Early last Saturday, our Informal Gardeners Group members congregated at the Westerlund Farm to await directions to Papali’i Peter Tulaga Eliesa’s taro plantation high atop Fiaga.
I finally met the guy that we had been introduced to via Facebook thanks to my friend, Sam Saili and the Skyeye team who had been drone mapping Papali’i’s farm.
“I was a sign writer before farming. That is actually my profession. I also worked at a bank,” were the first words from Papali’i when I introduced myself and proceeded to make his acquaintance.
“After all that, I did not think I was making any progress.
This is the man that inspired me,” as Papali’i points to another colleague and successful Farmer, Ricky Westerlund.
“I read up on some of his writings and after meeting him, I decided farming was the area to get into.”
I first met Ricky Westerlund in 2008 when we were on the working committee developing the Fruits and Vegetable Sector Strategy for Samoa.
I admired his no-nonsense approach and would admonish the Ministry of Agriculture officers and anyone who was deemed a waste of time and did not know what he/she was talking about.
He lets his work speak for himself. Who better to be a mentor than a man who is a success in his field.
Two years later, the hard working and determined 36-year-old Peter Tulaga Eliesa, is touted as the biggest commercial taro farmer in Samoa.
He currently farms 120 acres high up on Fiaga.
Papali’i Peter says that he has always been a taro farmer. His original farm is located at his home in Aleisa.
“I see there is a big market in taro both for export and for the local market. So I wanted to expand my plantation.”
He sought to lease land for his expansion and was promptly given a challenge by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malieegaoi’s government through the Minister of Public Enterprises, Lautafi Fio Purcell.
“Prove to me that you can plant 50 acres at Fiaga within a year.”
Papali’i excitedly took up the challenge and achieved the target in half a year. He was then granted another 70 acres. Peter and his team of 4 continue to plant at a rate of 1000 tiapula per person per day.
“We work 24/7. We plant at night under flood lights,” says Peter.
There are five export varieties of taro currently planted at the farm. These include, the MAF No.1, Talo Fusi, Salani, Tanumalala and one that Peter was not prepared to share, just yet.
Peter had entertained the thought of being an exporter but decided against it after being warned that it was not as straight forward as it may appear. One needs an agent plus several other requirements to be fulfilled.
He is currently supplying eight taro exporters instead. He usually sells around 300 x 20 kilo bags of taro on a weekly basis.
“A 20 footer container usually requires up to 750 bags of taro which can equate to 10,000 taro.” “We plant 30-40,000 taro for the container.
I know that not all the taro planted is good enough for export.
That’s why we plant that much to ensure we can meet the container needs.”
When asked how well the exports is going, Peter cracks a smile and points to the brand new Toyota landcruiser that we rode up to the farm on, and says, “I bought that last week. It is 125,000 tala. Ok, I also got a bit of help from Development Bank of Samoa.
They came out and had a look at the plantation and they liked what they saw.”
In spite of the successes, there are also challenges faced by Peter and his farming neighbours up at Fiaga.
“When people are asked what challenges they have, they always point out theft and pigs. That is not a problem for me. We’ve planted 50 to 100, 000 additional taro for the pigs and the thieves, way up the top of the ridge. That keeps them fed and leaves the rest of our farm for us to operate.”
“Right now, our biggest challenges are the access road, water and clearing the brush.” The road up to the farmlands is quite challenging. It is washed out and deep rutted in many areas. It is definitely 4WD country.
“I do up to four trips daily carting 1000 litres of water for mixing the herbicide.” Peter was adamant about the need to use herbicide for controlling the weeds when doing commercial farming. “I understand about the need to be organic, however that is not feasible to do on such a big scale when you’re doing commercial farming.”
Peter pointed to a neighbours acreage which was covered with brush and wild guavas. “This is what the planted land was covered in before I started.” He suddenly went quiet and we realised, that he was trying to hold back his emotions.
“When I started this plantation, I did not receive any help from my family. That still upsets me. I did this on my own and with some help from some kind friends.
“The capital needed for this venture was from my shop and my planting materials was from my plantation at home. The land is from the government.”
“We’ve had several visits from Parliamentarians who have come to witness that it is possible to plant this much taro.
I really hope that they will prioritise our access roads to help us further increase our farms in order to support exports.”
Paying forward the blessings
Peter is deeply grateful for the blessings he has received from his hard work. He makes weekly donations of a variety of vegetables and fruits weekly to the Mapuifagalele Home of the Aged; Carmelite Sisters; SVSG and the Prison.
He has also donated 200,000 tiapulas to the Prison at Tafaigata.
Additionally he has offered support of free tiapulas to some of the young inmates who had expressed interest to start up their own taro plantations on release. “I hope that this help will give them something to work for and be self sustainable in the long run.”
On 24th March, Peter turned 36. He excitedly met with the Hon. Prime Minister who had summoned him to discuss his future plans. He is eagerly awaiting the opportunity for an additional 100 acres to expand his operations to.
He is also experimenting with cropping tobacco for export purposes.
“After the third round of taro planting, I will let the land recover and follow that with cattle,” says Peter.
“I want to be self -reliant. I urge everyone to believe in themselves. Anything is possible with hard work,” Peter Tulaga Eliesa.
At the conclusion of our visit, our group could only express a new sense of respect for the farmers for their resilience, determination, commitment and hardy resolve to continue despite the challenges they face. We salute all farmers and wish them well. For us, its Buy Local & Eat Local. Give our support to our Farmers!
Papali’i Peter would like to acknowledge the support of the government, especially Minister Lautafi Fio Purcell, for believing in him.
* Nynette Sass is a member of the Informal Gardeners Group. This piece has been reprinted with permission from her mysassysamoa.blogspot.com