Sofia Khan and Sheikh Tabish Ali have been in, out and have returned to cane farming during their married life. Their farm, is located at Batari, about 15 kilometres from Seaqaqa, on Vanua Levu in Fiji’s northern division.
While Sofia is from a cane farming background, Sheikh Ali is not.
Sofia worked at the Sugar Cane Growers’ Council (SCGC) in Seaqaqa for 20 years, in the role of Executive Officer. Here, she gained a vast knowledge of the workings of the sugar industry, which, she says, helps her to this day.
While Sofia was employed, Sheikh Ali took care of their farm. It has deep red soil, which is of poor quality and which is typical of the area. Over the years, Sheikh Ali’s income declined drastically. His cost of production increased and farm labour became increasingly scarce; so much so that between 2006 and 2009, he was unable to harvest his cane – simply because he could not find cane cutters.
Sofia and Sheikh Ali saw their children gradually leave the farm to take up jobs on Viti Levu. By 2009, the couple decided to leave the farm too, to join their children and settle down in Fiji’s capital, Suva. In the city, Sheikh Ali found a job and the family saved enough to build a house in Nausori where the couple and their children lived.
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But Sofia was not happy and she found the cost of living very high in the city. She felt that their farm in Batari was waiting for them. After four years of living in Nausori, she convinced her husband that it was time to return to the farm. In 2012, the couple moved back to dedicate themselves to proving that there is more income to be made from cane farming than from living in the city.
During the first year they focused on rehabilitating the farm by cultivating the neglected ratoons. That same year, they planted five acres of cane. By doing this they were able to harvest 234 tons in 2013, a solid foundation for further improvements. However, during 2014 and 2015, drought plagued the area but thankfully, their harvest did not drop below 200 tons. They continued to invest in the farm, planting cane in new plots every year, rejuvenating the standing crop. With the proceeds from the harvest, Sheikh Ali bought a three-ton van which he uses to make additional income.
Sheikh Ali heard about the Fairtrade project and how it was assisting farmers to increase their production. He joined the project’s training sessions and learned about “best practices” in cane husbandry. He also heard about the possibility of becoming a Leader Farmer which would enable him to teach other farmers about best practices. He then joined the project’s training programmes in “Leadership and Communication” and in “Farming as a Business” and began to show other farmers how to fill gaps in the field, how best to fertilise them and how to keep the fields weed-free.
In 2015, Sheikh Ali obtained a cane planting grant from the Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC). He used it to plant six more acres of cane. By 2016, his production increased to 354 tons and he planted 10 more acres of cane. Here, he practiced intercropping, a technique he had learned about during the Fairtrade project training programme. He chose to intercrop his cane with watermelon. To his surprise, three months later, he had earned $15,000; just by planting watermelon in the rows between his planted cane. Sheikh Ali used this “bonus” in January 2017 to purchase a tractor worth $23,000.
Meanwhile, Sofia worked with the Fairtrade project staff to establish a demonstration plot on the farm. Three varieties of cane were planted there which were intercropped with legumes and watermelon.
Sofia wants to show other farmers about best practices and the yields that can be obtained. In fact, Sofia is a keen community worker with a command of both Hindi and iTaukei (Fijian). She brought iTaukei women from the neighbouring village to the demo plot to show them what is possible. The crop is good and Sofia looks forward to the harvest so that she can learn exactly how much the demonstration plot yields.
When asked whether the couple was satisfied with their achievements they answered that they were only just starting! Sofia emphasised this with:
“We want to share our knowledge and experience with many more farmers, we want to show them how they can get more cane from their farms. We can do it because we are the living example that there is money in cane”.
Sheikh Ali added, “Our goal is to reach 2000 tons from our two farms”.
Sofia has started to urge her family to move back to the farm. And Sheikh Ali? He plans to buy a cane harvester.Sofia Khan and Sheikh Tabish Ali