As the early morning sunlight bathes the Sabeto Valley in Fiji’s west a farmer wakes up, leaves home and walks about 20 minutes to a plantation, greeting others also on their way to their farms. There the farmer begins work, weeding and caring for the crops – aiming to get a few hours of work done before the heat of the day starts in earnest and the sun drives workers into the shade to take a break for breakfast.
This is a common scene all over the Pacific Islands, but a difference in this case is that the farmer is a woman and is only 22 years old. Tokasa Vadrasola from Sabeto has turned her hand to farming as a career – commercial organic papaya farming to be precise.
Ms Vadrasola finished form 6 at Vulinimono High School and then stayed home to assist with the family chores and grew a small mixed crop garden including vegetables such as cabbages for home consumption. In mid-2013 she joined a group of 20 farmers in the Sabeto valley to form the Sabeto Organic Papaya Association (SOPA) with the aim of becoming organically certified and exporting papaya to New Zealand.
SOPA is being supported in this effort by a project funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and implemented by the Pacific Organic and Ethical Trade Community (POETCom) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). The aim of this project is to enhance the access of Pacific smallholders to high-value markets by obtaining appropriate and recognised organic certification and support. The project facilitates the development of organic participatory guarantee systems (PGS) to provide a credible organic guarantee to consumers seeking organic produce through the direct participation of farmers and consumers in the organic guarantee process, and is based on recognised standards for organic production. The organic production techniques used by SOPA are also beneficial for building farming systems that are resilient and help mitigate climate change impacts, and therefore the group has also been able to receive support from the USAID Enhanced Climate Change Resilience of Food Production Systems initiative.
Ms Vadrasola has one acre of organic papaya – about 130 trees. She explains that as the farm is becoming organically certified she doesn’t use any chemicals or weed killers on the land. She says that the weeding is sometimes hard work but that she believes that the organic methods produce better fruit and that is it healthier and safer. The SOPA members meet weekly to discuss progress and learn more about organic farming.
‘We all have to follow the rules of the PGS and the organic standard,’ she explained, ‘we have to make sure the plantation is clean of rubbish and plastics and do other things to make sure we have a good quality crop like pruning and applying compost and organic fertilisers. We have also learned to bag flowers to collect seeds because seed saving is an important part of organic farming.’ The PGS members are also trained to keep records of all activities on their plots and to inspect each other’s farms to ensure all members are complying with the organic standards.
There are currently 20 farmers in SOPA, 7 of whom are women. When asked who the best farmers are in the group their certification manager Tomasi Draunimasi immediately responded ‘The women! They are reliable and work hardest.’ Ms Vadrasola was quick to add that the men in the group do help them with weeding at times and that everyone works well together.
SOPA’s first harvest will be starting in September, and Ms Vadrasola is looking forward to earning a regular income from exporting her papaya. She hopes that from the money she earns she will be able to help her family and also to save a little and start a small store in the village. She says her family is very supportive of her farming efforts and plans and sometimes family members help out on her papaya plot. Her advice to other young people considering going into commercial farming is: ‘Work hard and be honest, it can be hard work but organic farming is a good career and it will pay off.’
POETCom is the peak organics body for the Pacific region, and its secretariat is based at SPC with funding support from the European Union-funded Increasing Agricultural Commodity Trade (IACT) project.