The business and challenges of taro farming in Samoa

By Elizabeth Ah-Hi ,

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FARMING LIFE: Peter Tulaga Eliesa at his farm.

FARMING LIFE: Peter Tulaga Eliesa at his farm.

Revenue from Agriculture makes up only seven percent of Samoa’s Gross Domestic product with taro being a major export. 

Efforts have been made to assist farmers of our major export crops such as cocoa, coconut and taro but there are some challenges that are out of the control of local farmers.

Samoa’s largest commercial taro farmer, Peter Tulaga Eliesa, told the Samoa Observer about the struggles farmers in his industry face and his perspective on how they can improve their situation. 

New viruses that attack taro crops are one of the most frustrating problems for farmers at the primary level. 

Asked why there were so many different types of viruses occurring, Eliesa said quite simply: “Climate change”.

 “The new virus is called B.L.T. and that one is getting tougher and people are giving up on farming,” said Mr. Eliesa.

According to Mr. Eliesa, climate change is affecting the severity and over occurrence of these devastating viruses that kill taros as well dreams. 

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries are currently working with Eliesa to test another new variety called “Cycle 9”, which is going through a cross pollinating process. 

With every new string of virus that kill our taro crops, the Government works to produce another taro breed that will reject all the viruses and help find the best one for Samoa in the current climate.

“We do taro breeding in Samoa. Only Samoa can do taro breeding, at the moment I got five new ones right now.”

Peter at Fugalei Market selling his taro.
Peter at Fugalei Market selling his taro.

Aside from working on his 100-acre taro farm, Eliesa never stops learning in fact some of his recommendations to those who are thinking of dabbling in taro farming involve making a serious commitment to the job.

“Farming is not a hobby it’s for a life time. You have to give everything to it. So I had to do my homework, I had to study and be smart about everything. It has to be precise.

“I never had any experience in farming but I developed a plan and a strategy of what I was going to do because I was a bank officer who used to sit inside an air conditioned office so I not only had to learn how to plant taro, I also had to do the numbers.

“Also the other most important thing is in any large commercial farm like mine is to be a smart farmer and to be smart about using chemicals. If you don’t get the recipe right, you are going to stuff it up and give up easily.

“I made a lot of mistakes when I first started and I don’t want to see other people make the same mistakes I made. That’s why I help a lot of farmers.”

According to Mr. Eliesa, the taro market is getting bigger and even though he exports to American Samoa, he prefers to supply the local market and other exporters who ship taro to other countries. There is a real misconception that exporting is where you can make your money but for the smaller farmers, Mr. Eliesa says to put your money on the local market. 

“Lots of people assume that exporting is where the money is but my first priority is the local market because the demand is so high. Every day for six days a week I sell out my taro and I save time and effort because I don’t have to prepare my taro for shipment or pay someone else to do it.

“Exporting is expensive, only rich people can afford to last long in the exporting game, not the small guys. It makes financial sense for small and big farmers to satisfy the local market because there are a lot of costs involved in the preparation and labour needed to export but if you bring it to the market and sell it out of your trunk, there’s no costs, you sell straight to the customer.”

Apart from being one of the most hard working taro farmers in Samoa, Mr. Eliesa prefers to live simply, working with just three men and living out in the open with no shelter at his plantation in Aleisa. 

“I never muck around, those are the issues that push me harder, I sleep in the tree at night when it rains I don’t care. It’s so amazing.”

© Samoa Observer 2016

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