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Traditional agriculture in Indonesia; what I learned - Many Pics  RSS feed

 
Ian Taylor
Posts: 59
Location: Grafton NY, 25 Miles east of Albany
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Traditional agriculture in Indonesia; what I learned.


So I just returned a few days ago from Indonesia, mostly I went to visit my girlfriend, who is Indonesian and is staying there for a while. We both have a very keen interest in gardening and food so we spent most of our time traveling the country and immersed in that. We visited terraced rice farms which have been in continuous use for hundreds, or in some places even thousands of years. We saw terraced vegetable farms and orchards, tea plantations, small scale urban livestock and much more. The common thread: unlike most/all of farming I have seen in the U.S. most/all of what we saw there incorporated "permaculture". In this case I do feel strange using the word, I brought the word permaculture up in conversation with one farmer and he was slightly confused, he said "Oh, we just call it gardening, it isn't special". Basically its just the way everyone does things there, it feels vaguely imperialistic to come in and rename the way they have been growing their food for thousands of years. They weren't always using permaculture in its full on, "textbook" incarnation but there was a very high amount of polyculturing, integration with livestock and forming the earth to conserve/capture resources, lets just toss it under our big umbrella.

Anyways, these people have been successfully growing food for thousands of years on the same land. And not just that but it would appear to be at a greater yield per acre than what we produce in the "civilized" and "industrial" west. Millions of people in their huge cities eat food grown in this way, usually with little/no pesticides or artificial fertilizer. Not because they are prejudiced against it or think they are unhealthy, mostly because they are too expensive and they have already found better ways to perform all the functions of chemically intensive agriculture.

So I'll start with one of the most striking things I saw on the whole trip. We had just gone out to explore some valleys in the mountains, it had just poured rain the previous night and was still at a heavy drizzle and we came across a stream. Keep in mind the hillsides above this are almost 100% devoted to agriculture: rice paddies and terraced vegetable plots, from where we were to many miles further up river. But even with this kind of land use, the water was perfectly, almost drinkably clear after a rainstorm.

If you visit any intensively farmed land in the U.S. in hilly country, and there is a rainstorm, the river is going to be mud brown. Largely because farmers here don't bother terracing their land or putting down cover crops, it's almost always bare soil. A very inviting atmosphere for little raindrops to walk off with what should be viewed as the most precious resource; FERTILE SOIL.

Lesson: It is easier to dig terraces by hand than it is to have to create new soil when the old washes away. They wouldn't bother with the laborious task of making them in the first place if this weren't true.




Rice:

I'm going to include as much in-depth information about rice cultivation as I can. I have never found a good resource on growing it so I will try include enough info for someone to design rice paddies and carry a crop through to harvest. If someone has any specific questions I neglect to answer, just send me a PM. Plus... It would be impossible to write this article without talking about rice, rice forms the backbone... or maybe even the entire skeleton for the cuisine there. A typical day could have you eating rice with all 3 meals, plus rice pudding for dessert.





Rice is always grown in paddies, just manmade depressions, usually with some artificial method to drain and fill them with water.

Sometimes they are built on mostly flat land with just enough elevation change between paddies to shunt water around where you want it, like these:







And sometimes they are built on what would be considered "useless" land for farming in the west. They managed to get a heavy yield from this useless land:








Just to give an idea of the grade here:




These paddies will produce about ~3 crops a year. On occasion the floodgates are opened up and they allowed to fully dry and are used as grazing terraces for cows and chickens. Sometimes the paddies and holding ponds are used for raising goldfish and tilapia to eat, this not only keeps the insect population down but fertilizes the water also. There didn't seem to be many real inputs, they toss in their extra cow manure and chop some of the rice straw to use as mulch, they said that was basically all they needed to keep them fertile.

Also some made use of the water once it reached the end, some didn't. Usually it was used to water a few clumps of bananas or for irrigating vegetables.

I also inquired as to whether they planted the rice from seed right in the paddy or whether they transplanted it as I have heard of some doing. Everyone had the same answer, it is started from seed right in place. One farmer said the transplanting is something they do in climates with hard freezes in winter, another said they do that in monsoon climates, didn't get much more of an explanation.

