Text: Eva Breukink
Photography: Studiorootz | Berber van Beek
He likes best to be occupied with his plants in the garden every single day, and yet after high school graduation Siegmar Sophia (1988) chose to study electrical engineering. Just because an education in agriculture is not taught on the island. Otherwise, he would have known what to do! Siegmar was only eight or nine years old when he planted the first seeds in the yard at his home on Bándabou. Together with his mom he nurses the plants. Unlike her, he likes to grow vegetables and fruits instead of flowers.
In the years that he worked as an electrical and communications engineer and playing music in his spare time, his passion for farming got pushed to the background. His farmer’s heart starts to beat again in the greenhouse of Kura Hulanda Lodge on Westpunt, filled with strawberries and tomatoes. It is fitted out with the most modern technical gadgets and completely automated. Here Sophia witnesses what is possible when you invest in vegetable and fruit farming, even on an island in the tropics. In 2015 he applies for a position at the government foundation Soltuna and immediately starts a few days later. As a result, he is busy with what has always been his second nature: nursing plants. It makes him a happy and cheerful person. The job in the greenhouse and market garden of Soltuna and the stability of a monthly income gives him peace of mind. However Sophia has dreams. He wants to discover new things and achieve more.
“I like everything about this job. Sowing, repotting, fertilizing, and watering. But the best thing is harvesting the fruit and vegetables. This is when the result of all the effort becomes visible. Hepa, wow! At that moment I am truly super happy. I am generally upbeat, but like everyone else, I carry my sorrows. That is not something I like to talk about. That’s my pain and I would not want to burden someone else with it. My pain stays on the inside. Here, at Soltuna, I learned to work in a team; with all the different characters, you have to find the best way to handle it.”
“My nature is to be by myself, I can be alone very well. At home, with my plants. I used to have pigs and chickens, but those have been slaughtered and shared with friends and family. I love to cook and listen to music. Going out? Ai, nò! I prefer a good book in English, Spanish or Dutch. You can be the main character for a while, to feel what they feel. When it is a love story, yes, I even cry a little. Occasionally, I watch t.v. or play a game on my phone, but it bores me quickly.”
“When I work on the land, I reflect on lots of things. Thoughts bubble up throughout the day. I will watch an ant nest and see how the little bugs interact. That can preoccupy me for a long time. At that moment questions arise, are there other beings who watch over us that we don’t know about? Who watches us? I was raised Catholic, but religion turns people into slaves mentally. It dictates what is wrong or right and says what you must do. It is important to be able to fall back on something. My basis is in Catholicism, but my belief is in freedom and energy. You see this, for example, when you water a plant, and you talk or sing a bit. They then bow towards you. Pay attention to it! How it works, I do not know, but it is true.”
“I hope to have my own business someday. That is my dream. First a plot of land, but that’s just the thing. You hear everywhere that we need to grow more ourselves, but if you are looking for financing and guidance, there is no one to help you. If you do not know how to write a proposal or a business plan, how will you acquire a location?”
Sowing, repotting, fertilizing, watering. I like everything about this job.
Then you can do nothing. This is the reason why Curaçao never moves forward. I am not only talking about myself, but I would also like to help others. I did not have a job myself and was turned down often, but here at Soltuna I was welcomed with open arms.”
“In my opinion there is no need to be dependent on food banks. When I get a tomato from someone, I open it, and pull the seeds out. Those I will plant to get more tomatoes. What do most children do on Curaçao? You will give them a guilder and they will buy candy. They do not save; it has never been taught to them. You learn from your mistakes. By trial and error, naturally! That’s life. I want the good that happened to me also for others. I would like to share my knowledge and experience. We can run a business on the island; we do not need to get people from abroad to do that. We were just never taught how to do it.”
On site, at Soltuna, in De Savaan are greenhouses for growing fruits and vegetables. The structure protects plants against undesirable visitors; insects, lizards, iguanas, and thieves. The plastic and shadow screen on the roof, temper the hot sun. The controlled climate in the greenhouse means that the plants require less water and fertilizer. The temperature can reach 34 degrees Celsius. For instance, peppers, bell peppers, cucumbers, and leafy greens all thrive in such a warm, humid environment.
