Mr and Mrs Pater Kjaer in their home on Vunivasa Estate, Taveuni
TAVEUNI may be reknown for its dalo farms but a new crop is beginning to make inroads there.
Pineapple is now in its fruiting season.
The Ministry of Primary Industries said a one-of-a-kind estate on the island -- Pacific Produce Limited (PPL) -- is now the pilot for the best utilisation of farming technology and other farm management practices. Owned by Pater Kjaer, the entire estate is awash with pineapples at different stages of production.
PPL packs and supplies pineapples to most of hotels and resorts in Viti Levu as well as several hotels on the island itself.
Mr Kjaer, originally from Denmark, has been living in Fiji maintaining his pineapple business for the past 20 years.
"Pineapple farming is a money-spinning business and for my business equally depends on visitor arrivals to our country," he said.
In 2006, total pineapple production was 260 tonnes. This year, it's estimated to be around 150 tonnes as a result of declines in world prices and lower tourist demand.
"In year 2000 that we nearly went bankrupt when we increased our production due to the "New Millennium" hype. A greater number of tourist arrivals was anticipated but because of political instability my business was almost ruined," he said.
With increasing cost of production Mr Kjaer opted for cost effective measures so that he could easily adjust in times of uncertainty.
This saw him plant pineapple under plastic mulching -- something he has been effectively using for the past five years.
"Plastic mulching technology is most efficient for pineapple farming and is one of the most efficient methods of farm management," said Mr Kjaer. Plastic mulching helps reduce weed, irrigation time and infestation of pests as well as increases utilisation of fertiliser and water in the field.
Mr Kjaer's belief is that instead of using money on weedicides, weeding and watering, the same money could be used to cater for other expenses. But he says farmers should be ready to incur some plastic expenses and adjust the crop to suit.
"In this case we opted to increase our planting density, that is the number of plants per acre. Before we had 16,000 plants and now we are planting 22,000 plants per acre," he said.
Pineapple grows very well in hot climates with temperate soil type. Three varieties are common here: Ripley Queen, Smooth Cayenne and Waimama. The Ministry of Agriculture says Smooth Cayenne is bigger in size, with soft leaves and higher yields. But it says Ripley Queen is sweeter. The Waimama is a local variety, a cross between the two varieties.
Mr Kjaer says different planting materials provide different harvesting times. If farmers use the crown as planting material, it took 18 to 20 months while suckers and slips would give fruit in 12 to 15 months. Plantlets produced in nurseries took 12 to 15 months to be ready for harvest.
"We always have to ensure that all the different minerals and nutrients required for the sugar ratio were arranged so that the quality and taste is accepted for the tourist market," he said.
"We produce Ripley Queen because it has something to do with the sugar acid ratio that makes tourists prefer the sweet one," he said. "The pineapple sugar ratio is something to do with potassium and magnesium so we have to make sure the plants get the needed minerals."
Mr Kjaer said under plastic mulching technology, soil temperatures increased and enhanced growth since pineapples prefer the hot season.
"Initially I used plastic mulching as a trial with the plants not mulched with same amount of fertiliser and other inputs so the growth is simply less," he said. "Without using the technology the yield is five to eight tonnes per acre but with the application of plastic mulching I am harvesting 20 tonnes per acre".
Mr Kjaer said the estate produced crops in the off season to stay ahead of other farmers. He said the main pineapple season always resulted in a saturated market, meaning lower crop prices.
"For the past three years the season for pineapples has started early and finished early. Previously the season usually started in mid- November," he said.
"As the fruiting season approaches the Ripley Queen variety will mature first then the Waimama and then the Smooth Cayenne fruits. So as the season ends by February we have to get the off-season fruits ready".
Mr Kjaer has hired five labourers who can do anything from planting to harvesting in the numbered plots.
Planting materials are prepared by peeling off stems and bind plantings together in stacks.
Some 800kg to 900 kilograms of pineapples are packed in boxes and sent to a Nadi-based salesperson every week.
"Our salesperson distributes the produce to the hotels and resorts in Nadi, Coral Coast and other hotels and resorts that we are dealing with," Mr Kjaer said.
He said when production reached its peak, he sent pineapple three times a week, otherwise the deliveries are twice a week for the hotel industry. He said they had to be sure production costs were low because they had to add freight costs to get the produce to Viti Levu and other areas.
Mr Kjaer said there were only a few full-time pineapple farmers, while others grew pineapple as cash crops next to sugar cane.
"It is wise if farmers also focus on the quality requirements and help reduce the imports of this crop," he said.
Mr Kjaer said with the Agriculture Ministry creating awareness to expand production, in five years' time he believed he would not be able to compete with Viti Levu farmers.
Apart from having about eight hectares under pineapple, he has 15 hectares under dalo and other land as pasture for his cattle farm.
Mr Kjaer plans to venture into vegetable farming and is currentlyclearing more land for good pasture for cattle farming.
Amazingly, the ministry says, Mr Kjaer was not a trained farmer when he bought the 3000 acre estate in Vunivasa -- of which 1500 acres was bush and 1500 under coconut.