At the end of 2019, IDEP team members visited groups of tobacco farmers in two regencies, Jember Regency in East Java and Gunungkidul Regency on the southern coast of the Special Region of Yogyakarta. In these two regions, there are two tobacco villages through which we passed through, and by 2020, there were three villages we visited.
After departing from Bali, our journey on Java Island started from Yogyakarta. Wareng Village (Desa Wareng) was our first destination. It only took 10 minutes until we were already diving through the dry, limestone dominated landscape. Wonosari, the capital of Gunungkidul Regency is located at an altitude of 142 meters above sea level and this area is known for its karst landscape. The road trip from the center of the Special Region of Yogyakarta to the district which covers almost half of the province’s total area took us about one to two hours as we sped up and down large mounds of karst.
Rendezvous with Wareng Farmers
In the midst of rice fields dominated by tobacco plants, we met 46 farmers in houses built centered away from the fields, much closer to the highway. We gathered in a limasan house with a large yard belonging to one of the farmers. All of them are small-holder tobacco farmers whose land ownership is not more than 50 ha. Tobacco is their main source of income, but Wareng farmers will plant corn and rice and other secondary crops when it is not tobacco season. Because of the dry climate, farmers are only able to plant rice at the turn of the year, after harvesting last season’s tobacco and just before the next tobacco growing season.
Wareng Village yard measures as large at a total area of 620,933 hectares. Limasan Javanese houses have been constructed in the center of the yard, leaving many empty spaces fenced with legume trees that surround the main building. We saw lamtoro, turi, gamal, and potronggolo trees flourishing over yards fences. In the backyard, rhizome (rimpang) plants grew wild among the rocky limestone soils of Gunungkidul. They emerged from the ground under the shade of teak trees. For unused areas in the gardens, we introduced permaculture ideas. Rhizome (rimpang) plants such as ginger, temulawak, turmeric, kencur, to lemongrass which are usually allowed to grow into ‘backside’ plants seen as local potentials that can be developed.
Depart to Arjasa in the Eastern End of Java
Arjasa Village was our next destination in our explorations of Java Island. Between Raung and Argopuro, Arjasa Village stretches for 58,200 ha at an altitude of 141 meters above sea level. Located in the northeastern part of Jember Regency, Arjasa is officially an administrative area of Sukowono District, located directly adjacent to Bondowoso Regency. Here, we met with 32 tobacco farmers. Some of them are land owners, while others are only sharecroppers and tenants. Their land is not more than 50 ha, which means they can also be classified as smallholders.
In this village, we noticed that the tobacco plants are of a different variety and have a much taller posture when compared to the ones in the Gunungkidul. The tobacco fields spread out in a mosaic pattern and are dispersed with land planted with different varieties of produce. Despite this, we learned that all of them have been monocultures and crop rotations tend to be infrequent, along with intense application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
The gardens in Arjasa are not as extensive as in Gunungkidul. Houses are built close together, almost without a partition. A single porch could belong to two houses, as well as their front yard. In Arjasa, rice fields are the place where they cultivate food crops and industrial crops on a large scale. Their garden is located on the hill, tucked between almost-forest lands overgrown with bamboo and some gadung plants that are left wild. Other than whatever plants grow by themselves there, farmers in Arjasa occasionally also plant cassava.
Based on our observations about their gardens, variety of plants, and local food preparations, we introduced them to permaculture systems. We acknowledge that in this village, various local food sources such as cassava and gadung are needed as raw materials for processed local snacks: gadung (yam) chips, cassava chips, and tape. However, because the main rice fields are focused on industrial plants and large-scale agriculture, local food crops such as cassava and gadung (yam) are largely neglected. If they get lucky, gadung (yam) could unintentionally grow along the bamboo stalks in the garden, whilst cassava would be tucked in other garden spaces. The raw materials for these local snacks have actually been taken from other villages, even the processed local snacks are only sold semi-finished and then reprocessed in other cities and end up being sold in Jember Regency itself.
How The Home Gardens Are Made
We returned to the island of Java in the sweltering mid-2020s. In July, we restarted our trip from Wareng Village, then made our way to a new village in the west. Not only did we visit tobacco farmers from that village, but we also stopped by in Pampang village. Not much different from Wareng farmers, farmers in Pampang also depend on tobacco for their livelihood. Palawija crops are complementary, where rice is planted once a year to meet the needs of the family. Once we understood this, we then introduced permaculture for two villages in Gunungkidul Regency and one village in Jember Regency.
