Text: Eva Breukink
Photography: Studiorootz | Berber van Beek
He doesn’t remember exactly what age he was, but Shiller Derilus (1995) was still attending primary school when he left Haiti with his parents and sister. His father was a carpenter specializing in antique furniture, his mother a cook. They accepted a job in Curaçao for a better future for their children. At that moment perhaps the seed of the adventurer was planted in the young Shiller. He wanted to see more of the world, especially France, the country of his dreams.
One day he woke up and told his father that he was leaving. With a VSBO diploma in his pocket, Shiller Derilus, age eighteen, boarded a plane to the Netherlands and then a train to Paris. He brought with him two certainties: he knew what he wanted, and that he speaks French. In retrospect, it’s amazing how it all turned out, this easily. For instance, meeting a woman at the station who put him in touch with a landlady for a room. How the landlady took care of him and helped with work and an education in construction.
He stayed in France longer than he had thought and only returned four or five years later to Curaçao as an independent, self-confident young man. At this stage, he starts his own company as a contractor based on what he learned in Paris, but it’s not going according to plan. In 2018 Shiller starts as a horticulturist. Together with his uncle, who knows everything about growing fruit and vegetables and with the great support of his father. The knowledge and experience he gained in Paris are still useful today. For the harvest of the land is usually enough to live on, but the construction jobs are welcome as an additional income.
“My father passed away last year. He was my greatest support. When he finished his own work on time, he always came to the fields to help me. I helped him too. We looked out for each other. I took care of him during the last months of his illness. I had chores, but no time to work on the plantation. The grounds were full of weeds and hardly any vegetables were growing. No, I never thought to stop. I just started over again.”
I will just start again.
On a bigger field I will be able to grow.
“If there is a problem, I will solve it myself. There’s no point in waiting for someone else to do it. Then nothing will happen. I want to depend on others as little as possible. Now I have my own little tractor and plow. I paid for it from my savings. I worked in construction and have always put aside some money for investments in the plantation. Yes, I’m quite proud of that. Everything is ready for planting. I check the hoses and pipes so that immediately after plowing I can water the soil properly. This year it will be completely full of fruit and vegetables again.”
“When my uncle and I started four years ago, the site was completely overgrown with bushes and weeds. Just a mondi. At the back of the land, we cleaned a small part where we put the first vegetable plants in the ground. Little by little we brought the entire site, about one hectare, into use. As a child I loved flowers, but actually I knew nothing about horticulture. I learned the basics of the trade from my uncle.”
“Questions, questions, questions. That way I learned a lot very quickly. I started at zero knowledge so a lot of things went wrong. The first harvest was completely lost because the plants had contracted a disease. I had no idea. It is very important to see what is wrong in time and know what to do. I could always go to Soltuna, Elly Joubert was director there at the time. She gave me good advice and taught me how to recognize diseases and how to treat them.”
“I immediately received a contract from Soltuna that first year to supply four vegetables: long beans, Swiss chard, okra and cucumber. I started with those, and it went well. I like the collaboration with Soltuna. I get up and know that they take a certain amount of my products. I deliver those kilos every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at seven in the morning. Unload, weigh and sign. Then back to the plantation and to work. Perhaps there are months when you would earn more by selling the production yourself on the street, but over a whole year, that doesn’t matter much. I prefer to choose Soltuna, then I don’t lose time with the sale. It would be good if more farmers became members, then we would be stronger.”
Shiller is buzzing with energy. There is plenty to do on his plantation every day. Plenty of organizational talent and a healthy entrepreneurial spirit go a long way. It’s a matter of planning what needs to be done and when it needs to be done. Watering, weeding, harvesting, planting. So it goes, all year round. Each crop has its own script. Shiller has learned as much over the past four years. Okra and yardlong beans, for example, must be harvested after just a few days. If you wait longer, they will be too large and less suitable for consumption. With Swiss chard, celery and papaya, it doesn’t come so close. A week later, the leaves will be just a bit larger and the ripened fruits a bit riper.
If there are a lot of weeds, sometimes someone comes in to help, and in any case Shiller always harvests together with a temp worker. He would like to employ someone on a permanent basis, but then the plantation must first generate more income. Then he would also invest in the irrigation system, such as a windmill on top of the thirty meter deep well. Now the well water is pumped to the slightly higher cistern. The tank can store approximately 72 cubic meters of water. The water flows from the cistern through thick hoses to the channels between the plantings on the fields. This way there is always enough water, because the pump at the well cannot run continuously, as it could break down. But it can be better, more professional, more efficient. Shiller wants to go further, he thinks bigger. But the one hectare of cultivated land is a limitation. He needs more ground to be able to take the next steps.
Each crop has its own script.
Shiller thinks of going abroad again, to Colombia or the United States. There are farms that have hundreds of hectares of land. That is impossible on Curaçao, but he wants to see and learn how those companies are managed, to broaden his mind. As soon as his site has been completely cultivated, he is looking for someone to take over the management for four to six months from him. Then he can follow an agricultural course abroad, part by part. Then he will not only have a grower’s certificate, but also an agricultural diploma.
Agricultural training abroad.
He prefers not to keep all that knowledge and experience to himself. He hopes to become the specialist in the field of agriculture. The person you can go to as a starting farmer with all your questions. He is thinking of training for people who want to start growing fruit and vegetables. Shiller knows better than anyone what bottlenecks you will run into. After all, he himself started from the bottom, without knowledge or experience, and he has gone through all those phases. Nothing seems better to him than to transfer everything he has learned and experienced to aspiring farmers and to guide them until they are ready to work independently.
Shiller Derilus dares to dream, still. He imagines himself as the owner of a large farm with employees. He knows he has it in him. “I managed to grow an increasing part of the plantation on my own. I want to continue growing with more hectares. Then you need to know how to do that. I don’t have that knowledge yet. That’s why I want to go abroad to gain knowledge there. On Curaçao you mainly have small, fragmented pieces of agricultural land currently. You need a good piece of farmland to move forward.”