As far as the other infrastructure, sometimes the extra irrigation water comes from wells, some were electrically pumped, some wind. Sometimes water was diverted from a river by way of canals, and other times there was a large pond at the top of a hill that collected rainwater and gravity was used to feed paddies on lower slopes. Usually these ponds were used for aquaculture or ducks also. The water is diverted to the paddies either by underground pipes or shallow canals, the canals were lined with concrete in the really deluxe operations, otherwise just packed clay or grass. Also in the rainy season here I was told that there is minimal need for irrigation, the rain provides all the water they need, the extra irrigation is mostly used in the dry season and in droughts. The water level is controlled by managing the height of the drain, usually this was a pretty simple setup, a piece of plywood or woven bamboo covering the drain canal then backup up with clay so as to leak less, they still all leak a little bit. Shown here:



I think thats about it for infrastructure.

As far as actually growing the rice. First the field is tilled, some people did this by hand, some used the only piece of machinery I saw anyone using for rice the whole time I was there (Yeah, no tractors, the land is too steep anyways). A walk-behind gas powered plow, what decadence!



Usually these were shared by a few dozen people so as to not be wasteful. Most of the labor I saw was done just with hand tools though. Here is one of the laborers we interviewed (left, blue shirt, or is it gold) along with my girlfriend (right, pink shirt):



We managed to get such a huge wealth of knowledge by interviewing farmers in Indonesian, as my girlfriend speaks it natively. Most of them knew little to no English, and their daily wage is only about 5USD so paying them the equivalent of 2-3 dollars was enough to get most of them to spill their entire life story for us, plus all of their ancestral rice farming knowledge.

As far as planting the rice, they rinse it with water many times over the course of a few days until it sprouts a little bit, then it is planted in its final location. As far as spacing and planting depth I wish I could be more help although I didn't get to see it done in person, planting is only done 3 times a year so...

As far as care over the life of the plant, it seems to be mostly weeding, as is the case with any other garden. Some of this is done by hand with a hoe in the case of aquatic weeds. Non-aquatic weeds are usually kept at bay by virtue of being a few inches underwater.

A full crop takes roughly 3 months to fully ripen. When it is near time for harvest the rice grains will turn medium gold and the insides will solidify, they get less milky and soft. A week or so before harvest the paddy is drained completely, both to lower the moisture level of the plant and so they don't have to trudge through knee deep mud to harvest. The rice is then stripped off the plant, usually just by whacking the stalk on the ground or over a box. Then dried on mats in the sun for storage.

Just a few misc things about them integrating it with livestock. Sometimes birds eat the crop, sometimes bugs do, sometimes weeds do, they have some solutions for them all. Ill try to keep it simple.

Solution for bugs:



There didn't seem to be any management of their free range flocks. Just random chickens all over.

Solution for birds:



There are tons of these scrappy looking dogs running around. I was told they deter birds.



Not sure how well this works, but it cant hurt hahah.

Solution for weeds:


Ducks...

Plus just pulling them by hand.

And as far as integration with other plants, besides using the extra water from the paddies to irrigate other things none of it looked planned. There were tons of food trees all over, papaya, banana, coconut palms, salak palms, avocado etc... but they were just all in like random configuration, it looked 100% wild. I didn't ask as much about the nearby trees as I should have in retrospect.


I wish I had more info to share about the actual growing process but most of the farmers I think took for granted how complex the process must look if you haven't been doing it since birth and left out many small details. Also I am aware of my prevalent use of the word "sometimes", that is because the growing techniques used aren't cookie cutter.Every farm we visited was slightly different, and they all basically said what you are doing depends on everything: the weather, pests, season, location of your farm etc...



Ok, I guess this is it for the section on rice, since it took 3 hours to compose I will write the sections about tea and vegetables later. I honestly could have written 3x as much just about rice even so if you have a specific question just PM me. I also will be going back to Indonesia in October so I will have an opportunity to learn even more, its so valuable to go there with someone who can easily translate.

Thanks for reading part 1.
 
Ian Taylor
Posts: 59
Location: Grafton NY, 25 Miles east of Albany
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Reserved for more posting.
 
Judi Anne
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I'm interested in what happens to the rice between drying in the sun and the table. Is it hulled or polished in any way? And thank you! I am very interested in trying to grow rice.
 
Ian Taylor
Posts: 59
Location: Grafton NY, 25 Miles east of Albany
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Almost all their rice is eaten milled. Brown rice exists as a thing there but isn't very popular. There is some extra step that they often do with rice here, knocking the germ off or something, they don't bother to do that there. All the rice has a little brown stripe on it.

