My island of Fefan is often referred to as the “Farming Island”, the “Green Island”, or the “Mother Island” because it generates more crops and agricultural produce than any other region in Micronesia. Its rich volcanic soil is the most fertile in this part of the world; something about its contents make it perfectly adapted to growing bountiful amounts of vegetation. In addition to the fertile soil, Fefan’s weather alternates between bright sunny days and rainy wet afternoons. As most people know, the three elements of sun, water and nutrients are the essential ingredients that plants need to flourish. Fefan has all of these in abundance and therefore everything grows like crazy.
The locals have taken advantage of these Fefanese fruitful flora factors and have been productive farmers for countless generations. Breadfruit, coconut, banana, and a few types of taro were the staple crops for centuries but the introduction of imported vegetables has allowed for a boom in agriculture. Fefanese grow giant cucumbers, green beans, cabbage, eggplant, peppers, watermelon and squash; just to name a few.
The farms are not organized in the same fashion as standard farms that you might envision. In fact, sometimes it is difficult to identify a farm when you see one. Often the farm just looks like jungle. The plants aren’t usually set down in neat rows with a scarecrow to guard them. However, if you look closer you will find that the “jungle” is actually a conglomeration of pineapple, banana, tapioca, squash, and beans.
Most families have a small farm somewhere on their land that provides them with greens to add to their meals. Some individuals, especially on Fefan, have larger scale operations where they actually produce their crops for commercial use. These plots of land are recognizable as farms; even so they still look like glorified gardens. There are no open fields of wheat or wide expanses with endless groves of trees. Although plenty of Chuukese have mullets and chew tobacco, it is far different from redneck American farming. There are no tractors, no barns, no silos, and no cowboy hats. Fefanese farming is especially adapted to the environment of these islands. Fefan is basically a little mountain jutting out of the ocean, so there is an extreme lack of flat land. As a result, the farms are built into the hillsides. They are built into the jungle.
As part of my integration into this culture, I felt that it would be a good thing if I learned a thing or two about agriculture. Although my grandpa was a farmer, my knowledge of farming is mediocre at best. I am a suburban city boy and haven’t spent much of my life tilling the fields. So, I decided to start a home garden with my host brother-in-law. We tore up a small piece of land in our front yard and planted cucumber, eggplant, green beans, watermelon and spicy peppers. I water these plants twice a day (if it doesn’t rain) and watch over them to check for weeds and trash. The cucumbers have dwindled away, but the rest are doing quite well. I actually really enjoy taking care of these crops and I am excited to have some healthy snacks in a few weeks when I harvest my veggies.
Farming is the centerpiece of cultural life here in Fefan and since I am a staunch advocate of maintaining traditional heritage I felt that it was important to instill the values of agriculture in my students as well. I want them to grow up with the knowledge of how to farm and why they should farm. As their world advances into the modern age, they spend less time participating in cultural practices like farming and fishing. However, these acts are still essential to the survival of people here in Chuuk and I feel that it is extremely important that they know as much as possible about it.
One day while I was tending my garden, I was pondering the importance of farming and as the thoughts stirred around in my mind they came together into a cohesive plan of action. I came up with a project that would engage the children in agriculture while involving the community as well. I had the idea of making my kids farm. Learn about farming and actually farm. Dig the soil, plant the seeds, water & weed, harvest and ultimately sell.
This wasn’t something that I could simply do on my own. First of all, I don’t know anything about farming. Secondly, the purpose of Peace Corps is not to undertake individual tasks. My intention is to involve as many people as possible in the education of the students and improvement of the community. Luckily, my language tutor and Chuukese mentor Amanisio is an agricultural specialist. He worked for the Department of Agriculture and as an agricultural consultant for the Department of Education. He excitedly supported my idea and urged me to pursue it further.
I took a trip to Weno and set up a meeting with the Director of Agriculture to see if this project would be feasible. We talked for a while and he told of me an old project framework called Teachers, Children, Parents (TCP). The point of this type of project was to integrate the community in the practical education of their kids. This was perfect! I could accomplish two goals with this project. First, I would teach the students about an integral part of their culture. Secondly, I would involve the community.
Parent and community participation is infamously poor in Chuuk and educators are constantly striving for ways to get the community more involved the schools. This project had the potential to do that. Parents would hopefully actually care about an activity like this, because farming knowledge is something tangible and useful that they can easily see the value in. Also, parents are the experts at farming. They are farmers, I’m not. So it works great that they will be the ones actually helping the kids with farming.
After talking to the Director of Agriculture (DoA), I set up a meeting to talk about the idea with the Chief of Elementary at the Department of Education (DoE). He also supported the idea and asked me to write up a proposal. I didn’t exactly know how to make a proposal/contract for this project, but part of my Peace Corps experience is to figure this kind of shit out. I whipped up an outline that delegated responsibilities and expectations for each of the stakeholders in the project. I came up with a mission statement, described what we hoped the students would learn, and gave specific details about what the teachers, parents, DoA and DoE would contribute. I messed around with it a bit and asked for some help from my host father and tutor. After a few days, I had a pretty darn good agreement drafted.
Now that I had the agreement set up, I had to start dealing with the bureaucracy to get it approved. Meetings with the teachers, meetings with the PTA, multiple meetings with the Departments of Agriculture and Education. Due to vacations, miscommunications and other confusions it took almost three weeks for my agreement to get signed by DoE with all the appropriate approvals. Finally, after a month of coordinating all the interested parties I got everything set up.
I established a Student Agriculture Club (SAC) for my 7th and 8th graders and had them elect officers. We have no student government, so I felt that this was a good opportunity for them to learn some leadership skills. We had class elections and voted for a President, Secretary, and Treasurer in each grade. The project is only going to be with my 7th and 8th graders this first time around. They are my students and its my project, so I felt that they should get to try it first. If it works well this year, then we are going to expand it next year and undertake the project on a much larger scale with lots of students. This is just a pilot project, however if it is successful the DoE has already expressed interest in encouraging the other elementary schools in Chuuk to adopt my idea and establish similar farming programs.
When I first thought up this idea, I did not think of it as a very big deal. I just thought it would be fun to start a farm with my kids. However, it quickly turned into a full-scale project with dozens of people involved. We are going to use a government owned agriculture sub-station that is conveniently located near our school. Representatives from the Departments of Education & Agriculture as well as my Peace Crops boss will be coming out to Fefan for a groundbreaking ceremony this week. We are gonna kick off the project with a bang and hopefully get the whole community excited to be involved.