Targeting $40m bill

RICE farming continues to be a serious business for Dreketi farmers on Vanua Levu as they diligently play their role of planting this important commodity as a means of helping Government reduce Fiji’s rice import bill.

More than 30,000 tonnes valued at about $40 million is imported annually as rice is now considered a staple food when compared with root crops such as dalo, cassava and kumala.

Dreketi rice farmers, also known as the Vuniuto Indigenous Group, reside about four kilometres off the main road to Labasa. They are rice generational planters from this area. The group was formed in 2006 and consists of 20 members, 10 men and 10 women planters.

Group chairman Nacanieli Dakaitabu said he had never regretted becoming a rice farmer because this was something he took up when he left school and was still going strong.

“We used to help our parents in the rice field nearly 40 years ago and we are proud to carry on the legacy,” he said.

“A total of 40 acres of land was allocated for rice farming but at the moment our group has managed to cultivate 20 acres.”

Rewa Rice Limited is the group’s main buyer. It offers them between $650 and $750 for a tonne depending on the moisture content in the paddy. Paddy with 15 per cent and less moisture is sold at $750 per tonne.

During the main season harvesting from October to December last year, the group produced three tonnes of rice earning $2250.

“Due to a landslide last year we could not plant off-season rice therefore we aim to produce more this year.

“Income from the rice farm over the years has been used to build our homes and assist in our children’s education and also provide for our family’s daily needs,” Nacanieli said.

He believes there is a need for support from the family because working in the rice field is not easy.

“I believe hard work and perseverance are needed to make the work more productive,” he said.

Dreketi Agriculture Station field man Jagdishwar Prasad said the Vuniuto Indigenous Farmers Group was well known to rice farmers in the area as members had proved themselves over the years with the volume of their produce.

The group benefited a lot from a rice farming training facilitated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The Ministry of Agriculture has also provided the group with alternatives like vegetable seeds for their livelihood and home consumption.

Senior agricultural officer (rice) Jone Matawalu said the Dreketi Rice Project initially had 680 hectares of developed rice with 221 farmers but the number of farmers had dropped to 153.

“The tremendous drop in farmers was due to land issues especially when the new landlord occupied the land. More than 70 per cent of the farmers were displaced so only 462 hectares of rice land is being utilised now,” he said.

“Most of the younger generation have left rice farming and moved to towns and urban areas for other means of employment, leaving behind the older farmers to work in the field.”

Mr Matawalu said this was a major drawback of the industry and was not only happening in Fiji as it was a global trend. The younger generation, he said, needed to be convinced to come back and use their land.

“The Ministry of Agriculture was grateful that some investors like Grace Road Food Company Ltd have shown their interest to invest in Fiji in order to increase local rice production to reduce the import bill and reach self-sufficiency by 2020,” he said.

“The farmers get subsidised machinery rates whereby they pay $17.45 per hour for the use of a swamp dozer, combined harvester and wheel loader and $28 per hour for tractor work,” Mr Matawalu said.

“The Ministry of Agriculture is assisting farmers by providing free seeds for new farmers and free rice reaper and rice thrasher for all rice farmers while fertiliser such as triple super, potash and urea are available to farmers at a subsidised rate,” he said.

“With this assistance and the use of other agro inputs by farmers will increase production. We are expecting to plant 4050 hectares of rice to achieve 10,125 metric tonnes of paddy this year from the 3778 farmers in Fiji,” he added.

Plans of the Ministry of Agriculture regarding rice commodity are; increasing availability of more rice machine to farmers to purchase on one third and two third basis and develop unused irrigated and potential rice lands.

“There is a need to carryout project implementation and monitoring of rice farming activities,” said Mr Matawalu.

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