Fruit and vegetable production in the Pacific are highly seasonal, with a lack of crop production in the wet and hot summer months often leading to supply shortages and steep rises in food prices.
The seasonal shortages of local vegetables lead many Pacific communities to replacing traditional diets with energy-dense and nutritionally poor food. As a result, the Pacific region has one of the highest rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the world.
It’s estimated that NCDs such as diabetes and heart disease account for 70-75% of all deaths in the Pacific. Latest statistics from the Fijian government indicate that Fiji’s NCD mortality rate is incredibly high with NCDs estimating to account for 84% of all deaths in Fiji.
In partnership with the Central Queensland University (CQ University) and the Pacific Community's (SPC) Land and Resources Division, ACIAR has been investing in research supporting small- and medium-scale farmers with new and transformational technology for vegetable production.
The five-year project began in 2017 and works across Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. It has seen numerous benefits that support local farmers in strengthening value chains for high-value vegetables through integrating protected cropping system and has built local farmer capacity to increase their business skills and supported livelihood opportunities.
Project leader and Professor of Horticultural Science from CQ University Philip Brown explained that a protected cropping system uses structures to protect crops from the weather.
'This usually involves using some structure supporting a cover material above plants grown with cultural methods that maximise yield per unit area. These range from expensive climate-controlled glasshouses through to simple wooden structures with a plastic roof.'
He added that protected cropping allows the production of crops at times of the year when the weather would otherwise make it very difficult to produce the crops under open field conditions.
In Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, a large share of the demand for high-value vegetables is currently met by imports. The effective use of protective structures, such as greenhouses, screen houses, and tunnels, is known worldwide as production systems for high-quality vegetable and fruit crops. Protective structures increase crop yield and quality by altering environmental factors, such as light, temperature, air humidity, wind, and/or pest pressure.
'The use of protected cropping allows farmers to consistently produce higher quality vegetables than in the field, opening opportunities to the Pacific Islands having access to these nutritious vegetables, and allows grower to access higher value markets such as tourist resorts that require year-round supply of high quality vegetables,' said Professor Brown.
He added that protected cropping has traditionally been used in cooler regions, but recently it is rapidly adopted in the tropical areas of Australia.
'While there are differences in the types of technologies that are used in Australia compared to Pacific Island countries, there are also many similarities such as the ways used to prevent excessive heat build-up in the structures and the methods to protect the structure if it is threatened by severe weather conditions. The exchange of ideas between countries based on experiences with their protected cropping systems has been a valuable part of the project.
Local Fijian farmer Emosi Ravato said adding a protected cropping system in his farming practice has been life changing. For over a decade, Mr Ravato and farmers along the fertile Sigatoka valley in Fiji have toiled the land to meet the local demand for vegetable crops.
'I started 12 years ago as a sugarcane farmer, but in 2007 I made the switch to high-value cash crops such as local vegetables, spices, and fruits, as it is very lucrative. However, vegetables are seasonal and sensitive to weather, so when I learned about use of protected cropping system it was a game changer,' he added.
Mr Ravato said he has adopted the use of greenhouses and high tunnels—a plastic covered structure that allows growers to increase production of certain crops, grow some crops that could not otherwise be grown in their area, and extend the length of time in the year (growing season) that the crops may be grown.
'At first, I was hesitant to use these structures; our traditional knowledge was certain crops and vegetables grow seasonally. However, we have found a major difference between using these protective structures and planting straight in the field'.
'Thanks to the use of the protective structures, I can grow tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces and capsicums all year-round. Once the tourism industry reopens, I am in talks with local resorts to provide them with fresh vegetables.’
He added that growing and selling these vegetables has benefitted him and his family in many ways.
'Not only does my family get access to fresh, healthy vegetables all year, but I can also sell them in the market, and when the vegetables are offseason, I get a higher price, and the money is good, it pays the bills and helps keep my children in school.’
Professor Brown said the project works with farmers to address the four areas of protected cropping; Using an appropriate structure and the right technology in the structure; Implementing an effective strategy to manage weeds, pest and disease; Implementing an effective crop growth strategy including variety selection, irrigation, nutrition, pruning and training, and building a solid marketing strategy for the produce grown.
'To ensure the project's sustainability, so the knowledge and skills are carried beyond the project life, we have developed a protected cropping training manual designed for Ministry of Agriculture extension officers to use when assisting farmers interested in adopting protected cropping.’
'The training manual is designed for agriculture extension staff to use when running training activities for farmers.’
He added that the manual also contains information that will help trainers understand the four core areas of protected cropping and guidance on how to present that information to interested farmers.
ACIAR Research Program Manager for Horticulture, Ms Irene Kernot, added that ACIAR was proud to support research on this technology for Pacific farmers and hopes to customise protective cropping technologies further for tropical areas and smallholder farmers who don't often have a lot of land and want to maximise its productivity.
'ACIAR is excited to see where these technologies can go in the future and that this project has started to show farmers how to get the most from the technology. The growing of vegetables is important, not only for smallholders but for the planet.’
'Most countries don't produce enough vegetables for everyone to have a healthy diet, and projects such as this increase the productivity of vegetables making more quality produce available at local markets. Increased production can also improve financial returns for smallholders—projects that deliver multiple benefits offer real value for ACIAR’s research investment,’ she added.
The Integrating protected cropping systems into high-value vegetable value chains in the Pacific and Australia is an ACIAR-supported project led by the Central Queensland University in partnership with the Pacific Community's (SPC) Land and Resources Division, Queensland Dept of Agriculture & Fisheries, Soil Health Pacific Ltd, Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Forests and Fisheries.