“They are like my babies,” Mitchell says as he gently pulls a leaf off a pinapi Maori (Japanese mustard) and hands it to me for tasting.
He moves to the next plot, explaining how his livelihood depends on this piece of land he started cultivating in 2014.
He suddenly stops, and turns to me with a worried look on his face.
“I don’t think I will be able to continue this once the water is chlorinated. I can’t afford any alternative source for watering the plants apart from the mains,” he says. “It will put me out of business.”
Mitchell is the president of Natura Cook Islands, a group of farmers who are passionate about the environment and advocates for organic agriculture.
Chlorination of water will kill their industry, he claims, which is still taking baby steps in the domestic agriculture sector.
Mitchell and some members of the group also employ part-time labourers to help them in their farm.
“I might as well stop farming today if this is going to happen. I don’t have the money or the backup to bring my own water or make my own dam.
“I started with one spade in 2014. I did that on purpose because I wanted to see if the industry was viable and I proved it is viable but with chlorination coming in, I’m not too sure about it.”
In an unexpected twist, the project management unit in charge of Rarotonga’s water project argues organic farmers in Rarotonga aren’t meeting the Pacific Organic Standards at present: the current water supply is not potable and has tested positive for E Coli, indicating there are harmful pathogens in the water that can make people sick.
The project management unit says chlorinated water is safe for use in agriculture, including organics.
The unit says the Standards require only that the final rinsing of food must use potable water – and chlorinated water is potable. Food preparation surfaces can be disinfected with calcium hypochlorite – the same type of chlorine used to disinfect the water supply.
“None of these standards state that chlorine is a prohibited chemical, or that a chlorinated water supply would result in the loss of organic certification,” says spokesperson Kate Woodruffe.
“The only mention of chlorine in Organic Standards New Zealand is the final flushing of sprouts should use water that has been through a carbon filter to remove any chlorine residue. Alternatively, farmers can allow the chlorine to evaporate off.”
Woodruffe acknowledges the concerns about chlorine killing the good bacteria in soil and compost, but says any chlorine left in the water will reduce rapidly once it hits the surface of the soil and bonds with nutrients. “Microorganisms repopulate very rapidly within the compost pile, and there is no evidence to suggest there are adverse effects on the soil nutrients.”
If growers are still concerned about chlorine, Woodruffe says they should collect rainwater.
“Chlorination of the water supply will ensure that there is clean and reliable water for drinking, bathing and food preparation – which includes washing organic food for final sale – for the whole community.”
She says if the organic farmers are using the existing public water supply to wash their crops before marketing them, then they are in breach of the standard right now.
In short, her argument is chlorinated water would make their produce more organic than the contaminated water they’re presently using.
Mitchell is not convinced, and neither is Teava Iro, a fellow organic farmer who chairs the Titikaveka Growers Association.
“If you talk about the organic movement then it is all about the microorganism processes and nature and when it comes to soil, that matters,” says Iro, who received United Nations SEED Award 2009 for contribution to sustainable development.
“There is a good intention in trying to clean our water system for households but when it comes to the effect on microorganism then that’s a no-no as far as organic is concerned.”
“What chlorinated water will do is actually destroy the things that build the soil and also helps us farmers to be resilient.
“So you can’t be certified as an organic farmer when you are out there destroying the natural processes.”
Iro says chlorinated water will kill the microorganisms in the soil that helps pull in nutrients and elements, putting a huge financial burden on the farmers who will have to invest on fertilisers to improve their yield.
Chlorination will also affect his compost business, he believes.
“We have sprinklers that moisturise our compost because the bacteria needs water to function properly. Chlorinated water will kill these bacteria and we have to start looking at carting water which adds to our cost.
“When the cost goes up, we will have no choice but to pass it on consumers.”
Back on the rich dark soil of his plantation, Mitchell says he’s been brought to his knees.
“At the crux of it is this: we have no issue with the filtration of our water, we would love that to happen. But the type of filtration is where we have an issue,” he says.
“What we are asking is, please, can we look at the alternatives that might initially be costly but cheaper in the end – something like solar which in the long term is way cheaper and better for everyone.”
“We are down on our knees already and we are choking. And you, the government, are squeezing us again. It’s like getting blood out of a rock. You can’t do it. We are already dead in the water almost and are flat lining, and then they want to strangle us.”