Smell of Money

First, the smell hits you well before the mountain high of seeming dirt appears.
It is the compost yard at Titikaveka in the Cook Islands. The yawning, giant jaws of the excavator gouge at the ‘black dirt’ throwing it up into the air. Steam billows from the turned earth.
The gigantic machine climbs the compost pile that stretches 100 meters across the yard churning and churning. The action allows oxygen to enter into the compost assisting with the decomposition process. It is a remarkable sight, steam rising from dirt.

Compost pile with fish waste to be mixed into it

Teariki’s large toy, churning the compost with green waste from Rarotonga

At times, the machine is teetering, almost falling, but rights itself in the expert hands of the young man at its wheel.
He is Teariki Patai, only 24 and an organic farmer. Teariki has been making compost for the past two years.
Cook Island’s Noni Marketing Limited buys most of the compost to fertilise hundreds of acres of noni tree plantations. The fruits of these certified organic plants are pulped into Noni juice and exported to China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Australia. Dried pulp of the Noni fruit and used as the carbon or brown element of the compost. Other island residents bring organic materials like leaves, grass clippings, branches to the yard for recycling. Previously, they just burnt them.
Teariki said with increasing awareness about the benefits of compost, more people are making use of the compost yard as a place to dump their organic waste.
‘There is no waste. We turn all the goodness they bring into money,’ he said.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development supports the compost yard through the Capacity Building for Resilient Agriculture in the Pacific Project. Natura Kuki Airani, a farmer’s organisation, implements the project as POETCom’s focal point for organic agriculture development in the country.
The yard supplies the growing number of organic farms in Cook Islands, other than the Noni factory with organic fertiliser.
Acting POETCom Coordinator Stephen Hazelman said one of the challenges farmers face in organic agriculture is the availability of organic inputs or fertilisers.
‘Organic farmers can use the natural environment to make their fertilisers but that requires knowledge as well,’ Stephen said.
‘It helps them a lot such fertiliser is readily available however one limiting factor is the cost.
‘At the Titikaveka Compost yard, experts are making the compost and making it available to farmers at a reasonable cost.’
Teariki tests his compost product in his gardens.
‘We mostly occupy the shorelines, where the farming soil is sandy,’ Teariki explained.
‘It’s hot and dry too.
‘Adding this compost to my farm soil has helped me produce giant peppers, tomatoes, and other vegetables that we’ve fed on as a family.
‘That’s my priority for farming, food and nutritional security.’

Teariki at his farm thriving on compost

A pig’s snout ‘ploughs’ his farm

Composts improve soil organic content that helps with the retention of moisture and nutrients needed by plants.
At the corner of the compost yard, an array of blue drums lined a corner of the yard. The blue drums are forty gallon sized ones. There is a foul smell coming from them.

Turning waste fish into emulsion great as soil fertiliser

Making fish emulsion

Teariki is unfazed. He opened the lid of one, reaches in with a stick and stirs a strange, orange concoction filled up in it.
‘I don’t know how we’d be able to produce healthy foods without this,’ he said.
His nose did not scrunch up at all.
‘I’m used to the smell. It is the smell of money. I love it!’ He burst out laughing, rocking up laughs in the group of farmers observing.
One of them is Wayne Mitchell. The fifty something farmer is there to buy some of the smelly stuff that he describes as fish emulsion.
‘This is something great and the fact that Teariki and Teava make it here really helps us organic farmers to afford it,’ Mitchell said.
‘Organic fertilisers in the supermarkets are expensive.’

Wayne Mitchell buys fish fertiliser from the yard

He was referring to Teava Iro, an organic farming guru and Teariki’s mentor.
Apart from making compost, Teava has also showed Teariki the making of fish emulsion.
While Teariki is using this special knowledge and organic products to raise a successful farm, he plans to convert them into a good income source someday.
‘Times are changing. More people are demanding organic food. That means the demand for compost and fish emulsion is only going to grow,’ he explains.
‘As it is we often cannot meet the demand.’

At Teariki’s farm, a wooden, square, closed box-like structure sits on the ground. A pigs ruts about inside. Teariki moves it, with the pig to a new location on the farm.
‘See how the pig has cleared the grass and ploughed the soil with his snout,’ he said pointing to the recently vacated space.
Indeed, the soil looks ready for planting. The ‘pig tractor’ has been effective.
Nearby an A-framed construction houses two hens and a rooster. He calls the setup his ‘chicken tractor’. They pretty much do the same job as the pig, using their sharp, taloned feet to scratch at the ground, turning the soil.
It eliminates the need for heavy tilling. Their waste fertilises the farm.
Here too, smells rise off the ground. The fish emulsion, compost and the tractors. However, it is the smell of money, and food and it makes Teariki happy.