Date released
22 February 2023

A little shelter in summer goes a long way to improving crop production and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the Pacific region.

While many other countries around the world use protected cropping to keep their plants warm, in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, structures such as walk-through tunnels, shade houses and plastic housing keep damaging summer rains off delicate vegetables and offer some sun protection too.

As part of an ACIAR-supported horticultural project, farmers in these 3 countries have been trialling a stepped approach to protected cropping. They begin with relatively simple structures, made from readily available materials such as bamboo, plastic, timber, shade cloth and even galvanised iron.

With a shelter in place, farmers plant vegetables in the summer off-season, from November to April, such as tomatoes, lettuce, capsicums and cucumbers. This allows them to tap into premium markets for their vegetables at a time of year when many Pacific countries rely on vegetable imports.

The recently completed 5-year ACIAR-supported project worked directly with about 40 smallholder farmers helping to test this new way of farming while developing new skills and knowledge. Hundreds more people have been exposed to the project through local farmer and village networks.

Increased yields and income

Through the project, some farmers moved from this first step to semi-commercial and even to larger commercial-scale protected cropping systems. By growing in the off-season, they have been able to earn more than 3 times the price for their crop. For example, in 2019, tomatoes were FJD 1.54c/kg in August during the traditional growing season, and at FJD 16.67c/kg in April 2020, the end of the off-season.

Yields have tripled compared to unprotected field crops, and farmers say the quality of produce is more consistent.

Mr Joeli Vatavehi-Nawamagi has been using protected cropping for 3 years, and said it allows him to harvest his vegetables daily during the off-season, generating daily income for his family’s needs. He is producing more from a smaller area of land and can also work more comfortably under cover, even when it is raining.

He has used the extra income to buy a new car; other smallholders have bought farm equipment and improved their homes.

Mrs Kalesi Ravatu said moving to protected cropping had also helped her family to increase income. ‘We’re able to meet family needs, village and church obligations, and our children’s education,’ said Mrs Ravatu.

Four elements for success

Professor Phil Brown, an agricultural scientist at the Central Queensland University, Australia, has led this research for ACIAR, in collaboration with Mr David Hickes from the Pacific Community (SPC).

Professor Brown said there is often an emphasis on the infrastructure in protected cropping, but it is only one of 4 crucial ‘legs’ in successful systems. The others are agronomy, pest and disease control, and marketing. Without the other 3, protected cropping often does not deliver the results it is capable of, he said, and famers abandon their efforts.

‘So, we developed an analogy with the kava bowl, which is culturally significant in the region; each of the four components is like a leg on a kava bowl, and all are necessary for the success of a protected cropping system.’

The project team has provided training for farmers, reinforcing the need for all 4 legs in ways that they can relate to. The kava bowl analogy also provides the basis of a training program developed for the ministries and departments of agriculture in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

Several of the vegetable varieties that farmers are growing have been selected specifically for their suitability in growing in protected conditions, rather than in the field. Some variety recommendations have come from research in northern Australia undertaken by Dr Elio Jovicich, from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, as part of this project. New species included a Lebanese cucumber, which proved particularly popular when introduced in Samoa.

Mr Joeli Vatavehi with his grandson with green plants
Joeli Vatavehi shows his grandson a new way of farming. Photo: The Pacific Community

Local food supply

The project initially targeted resort and hospitality markets as part of the marketing leg of the system, working with farmers to establish collectives that could deal directly with resorts.

When COVID-19 shut down the resort market, growers successfully pivoted to supplying urban markets, dealing directly with supermarkets and customers at local markets to achieve premium prices. This is boosting the availability of fresh produce for local people at the same time as supporting local farmers over imported products.

‘This kind of capacity-building is really significant,’ said Professor Brown. ‘The ACIAR work is more than a series of discrete projects; it really acts as a pump, priming change, triggering growth.’

As program coordinator with SPC in Fiji, Mr Hickes highlights the creation of new relationships and a training manual as valuable outputs from the projects.

‘Protected cropping is now part of the Fiji Ministry of Agriculture’s work plan, and extension staff have our training brochure to continue training farmers.

‘We have developed strong stakeholder relationships, including the Ministry of Agriculture and other NGOs, which will help to continue developing protected cropping,’ said Mr Hickes.

ACIAR PROJECT: ‘Integrating protected cropping systems into high value vegetable value chains in the Pacific and Australia’ (HORT/2014/080)