South Pacific farms and diets benefit from protected cropping research

13 March 2023

An international research project led by researchers from CQUniversity and funded by the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR) is now helping to boost the efficiencies of primary producers in the South Pacific through supported adoption of protected cropping systems.

The research project led by Bundaberg-based director of CQUniversity’s Institute for Future Farming Systems (IFFS) Professor Phil Brown, aimed to strengthen value chains for high-value crops using protected cropping systems in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

Vegetable crop production in the Pacific Island countries of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga is largely conducted by smallholders who are only able to produce crops for part of the year due to high precipitation damage in the wet season and lack of water in the dry season.

Because of this, off-season vegetable availability is low, and prices are high as the production shortfall is supplied by imports – a trend that can mean limited access to fresh fruit and vegetables to the general population.

Protective cropping structures have long been viewed as a way to effectively overcome off-season production and supply issues, however, a survey of existing structures found that many were not in use because producers were not considering components of the protecting cropping process beyond the construction of the structure.

Professor Brown said that this trend was particularly evident where previous aid programs had donated structures to producers but not considered other required components for success such as agronomy or marketing strategies.

“An analogy, based on the stability of the culturally significant kava bowl used in Pacific Island countries, was used to promote a protected cropping training program.

“The four legs holding up the bowl represent the physical infrastructure (the greenhouse design, materials and associated equipment used in production), crop agronomy (management of the crop, including varietal selection, pruning, training, irrigation and fertilizer use), management of pests and diseases, and the value chains linking production to market.

“Training in all four areas was delivered to farmers who were adopting protected cropping systems and demonstration farms were set up with low-cost, passively ventilated structures that can be disassembled in a short time (which is an important design feature when a cyclone event is predicted to occur),” said Professor Brown.

“This allowed us to collect data on the production environment, associated input costs and crop yields, as well as the potential impact of increased availability of vegetables on the diets of smallholder farming families and village members (using a household dietary diversity survey).

“Through this we realised that the need for promoting healthy diets as a component of the agricultural production system development was essential in order to reduce the risk of unintended dietary changes linked to increasing income from adoption of protected cropping.”

As a result of the project, protected cropping has been successfully introduced as a production system suitable for high value vegetables in Pacific Island countries and producers and farming communities have benefitted through new income opportunities and improved access to fresh produce.

Professor Brown added that the project also helped to enable producers to realise yields two to three times higher than traditional field cropping methods and allowed producers to supply producer during off-season periods.

“Working together, farmer collectives were able to deal directly with resorts to supply them with vegetables at prices higher than they would receive in the urban markets during peak production season.

“When COVID shut down the resort market, the growers successfully pivoted to supplying urban markets in the off season and achieved sales that encouraged further investment into their protected cropping activities,” said Professor Brown.

“Other benefits have included the inclusion of Integrated Pest Management approaches that have led to increased production compared to field grown crops and a training program capturing project results has been developed with Agriculture Ministry staff.

“Information contained in a training manual is used by staff to develop and administer their own set of training activities for local farmers.

“Building the local capacity, knowledge and ownership of the training program has established a strong foundation for future growth in protected cropping in the Pacific.”

The success of the project was recently highlighted as a best practice example of Australian Government support for sustainable agricultural development at a recent conference in Washington.

The project was identified as one that that aligns closely with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 Life on Land that aims to protect restore and promote the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and biodiversity loss.