The ministry’s director of research and development, William Wigmore says that for high production in fruit and vegetables, more labour, land and machinery are needed.
“On small scale plots often family will step in during the planting and the harvest, but generally for higher scale production, we have a labour shortage.”
He says while there is a lot of land on the outer islands there is a shortage of labour.
“These are things that can be overcome. We need to start small and do it properly. I would like to see farmers do one or two things properly and slowly.”
Wigmore says there is a big potential export market exists for Cook Islands produce.
“We were one of the first (countries) to export pawpaw, but lost that because the Fijian and Philippine producers could provide consistent supplies, land and labour.
“But we already have a big market right here on the island.”
However, if local demand is to be met, says Wigmore, the country has to deal with a labour shortage, with less young people taking the place of those older farmers.
“This is something that needs to be looked at. We need to both provide the opportunities for young workers in the industry and encourage them to get involved.”
He says there is a big potential for open-pollinated seed farming in the Cook Islands. “Currently, I’d say, almost 100 per cent of our seeds are hybrid. Some of the benefits of open pollinators will be cheaper production and good varieties.”
To help with the Cook Islands’ labour shortage, Pacific Organic and Ethical Trade Community coordinator Stephen Hazelman says they are working on creating an incentive, where farmers come up with innovative ways to encourage youth into the organic farming industry, and there is a prize of $1,000 for the farmer who can do that.
He says the details still need to be finalised.
“Women are strong, we have to feed our family”, says programme participant Teremoana Manavaroa. She suggests the solution could be in investing in women as farmers.
“We can go into the garden and take our children with us. All around the world women are taking on men’s roles successfully, but women have always done farming.”
She says this is a way for women with children to carry on earning, and the bonus is that their children will naturally learn the skills and become growers themselves.
“At some point you have to look at what works, and we already know that this works.”
Hazelman agrees, saying that in many Melanesian countries women are the prime producers and in Fiji there is funding available for women in agriculture.
Natura Kuki Airani Organics Association president Teava Iro says while about $40 million a year is spent on food imported into the Cook Islands, only a fraction of that is spent on local food production.
“We are not even feeding ourselves, let alone the people coming in. We haven’t even scratched the surface.”
He agrees that farmers should stick to the basic produce that is already in high demand and build from there.
“But if we wanted to go into production, we have to be in a position where we can flood the market.
“Demand is already high.”