The Fiji Crop and Livestock Council has been established with funding from the European Union.
It will represent livestock farmers working with pigs, cows, sheep and goats, as well as farmers growing crops like ginger, kava and coconut.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Simon Cole, interim chairman, Fiji Crop and Livestock Council
COLE: So it was actually formed two years ago when the Ministry of Agriculture recognised that a lot of its policies in agriculture were imposed top down and they were looking for a voice of the farmers, a coordinated voice from the farmers to contribute. So actually the Council has been running for two years and working up to what we had this week, which was the launch of the Secretariat of the Council, which is going to be a professional body that will represent the farmers.
COUTTS: And how will they be represented? What can you do for them?
COLE: Well, the first thing we have to set up is a membership. We have, it's such a diverse sector as you can imagine, both geographically and in size and in crop type and so we're going to set up a membership system based on a mobile phone log in, which will allow farmers to become members of their Association very, very easily. We are working to advocate for farmers' issues at the minute, rehabilitation and crop insurance is a very hot topic up here. We were knocked over by the floods in February, and then again the cyclone in December and we have not had a coordinated response to those issues and so we're working to put that together. We've had some success, we've had duty reductions in agricultural inputs here in Fiji. Theft is a big issue for Fiji farmers up here. So advocacy is a major thing that we can do. And then we're also working on a farm management manual with the government, with other aid agencies, and we want this manual to represent the reality of Fijian farming, based on what the farmers know.
COUTTS: Theft, is it by locals? Are these people thieving food to feed their own families?
COLE: This is everything. It includes commercial farmers through to subsistence farmers and the issues spread out over that whole gambit.
COUTTS: And so how much of a loss does that represent, because I'm going to go back to you about insurance in a moment?
COLE: Yeah. The loss, huge losses and I don't have the figure to hand, millions of dollars of losses to the - well, certainly our export crops were absolutely hammered, root crops were hammered, everything was hammered in both the floods and the cyclones.
COUTTS: Alright. So affordable would insurance be if the farmers could actually get it, because of huge loss through theft and also the annual event, natural disasters of cyclones and floods?
COLE: I think there is absolutely no way farmers individually could get or obtain insurance for their crops. What we are looking at is by bringing them together in an Association that we can quantify a risk and offer that risk to insurance companies that we've already had discussions with insurance companies and they would work to ensure a quantum loss and then it would be the responsibility of the Association to distribute that loss to the Association members who have contributed their insurance premiums. But I think we're also under no illusion that insurance is no plethora of a solution, because you're going to pay your premium, it's not a gift.
COUTTS: But can farmers, particularly smallholders afford it in the first place?
COLE: It's an option that they will have. They will have to decide. As I said, if you pay your premium, if you get knocked over - and you're going to get knocked over - is it worth it? You have to make that decision. We're offering the mechanism for that to happen.
COUTTS: Well, your interest is in pig farming. How lucrative is that industry?
COLE: Oh, hmm, at the minute, we lost all our Christmas sales, so this is the wrong time to ask that question.
COUTTS: Why was that, was that because of the weather as well?
COLE: Yes, we were right in the middle of the storm and the farm is close to Nadi airport, Latoka, and the storm went right over us. Nobody here had fridges, nobody could buy meat, nobody was organising parties, everybody was cleaning up.
The industry we compete almost dollar for dollar with is the Australian farm gates price in pigs in Fiji, which means we're reasonably efficient with what we do. Like the Australian industry though, we're being wiped out by imports of subsidised products coming in and being processed in Australia, sent through to Fiji.
COUTTS: Alright. So how much of a setback will you experience, when can you pick it up?
COLE: This will take a year to work its way out of the system I think.
COUTTS: And how will the farmers, the pig farmers actually survive that long?
COLE: We're going to go back to the banks, we're going to ask the banks for additional funding. Some of the smaller farms, everybody has to tighten their belt. This is just the reality of these events. It's not easy.
COUTTS: Well, how long will it take you to get them online, is it a year, getting your crock of piglets through?
COLE: Hmm, from mating to sale, we're about nine to ten months. So it's hard to say.
COUTTS: So it's the best part of a year?
COLE: Yes, best part of the year. Our problem here was loss of sales. We didn't lose the pigs, we just had a loss of sales in our busiest week of the year, which is Christmas.
COUTTS: Well, what happens to the pigs that should have been sold? They're elderly. Are they still sold or what do you do with them?
COLE: They will be sold, but they're still here at the farm and they're still eating at the moment. If you look at the demand for pork, after Christmas, after the Christmas rush, there's a big drop off in the demand for pork, so we're now trying to sell them into a flat market.
COUTTS: Alright, you can't go back to the European Union for more funding or it's for the Association rather than for personal investment?
COLE: Oh, this would be all for the Association. My business is a private business and I think that's the Council. All the members of the Council are private businessmen. They all have their own businesses, they all work in the Fijian farming sector and this is the strength of the Council that we have with us the people who actually farm in Fiji. And who know these realities that we've just been talking about, about pigs, about damage to paw paw, ginger, egg plants. These are the people that actually know, actually live farming in Fiji and that's the voice that we want to get through to government, to the Planning Associations, the aid donors and agencies, the voice of the farmers.
COUTTS: Well, what can be done that is not being done?
COLE: I think we can bring it together in a more professional and coordinated way. These Associations have existed in a number of formats over the last number of years, but never have they been coordinated into one body. And because it's so diverse, the weight of their issues with government isn't taken as seriously as we would like.
By bringing the whole sector together, I think we could increase the impact that we have.
COUTTS: So what is it that you need from government, apart from recognition? Is it money or what exactly do you require?
COLE: We want them to listen, we want them to understand what we are saying. As I said at the beginning, the government when they started this, they recognised that some of their solutions were imposed top down. What we want to do is provide the bottom up, the farmers voice into the planning issues, understanding funding of agriculture, putting the farmers' point of view first, rather than the planners' point of view.
COUTTS: And a phone-based membership system, is that new?
COLE: Hmm, I don't think it's new globally, I don't think it's new in farming possibly, but it's certainly new in Fiji. It's a very simple mechanism. You can just pick up your phone, whether you're in you're field, in your house, whatever and are able to communicate with your Association. And also we intend to send services like weather information or price information through this same network. So it will be a two-way communication using a phone-based system.
COUTTS: Now, the Fiji sugar industry has suffered by and large through maladministration, poor decisions, and bad administration as I say. Is that partly the problem here as well?
COLE: I think you'll find the involvement by government, by aid agencies in this sector has been less than in Fiji sugar and also the politicalisation of Fiji sugar over the years has not helped either and there's much less politicalisation in the non-sugar sector. But yes, we are we're a large portion of employment due to the GDP and so we do come up on the radar of these schemes and there has been bad planning, there has been bad concepts and I think we would like to ensure that the voice of the farmers is included now in the planning process.
COUTTS: Alright, And how much money have you got from the EU and is it ongoing?
COLE: No, I think we have about F$500,000 Fiji dollars a year, $A250,000 a year for the next two or three years and we have therefore an opportunity to make this work. It is up to us. Remember, we're private sector people. If we can't see a value from what we're doing, we will drop it. It is not going to continue ad infinitum. So we have a two or three year window to prove the validity of what we think, we have the funding through the ITC, the International Trade Centre, which is funded by the EU to make this work and that's what we're going to do over the next two or three years.