Pacific farmers have their say

Were you one of the many Pacific Islanders who spent the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic with soil under your nails? The introduction of lockdowns plus border closures precipitated an explosion of backyard gardening across the region last year, as people had more time on their hands and looked to feed their families and supplement incomes.

For a few weeks early in pandemic, vegetable seeds were almost impossible to come by in stores, and there were long lines for free seeds outside the Ministry of Agriculture office in Suva, Fiji. In Honiara, the Kastom Gaden Association’s Model Farm was busy. “We’ve received more than 900 visitors requesting for seeds, seedlings and information between October and November last year,” Pitakia Tikai of Kastom Gaden Association told Solomon Islands media. And the Guam Plant and Seed Share website, which has been quietly operating since 2011, saw a doubling of its membership when Guam went into lockdown.

Nishi Minoru of Tonga’s Nishi Trading said of these novice planters: “Some of them have never grown anything in their life  but they’re all growing, and they’re excited about that. But the challenge with this is that when this all comes to maturity is finding the market for them, and I think this is where value adding opportunity for Tonga is to look at processing some of the stuff. The challenge there then is infrastructure. This is where I think development partners can come to the table.”

“I see a risk in that there is no real overarching policy for the whole country,” Nishi continues. “We need a 50 year roadmap.”

The pandemic also saw many people, suddenly jobless in urban or tourist centres, return to their village, something sugarcane farmer Ratu Livai Tora and chairman of Fiji’s Nature’s Way Cooperative told the Reset Fiji program, had caused disputes over land.

While people were planting at a domestic level, experienced larger scale farmers have urged governments, donors and national planners to reprioritise support for agriculture in recognition of its importance to food security, economic growth and physical health and well-being.

“Whilst the current COVID-19 situation remains dire, there are major opportunities within the agricultural sector to boost the Pacific economy,” the Pacific Islands Farmers Organisations Network (PIFON) said.

“Agriculture has all too often played second fiddle” wrote the authors of PIFON’s survey, COVID 19 & Agriculture: Pacific farmers have their say.

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