Anybody can be an organic farmer or gain meaningful employment and a good source of income through organic farming, including the disabled. Zai Na Tina, a self-funded organic farm at Burns Creek, Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands enabled more than 10 deaf and mute youths from around the country to be organic farmers.
They trained over a two-month period with the support of the Pacific Community through its Solomon Islands country office. “The general attitude towards those with disabilities is that they can do little to improve their lives,” said farm coordinator Dr Shane Tutua.
“When they come to work on the farm, that’s when we realise that they are intuitive and intelligent young people, and when we explain things to them they quickly understand and are able to carry out the competencies that we assigned them to do,” explained Tutua. “It also changed the views that some of our staff had about the disabled.”
The communication divide was bridged through an interpreter versed in sign language. “They really appreciate what they learned here because they came out from a disability school at Kohimarama and they learnt agriculture there, but here the training is more in-depth.”
The important thing to do now is to conduct follow-ups; and Zai Na Tina farm, bursting with students and struggling to cope with an intense workload, is actively pursuing funding opportunities to do that. To do a follow up, a teacher from Zai Na Tina will visit the student to see the progress they make in setting up their farms in their communities applying organic farming principles.
“The support we need to provide must also involve followups with our students, providing extension knowledge in the community they go back to to farm,” Dr Tutua said. In total, Zai Na Tina has trained more than a 100 youths in organic farming principles. It’s bringing to life the dream of his father, the late Joini Tutua, dubbed the ‘father of organic farming’ in the Solomon Islands. Senior Tutua opened the school to ‘help Solomon Islands produce most of its food through organic means.’
“He said you want to feed people, feed them with good food,” related Dr Tutua. Spread over 3.2 hectares, senior Tutua named the farm in the memory of his mother who was the custodian of the garden, a role that Solomon Islands mothers have traditionally played since the days of tribal wars. Zai Na Tina means mother.
With the men away on warring paths or guarding the village against possible attacks, the role of providing food for the family meal rested solely with the women. Women still do the gardening long after the battles.
The demand for organic farm produce and learning is rising.
“We have 30 students accommodated here at the farm, but we really only have the capacity for far fewer,” Dr Tutua said. When asked by a staff member of POETCom whether Dr Tutua liked doing this work, he replied “Yes and no!”
“Yes because in this country we are the only ones providing training on the farming of organic vegetables and emphasising soil health, and that’s why I think it’s important we remain open.’ “There is a lot of unemployed youth out there, including the disabled, that the farm can equip with skills to take advantage of the growing demand for organic food.”
“And no because we are so understaffed it frustrates me.” Farm operations are funded by popular selling vegetables sold at stalls along the main Honiara highway leading into the city. Sales are hot. “We finish our produce much faster than the Taiwanese conventional farmer across the road from us.”
“We are looking for funding so that we can pay our teachers better, improve accommodations for our students and receive more trainees. “It’s challenging to secure funding because organic agriculture is still on the fringe, but things are changing. “It is important Zai Na Tina remains functional to continue promoting organic farming in the Solomon Islands.”
There is a Pacific tendency to wrongly assume traditional farming that is widely practiced in the Pacific is completely organic. At Zai Na Tina for instance, students learn pest management techniques such as ridding the ubiquitously nasty African snail, by applying minimum tillage and composting the proper way among an array of other organic methods.
“It’s great that many of our farmers still farm without chemicals but with more pests overtaking farms and domestic needs giving way to commercial interests, chemical agriculture rises its ugly head; hence the importance of intervening and teaching future farmers best practices.
“Organic farming is very important, not just to provide chemical-free food, but because it’s important for maintaining soil health and promoting food security. It’s an important strategy for climate change adaptation as well. That’s why I believe organic farming is the way to go for this country.”
Organic farming helps build resilient agriculture systems that are able to withstand natural disasters such as droughts. “If Cuba can produce 50 percent of its food through organics, why can’t we do it?” Tutua exclaimed.