Soltuna is connected to the water filtration plant at Klein Hofje. The water is pumped to De Savaan and collected in a reservoir. Through pipes it is fed to the plants in the greenhouse. For fertilization, venturi injectors are used. The diameter at the inlet of the injector is reduced and again enlarged at the outlet. The resulting increase in flow speed, followed by decompression. This allows for a second liquid, – such as liquid fertilizer -, to be injected through a valve on the side, which is then sucked into the flow by the system. The water at Klein Hofje is a gray water supply and has already a decent amount of nutrients. So there is not much to add. Outside of the greenhouses is space for crops that need more sunshine, such as pumpkins and papaya. Whether the plants grow in the greenhouse or on the land, constant attention is key! How do the leaves look? What does the stem look like? Is there a disease going around? When something is wrong, you need to be there in time.
My own business. That is the dream.
Sophia also works in the nursery. Here, young plants are lined up in rows of containers. Those ‘babies’, like small kids, need extra care and attention. Early in the morning, but certainly before ten o’clock, when it is still nice and cool, the employees of Soltuna water the plants with tap water through a hoose nozzle. In contrast to the gray water from Klein Hofje, the tap water does not have sufficient nutrients. For healthy growth, the seedlings need nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. If the health of the plants deteriorates, it will be recovered by adding fertilizer and vitamins to the water. Sophia and his colleagues have their hands full with sowing, pricking out, watering, fertilizing, and repotting. Also there are always some maintenance jobs to be done. Never a dull moment in the world of market-gardening!
When I am busy working on the land, I reflect on lots of things.
At the nursery, healthy, young plants are grown from seeds. A part goes to growers on the island. They get their order of 48 plants minimum after approximately five weeks. Soltuna is mainly known for their ‘open plant day’. Traditionally it is held every three months on the last Saturday of the third month. Then everyone can buy one or more plants at Soltuna; a little party with over a hundred visitors! This way the foundation helps people who want to farm on a small scale in their gardens at home. At the same time, the day raises awareness that you can really make a difference when you grow locally and choose local produce. If consumers on Curaçao switch in large numbers to buying and eating local produce, then the agricultural sector could double their production.
In greenhouses and the nursery on site, Soltuna grows a wide range of crops, depending on demand. Amongst others, their selection includes vegetables: peppers, beefsteak tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, red okra, string beans, white eggplant, eggplant, lettuce, Chinese cabbage, paksoi, pumpkin, celery. Herbs: parsley, rosemary, lemongrass, oregano, basil, chamomile, dill, thyme, mint and ginger. Fruits: lime, passion fruit, custard apples, bananas.
One of the core tasks of Soltuna is the collection of the fruit and vegetable production and the centralized distribution to supermarkets on the island. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday the farmers deliver the produce. They are weighed, stacked in rows, and distributed to the trucks, together with the harvest of Soltuna itself, and delivered to the buyers. The underlying idea is that centralized distribution guarantees better prices and payment agreements with super- and minimarkets. It is important for as many farmers as possible to join, to guarantee more regular demand for their produce and thus to provide income security. Then the farmer will be able to concentrate on what they are good at: the growing of crops.
The foundation Soltuna (Stichting Ontwikkeling Land- en Tuinbouw Nederlandse Antillen) was founded in 1973 with the goal to develop the agricultural sector on the islands of the Dutch Caribbean. On behalf of the government, Soltuna manages about 40 hectares of agricultural land. Pieter van Baren, general manager of the foundation since August 2022, has four permanent employees and some part-time staff as well. Due to the available budget the focus lies now on maintaining and managing the small-scale fruit and vegetable fields.
But Van Baren would like to go a step further. He is thinking about offering training to farmers and aspiring growers. He thinks that more subsidies would go a long way in making an impact. The foundation could assist the agricultural sector with programs aimed at planting and harvesting of produce or take some of the administrative burden away from small farms. Soltuna would like to grow to become a safe buffer on two fronts: fair pricing to customers and food security on the island for the government.