It isn't milled until right before it is sold though, supposedly tastes fresher that way.
 
Judi Anne
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Do they have community based mills or household mills?

I have been trying to figure out what piece of equipment I should look for because we're not really interested in eating it unmilled/unhulled either. It is tough! And rough on the digestive system. Types of rice may vary in that regard though.
 
Kirsten Simmons
Posts: 33
Location: Atlanta, GA
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Wow, this is a really great write-up! Looking forward to the next installments
 
Rodger Pilkington
Posts: 6
Location: Perth Australia
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I am happy to see you were able to visit Bali and interview some farmers. Seeing and learning from people who farm by hand is a great eye-opener. At least it was for me.

When you return, I suggest you track down the professor at the university (Udayana Universitas?) who is familiar with the Subak water distribution system used in Bali (and nowhere else in Indonesia).

And also, visiting various groups, such as Chakra at Tri Hita Karana, and the IDEP Foundation (Next to Baliwood Organic), and the Education Organisation WOW Bali with Hai Dai.

They can fill you in on the things you missed:

Traditional farming of rice was 2 times a year. (over 1000 years until the 1960's)
What you saw was a result of the Green Revolution promoting 3-4 crops a year. Rice, back-to-back with no breaks. Before this, crops were rotated though I can't tell you what the rotation was.
Chemical contamination at any point on the Subak pollutes the whole of the downstream rice fields. Plants in the system will detox the system as best they can, though they struggle. Watching a crop cycle is fascinating.
The water contains all necessary nutrients for growth due to the high mineral content of Bali's volcanic rock.
The subak organisations are designed to prevent unfair use of water, improving harvest, keeping pests down, NOT "efficient" use of water.
The Subak flows year-round, as its main source is Lake Batur, the Volcanic lake. The lake is heavily polluted and black.
Traditional harvesting methods include fermenting the rice on the stalk before threshing.
Traditional foods available until chemicals became widespread a few decades ago, and fertility dropped. (a 35 year old could tell you of hunting for frogs and dragonflies and grasshoppers)
Soap was available from a tree we call the "Soap Nut Tree" until detergent was distributed. It is slowly being reintroduced.


I hope this info was useful.
Rodger
 
Ian Taylor
Posts: 59
Location: Grafton NY, 25 Miles east of Albany
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Wow, thanks for the information. I didn't just visit Bali, probably about 2/3rd of the information I got came from farmers on Sulawesi, and all but 2 or 3 of the pictures here are from Sulawesi also. We spent a few days driving around in Sulawesi Selatan near Makassar. The pepole on Bali didn't seem to share as much in depth info, my guess is because the tourists they are used to aren't really that interested. Most of what i have from there is just from observation, the pictures and landscapes were beautiful though.

When I go back in October I will be in Makassar again, and will also be traveling to the Village of Malili, in Sulawesi Tenggara. Do you know of any further resources in those 2 areas?
 
Rodger Pilkington
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Location: Perth Australia
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The farmers in Bali don't seem to know much. Being blessed with fertile waters, and cursed with monoculture dogma has its down sides. Those organisations and people I mention are trying to change this.

I'm not aware of many resources outside of Bali or central Java. There is a permaculture style (coincidence?) rainforest rehabilitation project on Kalimantan island that might be worth a look in. I don't remember the name, but it is an NGO, and they're involving protecting orangutans (by boxing them in a large area with thorny vines), with local villagers farming palm sugar for profit while keeping the orangutans safe, instead of killing them. I'll keep an ear out for anything else though.
 
Charlie Gato
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Thanks so much for gathering this info. The father of permaculture Bill Mollison says in The Permaculture Show that when asked what he shares, his response is 'Gardening Tips' AKA permaculture. Anyway, I've always figured greenhouses are not too natural hence planting straight into the ground. If a plant doesnt do well in your climate, well it wasnt meant to be.
The way I see it, our ancestors have successfully made it through their organic ways and thanks to them we are here today.. Why do we need to 'top that' with greenhouses and other techniques? Thanks again.
 
Judith Big
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Hello Ian

Im a student from Germany and im going to have a presentation about the topic agriculture in Indonesia. I found your article very interesting and enjoyd reading it.
It seems that you have a lot of knowledge about this theme and i wanted to ask you if you can share a few other facts about the traditional agriculture in Indonesia.

Thanks a lot for your answer.

Judith Big
 
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