Trade a Pumpkin for a Toyota

Walking around the garden at Fenton House with friends earlier in the week, admiring the fruit and vegetables in the garden, provoked a conversation about the source of much of the fresh produce in our supermarkets.

You hardly ever see British apples in the supermarkets; they all seem to come from New Zealand, or somewhere else miles away.  The same can be true of asparagus, green beans and all manner of fruit; we import things from all over the world.

Sourcing of produce can be a controversial subject; there are campaigns to encourage us to buy only local, or to reduce so-called ‘food miles’.  I find it quite a difficult debate.  While it does seem crazy to buy peas grown in Thailand, or soft fruit from America, I do wonder what would happen to the people working on the farms in Africa if we stopped importing their beans.

I witnessed a microcosm of the global food trade when I visited Tonga  for a couple of weeks in October 1997.

Touring the main island in the first week, I saw a Toyota dealership with a yard filled with shiny new cars.  I expressed surprise at the number of vehicles bearing in mind that the island is really not very big.  How could there possibly be such a large demand for cars?

‘They’re ready for when the pumpkin money comes in,’ my guide told me.

‘Pumpkin money?’

A few years before, they had found that Tonga was a good place to grow a particular kind of small green pumpkin much favoured in Japan in a season when they would grow nowhere else.  By producing them, the Tongan farmers were filling a gap in a very lucrative market.

The pumpkin money had brought a prosperity, if prosperity can be measured in cars, that the farmers once dependant entirely upon palm oil and subsidence production, had never previously had.

The wisdom of car buying when there are few roads and possibly even fewer people who know how to drive might be questioned, especially when so many cars were already languishing head first in ditches, but the chance to grow and sell a crop to a wealthy customer base had changed the prospects of many struggling farmers on the island.

As I was waiting for the boat to leave the island at the end of my stay I sat beside a large stack of wooden crates filled with pumpkins and watched a crane load them one by one onto the deck of a ship.

I can only presume that the Tongan Fairy Godmother waved her magic wand and released the Toyota glass carriages to the waiting farmers not long after the ship had sailed.

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  1. Jill

     /  September 1, 2011

    Did you at least get to try one? (A pumpkin, that is).

    • Hi Jill, Funnily enough, it never even occurred to me to attempt to try one. I think it may have been the classic case of ‘these things are far too valuable for us to eat ourselves’.


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