Mary Tom turned away from the probing zoom of the camera. Her voice is a mere whisper, lost in the laughter and jokes of the young farmers toiling the Napil Rural Training Centre gardens.
Most of them are boys.
Giant ball cabbages and vibrant orange carrots bloomed in the organically certified gardens of Napil Rural Training Centre, in the centre of Tanna Island in Vanuatu.
Mary planted some of them. The boys teased her, ‘Come on Mary, the camera won’t bite you,’ their mirth prying a radiant smile from Mary.
‘It’s all good fun,’ says her friend Melina Louie, the more confident of the two.
Though shy, Mary is the hardest working farmer at the school according to Peter Kaoh an agriculturalist who founded the training centre, to encourage young farmers to gain an income from farming.
The Centre challenges young people to farm differently. Burning for instance, widely practiced within the farming communities of Tanna is forbidden under an organic system. It is harmful to the soil biodiversity and therefore an unsustainable method.
Instead, they clear the land with bush knives, and reuse green waste as mulches to protect soil surfaces and improve its organic content.
She learns to raise organic nurseries, cooking soil, using homegrown potting mixes and transplanting. Washing chemically treated seeds ensures she can also buy it easily from the shops on the island without compromising organic standards.
Mary is sixteen. She could be helping in the house, listening to music, visiting friends, all the things a young girl her age should be doing. Instead, she’s farming, to earn a living.
Once a month, she catches a carrier van with sacks of Bok choy, carrots, cucumbers or other vegetable to sell at the Lenakel Market in Blackman Town, the main government centre on Tanna.
Marketing day ends with a walk to the bank, a smile in her heart. She deposits her earnings, growing her savings. When she graduates from Napil in a year’s time, she will have full access to all those savings and build a concrete home. Cyclone Pam blew their family grass home, reducing it to scattered sticks.
There are many Marys in Tanna. They farm to get a better life. For Mary, she is hoping someday, her organic vegetables will link up with the better paying markets in Port Vila. Someday, they will fly over the ocean onto a tourist’s plate.
The Engaging Vanuatu Youth in Organic Farming project – A Farm to Table Value Chain approach works with other young women and men like Mary to teach them organic farming and connect them with niche marketing opportunities.
The project also supports the rollout and adoption of the Pacific Organic Tourism and Hospitality Standard (POTHS) for the organic certification of dishes, menus, even hotel premises.
Breakas Hotel in Port Vila is piloting the POTHS. Organic certified dishes and menus at the hotel, and hopefully with the replication of POTHS efforts by other hotels or resorts creates a demand for the supply of organic certified vegetables.
That is what Mary envisions one day. To be a major supplier of organic vegetables. To earn more. To live a different life, in a stronger home, and buying power.