding to return to his first love in 1985.

“I decided to go for organic farming, which at the time was very scarce in Malta,” he explained from his stall at the Siggiewi agriculture fair yesterday morning.

Organic farming, he expounds, is a system which excludes the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and other chemicals.

Chemicals, he says, are harmful, shrugging off any ideas that they can be washed off. Holding a fig – his own produce – in hand, he explains: “The chemicals penetrate the fruit, and while washing might help marginally, even peeling will not get rid of the chemicals completely.”

Moreover, around 95 per cent of the chemicals go into the ground, down into the water table, and Mr Borg believes it will take decades to get rid of them from the water supply.

Chemicals are sprinkled mainly to kill and keep away insects which might spoil fruit and vegetables. But Mr Borg argues that insects start growing resistant to the chemicals, and year after year farmers use more and more in an attempt to kill the pests.

Joseph Portelli, from the Malta Organic Agriculture Movement, chimes in, saying that the dependence on synthetic chemicals is causing havoc with the eco system, and we are ending up with products that are dependent on these “drugs”.

The movement brings together seven organic farmers. They expect that by the end of the year they will have 200 tumoli of land between them. All are certified by the Malta Standards Authority.

At first sight Mr Borg might look your typical farmer – his hands are calloused from working the land and his face weather beaten. But he is far from the stereotype farmer who remained ingrained in the past. On the contrary, the well-spoken Mr Borg is aware of all the local laws related to his sector, and where he comes across a difficulty is quick to check the internet for answers.

He also has a strong entrepreneurial streak – he is currently looking for ways to market his olive oil, his main produce, in other countries.

Samples of the organic olive oil have been taken by restaurateurs in California and Germany and he is also in contact with the owner of a restaurant in Brussels, close to Dar Malta, which has shown an interest in using the olive oil.

Mr Borg’s 1,200 olive oil trees produce around 1,000 litres of pure extra virgin olive oil annually, with production increasing by 10 to 15 per cent a year. He proudly explains that the olives – which are guaranteed free of pesticides – have pressed within four hours from picking at a controlled temperature of between 17 and 25 degrees Celsius to guarantee the best quality.

Another project close to Mr Borg’s heart is the promotion of Malta for its agri-tourism. “We have a treasure to offer, but nobody is making the most of it.” He once paid Lm15 a day to pick walnuts in France and a similar venture, he feels, could be a good idea for Malta. In short it is a win-win situation – tourists are helping the farmer pick the produce and paying for the experience.

Mr Borg criticises the fact that there is barely any checking on the quality of conventional farm produce. On the other hand, there is an advisory group for organic farming and an audit every six months, which is the way things should be done.

He claims that certain imported products are passed off as Maltese, something that is reiterated by Joe Schembri, one of the organisers of yesterday’s fair. “It is important for people to be able to distinguish between Maltese and foreign produce, and to be sure that when they are buying Maltese products, these are truly Maltese,” Mr Borg says.

Mr Schembri adds that imported products are usually not first-class.

“Consumers should press for more regulation, so that they know exactly what they are getting. There is definitely a need for more regulation of conventional produce,” Mr Borg concludes.

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