Farmlander helps food producers in the Pacific

One of the smallest countries on earth, Niue is a Pacific Island paradise like no other. But when it comes to locally grown food, Niue is no Garden of Eden.

If you had asked Farmlands’ Bruce Griffin at the start of his career where he would end up working in later life, Niue probably would not have been his answer. With a background in horticulture, Bruce worked as a Land Management Advisor for the Northland Regional Council before joining the co-operative as a Whangarei-based Technical Advisor.

“An opportunity arose a few years ago for me to work alongside the Department of Agriculture in Niue, through a programme run by Volunteer Services Abroad and sponsored by the Secretariat for the Pacific Community. It was going to be a year away from the family, fully immersed in the culture but it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down,” recalls Bruce.

Bruce learned that while it is self governing, the Niuean economy is driven by New Zealand. For instance it uses the New Zealand dollar, there are direct flights from Auckland every week and many Niuean’s live and work in New Zealand, sending money back home.

The tourism industry is growing but there are a number of challenges for the country to produce its own food and provide fresh fruit and vegetables for tourists.

“Food is expensive to buy in Niue; local growers use bush gardens to produce vegetables for family and friends but there is limited produce for sale. Their production focuses on growing root crops such as taro, casava and kumara. The production of fruit is limited and constrained partly due to pest and disease issues, shallow soil and limited plant material. Consequently, a lot of fruit is imported from New Zealand,” explains Bruce.

“The essence of the VSA project was to improve food security and sustainability with an emphasis on increasing the amount of fruit grown on the island and reducing the reliance on imported and processed food.”

Bruce worked on this project at the local research farm with the Niuean Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF).

“There were a range of older fruit trees on the farm that could be used to provide propagation material but they were neglected and in need of care. There was the structure of an existing nursery that was used to grow a range of fruit trees from both local stock and imported material, these plants were then provided to local growers. Growers were very keen to get hold of any available trees.”

Bruce liaised one-on-one with local growers offering advice on aspects such as pruning, fertiliser and soil management. He had previously worked with an organic certifying organisation in New Zealand, so was well placed to offer his experience to a local organic growing association that is very active in promoting organic and sustainable production on the island.

New Zealand has a history of  scientific involvement in Niue. Back in the 1960s the then Department of Scientific and Industrial Research conducted extensive research on the make-up of the island’s soil and the factors that limited production. It was only in 2015/2016 that Landcare Research put this into the form of a soil management manual.

Being one of the largest raised coral atolls on earth, the soil on Niue is low in nitrogen, potassium and zinc and being shallow, it does not hold water  well. Bruce was able to introduce a new citrus rootstock better adapted to local growing conditions and also brought in avocado graft-wood to increase the range of varieties grown in Niue. 

Bruce was there in 2016 but he has stayed in touch with the local growers. Thanks to VSA, DAFF and Farmlands he was able to go back for 10 days recently, to run workshops on propagation, general soils and organic growing and to see how his work was developing. What he saw forced him to focus on the positives.

“While it was a bit disheartening to see that a couple of aspects of the project had taken a backward step over the last two years, there was also definite progress. The real success story was the fantastic work being put in by local farmers who could see the immediate personal benefit of the work we’d done together and their enthusiasm for ongoing information sharing. The local organic farmers’ association continues to do a great job of co-ordinating the local organic growers and supporting them with Bio Gro certification which I’m really pleased about,” he says.

Bruce doesn’t discount the idea of becoming involved in another similar project in the future.

“Although volunteering for a project such as this does take a lot of personal and financial commitment, it is extremely rewarding both personally and technically. The sharing of knowledge is very much a two-way street and I learnt a lot about a whole range of crops that I had not worked with before and about local and traditional growing techniques. I received a lot of support and encouragement from the people I worked with in Niue and will continue to offer support from afar.”

Volunteer Services Abroad (VSA)
This New Zealand charity was established over 50 years ago, with founding President Sir Edmund Hillary believing that if people work together in equal partnership they can achieve great things around the world. Since 1968, VSA has worked in Niue to support education, the development of small business and agriculture.