Growers are welcoming new economic support, saying government is planting the first seed in nurturing agriculture back to health so it can again support local people and eventually export to the world.
This evening, Prime Minister Henry Puna announced a Ministry of Agriculture support package, starting today, to provide free seedlings, organic pesticides and tractor-work for small growers and home gardeners.
He said this would help sustain the sector in both Rarotonga and the Pa Enua, and address the country’s food security needs over the next three to six months. “I know that some of you have already taken up the initiative on your own to start planting and we all commend you for the effort. Government will help wherever it can,” he said.
Ministry staff will monitor the plantings and provide advice.“Over the next three to six months, we want to keep up the supply to the local market, providing the necessary tools such as fertilisers, seedlings, and the tractors,” Puna said.
Te Tango Enua growers’ association president Danny Mataroa said it was critical Cook Islands provided food security for its people in the Covid-19 pandemic.
“First we need to feed the people, to put food on their tables, food in their cupboards,” he said. “After that, we can think about feeding the world.”
Between now and the end of June, the Ministry will pay for tractor use to cultivate suitable plots of land, up to half an acre.
The free trays of seedlings include dwarf and snake beans, Chinese cabbage, cucumber, choy sum, eggplant and sweet corn. Other seedlings may be available at an additional price.
The Ministry plans to work in partnership with the Business, Trade, and Investment Board, and growers’ organisation Te Tango Enua.
Te Tango Enua has 237 members on Rarotonga and the Pa Enua. Mataroa said they had not been consulted on the package, but it was a good start. Many growers would also be entitled to claim the wage subsidy, he said.
Mataroa is well-known for his leadership of Cook Islands National Arts Theatre, and leading performances at The Edgewater and Highland Paradise. But last night, he said that had all stopped; his only income and sustenance now was his plantations.
He said to properly slash, disc and plough a half-acre took 10 hours at a cost of $600 for a tractor– more than the three hours the government was providing. But it was a start.
He said the country needed to broaden its crops beyond tomato and bok choy and those vegetables popular with tourists. Growers needed to again plant and harvest maniota, kumara, taro, tarua and rau ti roots.
In particular, he said the country could lessen its reliance on importing four 40-foot container-loads of wheat flour every month, but producing gluten-free flour from kuru (breadfruit) on all the islands.
An Asian Development Bank report last week warned that importing food, tobacco, alcohol and construction material would cause rising inflation and cost of living in Cook Islands, over the next two years.