Sustainable coffee from Indonesia has huge potentials. On any given morning, when travelling through the western parts of South Sumatra one may be forgiven for thinking that all is well in this beautiful countryside. In the distance the rolling hills are covered with lush green forests with clouds moving along the tree tops. The meandering rivers flow slowly in the valleys below and the large variety of insects buzz and zoom with enthusiasm. The many roadside stalls offer an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Men and women work diligently, spreading their coffee, corn and peppers out to dry on the patios in front of the many traditional wooden houses. Slowly they rake through the drying crops, drawing geometric patterns in the seeds with love and dedication. South Sumatra is still one of the most fertile and natural areas of Indonesia, with large National Parks and nature reserves, but first impressions can be deceptive.
Still some things to do for sustainable coffee from Indonesia
While taking a long tour through the region to get a better understanding of the agricultural systems and its interaction with the natural environment, the Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung (HRNS) team stops often to take in the view and talk to local farmers. Outside the project area, at a small village on the edge of a mountainside the view is incredible. We can see for miles into the distance. The hill behind the village rises steeply. The farmers in the village are all drying coffee. It is the harvest season. Everyday farmers and their families travel in the surrounding areas, carrying their coffee back to their houses on motorcycles or on foot. At home they sort the beans and spread them on the concrete floors to dry. It looks as if the whole community is engaged in a seemingly tranquil endeavor.
Farmer in a village in South Sumatra drying coffee
As the HRNS team walks through the town and towards the field, several issues become apparent. First it is obvious that the coffee that is being laid out to dry is not of the best quality. Picking up a handful of samples, it is clear that many of the beans have been harvested too early. About half of the berries are green and unripe. The seeds inside are small: some berries are even empty. There seems to be little of any selective picking of red mature cherries in this village. Talking to farmers, it soon becomes clear that they are desperate for an income. With the coffee almost ready to pick, they cannot wait any longer. They have bills to pay and are short of food. The alternative of waiting another week or two for the berries to ripen is simply not a possibility.
Many of the drying coffee also shows signs of mold. Farmers say that the insistent rain of the last weeks has slowed the drying process. With no alternative but to cover the berries with plastic when the rain falls, fungus has the time to spread. It is slowly damaging the beans, lowering its potential price in the market.
Green coffee cherries that have been harvested too early
Drying coffee showing signs of mold
More concerning problems become apparent as the team walks through the fields that are outside their project areas. Not only are the coffee plants we see unproductive, with a few berries on the branches, but the bushes are being scorched by the tropical sun. The farmers have removed most of the shade trees with the unfounded belief that this would boost production. They have also removed any ground cover, thinking that any other plants would compete with the coffee. Now the soil is being sterilized by the sunlight and when it rains, the last fertile soils wash down into the rivers. After the rains, the rivers turn a deep red-brown, taking away the precious nutrients down to the sea. As the team reaches the top of the hill and looks around, the scale of the problem in this area becomes all the concerning. As far as the eyes can see, the fields are in the same worrisome state. This area is slowly but surely turning into degraded unfertile lands.
Sustainable coffee projects support smallholders in Indonesia
A few years ago, the area covered by the J.M Smucker and International Coffee Partners (ICP) funded project faced a similar threat. With little knowledge of Good Agricultural Practices, farmers were in the same downward spiral towards loosing their prime source of income: their productive lands. With a strong focus on stopping degradation and increasing productivity HRNS immediately started with introducing the basics of sustainable farming practices. To increase productivity, better coffee husbandry techniques were introduced: proper pruning, rejuvenation of older bushes, removing of old and diseased growth were some of the first steps that farmers learned. This was quickly followed by the introduction of shade trees and ground cover. Fast growing banana trees and nitrogen fixing Gliracidia trees were introduced. These now provide the shade and also food for the farmers and nutrients to the soils. Farmers were also encouraged to dig water infiltration pits next to their coffee bushes and fill these with organic mulch. This helped increase water infiltration and retention, while at the same time helping to improve soil health. In the following years, with productivity of coffee slowly increasing, other crops were introduced that complemented the coffee production. Black pepper, avocado, Japanese papaya, ginger and vanilla have started to grow in many project farms and are not only increasing the biodiversity of the coffee farms but are also providing a well needed alternative income to farmers.
The family of Pak Jaswadi from Sumber Jay village, are one of the exemplary farming families who show what differences these Good Agricultural Practices can bring. Five years ago, Pak Jaswadi received his first training from HRNS Field Officers. A year later he invested his time in a piece of unproductive coffee land. Following the guidance he received, the two-acre plot has made an incredible turn around. The coffee bushes are full of cherries, the avocado trees are tall and robust and in between are rows of pepper plants: full and healthy. Under the trees the soil is covered with growth and the earth feels soft and smells as good soil should. Neighboring farmers are welcome to visit and Pak Jaswadi proudly states how he now encourages others to follow his example. Even his son, who was once determined to leave to the city, now sees a future in farming.
Pak Jaswadi from Sumber Jay village
Pak Jaswadi’s healthy coffee bushes full of cherries
Furthermore, together with five other farmers, Pak Jaswadi took the advice of HRNS to establish a cooperative. After a training in financial administration, 64 farmers now collectively dry and sort their coffee. They are also the proud owners of a dry-hulling machine, that removes the shells from the dried cherries right on the farm. This not only saves valuable coffee, as hulling costs a percentage of the total being processed, but it also saves time and costs for transport. Furthermore, the dried shell residue can be used in producing compost that can go directly back to the coffee farm. Another added benefit of the cooperative will come in the near future. The cooperative has used a financial loan from HRNS to support farmers in purchasing their input supplies. With the interest rate significantly lower than from local traders, this reduces the financial stress that farmers face. Already some farmers are seeing a little more room and can wait just that little bit longer for their coffee cherries to mature. Buyers have seen the difference and have paid substantially more for the much better green beans.
In the future, the cooperative is looking to negotiate a commercial loan from a local bank. This will help the farmers reduce their dependence on local loan sharks that can ask up to 28% interest. With only a 7% interest, farmers can invest better in their farms, without feeling the acute need of repayment as soon as the harvest arrives. Pak Jaswadi is also looking to rejuvenate other degraded coffee land on his property. He and other farmers have established a nursery and have selected some of their top producing plants for seedings. Pak and his family are working towards further increasing the diversity of their farm and are talking about planting Areca nuts on the borders and high-end wood species as a long-term investment. They are also looking to buy transparent plastic to make a covered drying area. This should help significantly in stopping mold growth during the drying process.
The HRNS team drives back from Pak Jaswadi’s village after another day of intensive training on coffee quality selection. They again travel past many coffee areas that are in a desperate state, where farmers have yet to receive their trainings. There is an incredible amount of work still to be done in this beautiful and wild area of South Sumatra. Although the tasks are daunting, the team feels assured they are making the difference. They are seeing the positive results of their endeavors. They are confident that the momentum towards sustainable coffee production will endure. Yes, farmers will follow their example and move together towards a better coffee future.