In 1971, President Suharto made self sufficiency in rice a goal for Indonesia.  This was and is difficult in Indonesia, because of a cultural issue.  In the West, the eldest son inherits all the land and the other children have to find their own way.  In Indonesia, a more, gentle approach is taken and the land divided amongst the male children.  Well, it depends – in West Sumatra it is divided amongst the female children.  But the point remains.  The farm became smaller.

So, Indonesia is full of not just small farms, but tiny farms, barely enough to keep one person alive.  It is very difficult to create economies of scale or modern agriculture.  Thus, Indonesia became a fertile ground for purveyors of modern agricultural methods, especially the chemical agricultural companies and Monsanto.  This last did not open itself here, but created a majority Indonesian owned subsidiary.  However, their focus was cotton, not rice.

Quoting from Wikipedia:

“The most significant factor in this impressive increase in output and productivity was the spread of high-yield rice varieties. By the mid-1980s, 85 percent of rice farmers used high-yielding variety seeds, compared with 50 percent in 1975.[1] High-yield varieties were promoted together with subsidized fertilizer, pesticides, and credit through the "mass guidance" or Bimas rice intensification program. This extension program also offered technical assistance to farmers unfamiliar with the new cultivation techniques. The new technology was not without its own problems, however. Several major infestations of the brown planthopper, whose natural predators were eliminated by the heavy use of subsidized pesticides, led to a new strategy in 1988 to apply the techniques of integrated pest management, relying on a variety of methods to limit pesticide use for control insects, plant diseases and rodents. To help reduce pesticide use, subsidies on pesticides were eliminated in 1989.”

These high yield varieties were NOT GMO, but rather derived from a fast ripening species discovered in China centuries ago.  Nevertheless, they had consequences for the environment in that the farmers started to grow just rice, and nothing else.  The mixed farmlands I used to walk through in the 80s when buying tobacco are gone.

Animal life is drastically affected.  The little flycatchers which used to nest in the rice and flit over the fields catching mosquitoes for their babies were wiped out, now endangered, for the rice was harvested before their babies could fly.  Heavy use of pesticides speaks for itself.

But the worst affected is the land.  You cannot continue growing just one crop if you want healthy soil. The rice paddy soil is not essentially inert, and the rice farming has become essentially hydroponics.

What does this mean for us, vanilla and spice farmers?

There are two major factors.  First, it will take 8 years before our plantations on rice paddies, Garden 15 only, become organic.  That’s how long the recognised organic bodies require you to farm without chemicals.  Actually, this doesn’t matter too much because there is no demand for organic vanilla.  Yet.

The more important factor is our farmers.  For three generations they have farmed chemically.  They have no idea how to make compost.

When we plant our vanilla, we first put in place the shade trees, Gliciridium.  A raised bed one brick high is built around them and filled with cocopeat.  Cocopeat is the residue dust after extracting the coconut fibre for coir mats and the like.  Cocopeat is an excellent medium for us, with one drawback.  It is fine grained and organic, with lots of aeration, mainly carbon with a balanced pH.  It drains freely, which is important, and decomposes over time.  Vanilla roots love it.

The drawback is that it is not alive and compacts over time, until it can become waterlogged, which is really bad news for us.  We overcome this by putting lots of coconut husks in the raised beds.

A further drawback for our associate farmers is the cost.  It is a long way from the coir factories, and while the cocopeat may only cost $30 a truckload, it costs $70 to bring it to us!  So, we experiment.

We would love to use rice husks, but sadly the fusarium fungus loves rice husks, so they can only be used when composted.  We can use rice stalks, straw, and we do.

But four months ago, I started a new project.  Making compost.  I built three bins from batako, concrete bricks.  Big bins.  We filled up the first one with cuttings and weeds from the plantation.  I made them pile it high, well over the top.  After a month, it was turned into the second bin and the first filled.  I didn’t oversee this one, and they just barely topped it out.  The workers were going through the motions, appeasing stupid foreigner.  After two months, the second bin was tipped into the third, barely half filling it, and the first into the second.  Their lack of enthusiasm showed, for it had shrunk to less than the first month!

At the end of the third month, the third bin was emptied and the compost used to go around some of the vanilla, and to top up the compost in the cuttings.  Then we moved each bin contents down a bin and they started to fill up bin 1.  A week later, I noticed they were still filling it up.  I go to inspect and they drag me off to show me the results of the vanilla with a compost dressing on top of the cocopeat.  They are thrilled and excited, for already there is growth and strength in the vanilla.

At last, I have farmers excited about composting, about a knowledge their grandfathers possessed but has been lost.  We talk about layers of brown and green, we use the shredder to cut everything down – and by now EVERYTHING goes through the shredder.  I am required to buy pitchforks and wheelbarrows and enthusiasm is rampant.  I talk about different plants possessing different chemicals, and we start to gather water lettuce, just a weed in the padi fields but a great source of potassium.  This also comes from the cow manure, and the mainstay of the brown is rice husks and straw – the husks are fine if composted first.

I am very pleased, because compost is alive with all sorts of organisms, most of which happily eat fusarium, and this provides not just a great source of nutrition for the vanilla, but also something to do with the shade tree cuttings and the weeds from the paths.  Our gardens have never been so clean!

We are slowly refining our ways of growing the vanilla, and it is being led by the ordinary farmers, with maybe a little push here and there.  I’ve now got them espaliering the shade trees to make better support for the vanilla.  They like that as well.


Rex Sumner

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