By MALUM NALU
AT the 9-Mile Farm outside Port Moresby, Laniette Bai is preparing strawberry runners in the nursery for Sirunki in Enga, where the biggest-ever strawberry field in the country will be.
It will be ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, as the Beatles sing, in Sirunki, notorious in the past for tribal fighting and the scourge of sanguma in recent times.
Bai, 29, a product of the University of Natural Resources and Environment at Vudal in East New Britain, is one of a group of young Papua New Guinea agriculturalists trailblazing hi-tech farming using hydroponics
This is thanks to Israeli company Innovative Agro Industry which runs the 9-Mile Farm.
She is part West New Britain and New Ireland, has been trained in Israel and is in charge of the nursery at 9-Mile.
Bai is proud of spearheading the strawberry project in Sirunki which will put this remote part of the country on the map.
“We’re propagating them for more runners to send to our farm at Sirunki in Enga,” she tells me.
“They are brought in from Israel.
“They are very good varieties: Shani and Dilli.
“They’ve been here for approximately five months.
“We’ve done two shipments up to Enga already.
“We’re now preparing for the third shipment.
“Right now I have 10,500 seedling runners.
“They continue to produce (runners) every day.
“They have very good vigor despite the heat conditions.”
Bai stands out in a sea of green of different vegetables in the nursery.
“I’m in charge of the nursery, production of new seedlings and preparing them for transplanting in the greenhouse,” she tells me.
“We utilise the irrigation boom system in the nursery because of the very soft, drizzling effect on the young plants.
“The irrigation boom system, or watering system, is operated manually or automatically.
“We import seeds from Israel and Australia from reputable companies.
“We select our seeds based on their quality, ability to withstand heat, plant vigor, and ability to produce more in a short period of time.
“In the nursery we utilise the potting mix, which is made up of various constituents.
“Once the plants have a very good root system we know that the plant is ready for transplanting.
“Current to date, I have approximately 76,600 seeds.”
“We regularly transplant every week.”
Bai, 29, graduated from UNRE in 2013, and straight into the brave new world of hydroponics.
“It’s very challenging, first of all,” she admits.
“When in school I didn’t see myself or expect myself to be employed in such an organisation that utilises modern agriculture.
“It’s very challenging, exciting and I get to learn new things every day from our Israeli experts.
“They transfer knowledge to us at every opportunity to help us do our jobs better.”
Lydia Tasi from East Sepik, who holds a masters in agriculture science from the University of Technology in Lae, manages the complex and fully-computerised irrigation system at 9-Mile,
“Naturally, crops draw on the soil for all their nutrients,” the 27-year-old tells me.“Here we don’t grow crops in natural soil.
“We use by-products of coconut and media from Israel which we need to grow our crops.
“We need to give them artificial fertiliser for nutritional purposes.
“That’s where my area comes in, which is to mix the fertiliser, according to the different requirements of each crop.
“We grow capsicums, tomato, lettuce, zucchini, cucumber which all have different requirements.
“All the different stages of the crop have different nutrient requirements.
“There are so many factors that contribute to the irrigation that we do here.
“To tell you the truth, we don’t learn all these in our curriculum back in school.
“Our curriculum is towards traditional farming where you grow crops outside.
“This (hydroponics) is a very new thing which has just come in.
“I knew nothing about this.
“When I came in, the company brought in expatriate agronomists and farm managers.
“From there, I learned the different techniques, knowledge and skills and I built up my career.
“They found me capable so they allowed me to run the show here.
“I gained most of my knowledge from farm managers and expatriates.”
Meanwhile back at the ranch, up at the Ilimo Dairy Farm at 14-Mile also run by Innovative Agro Industry, Hadasha Ramo is monitoring all data relating to milk production using hi-tech equipment.
The 24-year-old, who is part Solomon Islands and Finschhafen in Morobe, is an agriculture graduate of the University of Technology in Lae.
“Basically what I do all day is collect data from all cow activities that occur during a day,” Ramo says.
“I use special software which allows me to keep check.
“It’s a brand-new project here and we’re learning new things.
“It’s new so we’re growing with it.
“I’m happy to be part of a new industry which will replace milk imports.”
Laniette Bai, Lydia Tasi and Hadasha Ramo are three young women who are part of the changing face of agriculture in PNG.
By MALUM NALU