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True man of the land

Solomoni Biumaiono
Sunday, February 03, 2013

It was a fine cloudless day and it's been a long while since I was at a cattle farm walking pato in the green paddocks which has been dutifully manicured by some fine stocks of Limousin and Hereford cows and bulls. Immediately, good memories come flooding again. I still can remember the school holidays where we would be rustled into a Wainibuka Transport bus and driven down the then dusty Kings Rd to Naveicovatu Village where I was to be part of my taitai's (grandfather's) early morning rituals of milking the cows and visiting his modest cattle farm on the opposite bank of the Wainibuka River.

I hadn't forgotten the sweet smell of the paddocks and of course the thrill of separating the calf from the mother and the more dangerous job of marshalling the cattle.

I am standing and talking with Tiko Whiteside on a hill at his cattle and sheep farm at Gusuisavu, a fertile valley formed by the Waidina River. The panorama is breathtaking as we can clearly see where the Waidina meets the Rewa River with the Korobasabasaga and the Medrausucu ranges to our left while Mount Victoria looms large directly in front of us to the north.

Against that beautiful backdrop stands Eastgate in the coolness of his farmstead veranda which is shaded by palm trees. His farmstead interior has all the modern amenities expected in a well-to-do house but what makes Eastgate so proud of it is that all the timber used to build it were hewn from the native trees that grow in his farm.

All around the house are flower and vegetable gardens, which Eastgate always emphasises and it's only later that I came to know the reason why. He is proud of his rourou (spinach) special and it is usually the dish he serves to his visitors. I had heard of testimonies about his rourou special before we met.

His three farm dogs, Chakita the Australian Blue Heeler, Roman the half ridgeback and the very young Apollo, whom Eastgate would like to call a 'Fiji special', were busy showing off the house.

Amidst all the dogs' hustling stands the cool, calm and collected Sparky, a one-week old lamb who lost his mother at birth. With the size of these dogs, I thought Sparky was in the valley of death.

Eastgate's greatest joy, his wife Maureen, has a commanding presence in the kitchen and judging from the flower beds and the designer garden, her very own handiwork.

Fanned by a cool breeze, we sat with glasses of cool and pristine water harnessed by water pumps and gravity fed from a nearby creek.

The water dam is also used as a mini hydro which supplies the Eastgate farm with electricity and majority of the time, he uses his own power instead of relying on the Fiji Electricity Authority power grid.

With this background, Eastgate told me of his life story and his love of the land.

Brought up in his family's copra plantation on Gau Island Eastgate's passion has always been in the land.

Living off the land has always been part of his life and since his childhood days in Gau, made up his mind that he would one day return to it.

"Straight after school I went to New Zealand to work in the forestry sector there and after a while I got homesick and decided to come but I went into other industries and much of it was spent in the tourism industry and after I sold the floating restaurant, I decided to go full time into farming," Eastgate said.

He had bought his 265-acre farm in Naitasiri way back in 1995 but he spent those early years just clearing bush until 2000 when he packed his bags, sold Tiko's and moved to his farm.

There is an unmistakeable gleam in his eyes when he starts explaining the technicalities of cattle and sheep farming.

"To me right now I believe the best thing I can do in fact what I want to do is to share my knowledge about the cattle industry with other farmers who need a little bit of mentoring.

"Any farmer who wouldn't mind getting his hands dirty and people who would be prepared to do most of their own farm work as well as discipline, especially in finance.

"Au kila vinaka na bula ni iTaukei (I know the iTaukei way of life). You see if farmers want to be successful, they will have to sacrifice because to run a business you have to have discipline and know how to run a business.

"I was lucky that I had some experience in running a business and knows how to make a dollar and I want to share this knowledge with anyone who is willing to listen, learn and do the hard work.

"Because I know the cattle and beef industry can be a very lucrative industry but it will need a whole lot of hard work, perseverence and above all, know how to take care of your animals really well," Eastgate said.

Having spent the last 13 years among his cattle, Eastgate shows so much appreciation for his prized breeders.

"Farmers need to understand that animals are creatures of habit and they need to be given a fixed routine. You'll have to do that so they know what's going on in their lives. You have to treat them well too because they will take care of you too," Eastgate said.

With whatever little knowledge he has about cattle and whatever he can glean from agricultural experts and other sources, Eastgate has used it build his farm from scratch.

"When I got this farm it came with a 100 heads of cattle but ever since then not only has he increased his herd, he has introduced new breeds and started his own breeding program.

"I did a lot of experimenting on the farm, breeding different breeds together with the aim of getting a sturdy cattle well suited to the climate and one that can produce some of the best beef and breeders that we have," Eastgate said.

"I brought some Herefords and bred it with the Friesians. Then bought Limousin bulls and crossed it with the existing females and now I believe that I have one of the best breed of cattle that is suited to the Fiji climate," he added.

By this time we have reached the top paddocks where we spotted some sheep grazing in different paddocks, which, by the way number 25 in total.

"I rotate the sheep and the cattle and it usually takes a bit over a month to complete one rotation."

He had a total of 250 heads of cattle under his ratio of one cattle per acre and he supplements their diet with molasses chaffed together with guatamala and mulato grasses.

Now he has dropped his cattle numbers down to 150 heads while increasing his sheep count to 530 and he says his farm can still sustain this.

"It's just a matter of finding the right balance between the numbers but in order to make a farm really work where you are able to earn a comfortable living with a two-men operation, you will need a farm this size," Eastgate said.

He adds that all the fencing work, feeding, running the cattle and sheep out to graze and all other things must be done by the owner.

"It's just basic business principle because the more you keep your costs down the better for you. O au e dua na tamata dau vatotomi. E dua na tikini kaukamea se kau varo au dau kauta mai meu varoroya tu (I am a scavenger. Any piece of metal or wood that I find I always take it home and keep it). You see these farm gates, they are pieces of grills that I used to pick up from construction sites, I take it home, do my own drilling and attach them to these pieces of pipes and made these gates out of it," Eastgate said.

Many have described his farm as just like a dairy farm in New Zealand but to Eastgate it is nothing else but the lov

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