Localizing ‘Kitchen Plants’ from the Backyard
How home gardens were started in Wareng Village and Pampang Village is a matter of ‘localizing’ the plants that they always bought from the markets before. Not all families in the two villages grew ginger, kencur, turmeric, and lemongrass for their own consumption. Some had wild turmeric in their backyards that were almost never harvested. Up until the dry season in mid-2020, farmers and their families in Wareng and Pampang started to create their gardens by planting out ginger, turmeric, kencur, and lemongrass.
At the time of our visit the sun was blazing. Nevertheless, tobacco plants sprouted joyfully in the rice fields. It was July and the remaining tobacco harvest was still being carried out by a few farmers. A total of 89 tobacco farming families from Wareng and Pampang started chopping banana stems from their own gardens and collecting legume leaves. Hedge plants such as lamtoro, gamal, turi, and potronggolo were no longer only given to livestock. Now the cattle have to share it with the home garden. Farmers also picked cow dung up from the family barn at the end of the yard. In the gardens the the soil’s top layer began to be dredged and left-over tobacco stalks were laid out on the lowest layer. The tobacco stems were then piled with legume leaves, then piled again with soil and manure until it is completely covered. In Wareng and Pampang, hay is abundant. This was used to cover the mounds of organic compost and soil that had previously been created. That’s how the farmers in Wareng and Pampang began to rehabilitate the land and create gardens in the corners of their yards.
The seedlings of ginger, kencur, and turmeric were planted in the prepared garden beds. Used roof tiles, medium-sized splintered trees, up to rocks scattered in the yard were then used as bed dividers so that the mounds of soil will be well maintained. Lemongrasses were planted around the garden as a living fence. A month later, vegetable plants were inserted between ginger, turmeric, and kencur as a complementary source of family nutrition.
Flourish Among Tobacco: Alternative Crops
In Arjasa, as many as 15 tobacco farmers have started to build their gardens as well. Now it is not only bamboo that shades their lands, instead they have planted gadung under the bamboo shade. In the garden spaces where sunlight goes in, they plant cassava and papaya. Among the plots of tobacco rows in Arjasa Village, alternative plants are tucked in between. Farmers in Arjasa also do the same thing as farmers in Wareng and Pampang do. They learn to get to know and implement permaculture.
The Dynamics from The Fields and Home Gardens
For the farmers, permaculture is only a term. Long before we found ourselves in Gunungkidul and Jember, the people here had been using natural farming as their survival methods. Nevertheless, they are all our teachers. In many ways, long before the Green Revolution brought promises of farmer’s welfare, they entrusted soil fertility to local organic materials that were abundant and very easy to find. Today, we find rows of plants that force farmers to spend more on chemical fertilizers and pesticides in almost every planting season. The more they use chemical materials, the more they understand about the damage to the soil and the prevalence of pests.
Farming and Gambling with the Seasons
In August 2020, the dry season is still hot. As if taking turns, tobacco leaves are picked by several farmers. Harvest time will differ from one farming family to another. The old tobacco leaves are carefully picked from below, stacked and transported to their home. Piles of tobacco leaves are then dried under the sun. This year, the harvest process went smoothly until the sudden rain that came at the wrong time.
That afternoon, when cloudy sky had taken over the open spaces of the hot sun, we visited the farmers’ gardens in Wareng and Pampang. Some of their gardens are inundated by rainfall. Water flows from higher to lower places. Small plots of garden that are in lower places are not able to withstand puddles. Many empon-empon plants are flooded. This is the first time for Wareng and Pampang farmers. They’re not able to maximize the use of garden that is full of sticky clay soil. Yet, these unprecedented events give them insight that the plant beds must also be able to withstand the heavy rains that might come.
Scorching heat is always good news for tobacco farmers, and a shock of rain in the supposedly dry months cannot be considered as a blessing. If the plant beds are on the mud, tobacco leaves would be in danger of getting wet and might fail to be harvested. This situation has led Wareng and Pampang farmers to always prepare themselves for any event. They have to plant and gamble with the seasons at the same time.
Whilst the tobacco leaves were waiting to be picked, dried, and protected from possibilities of fungal surge, in another corner there is an empty, productive space that they had barely recognized.
Neighbor’s Gardens, Disease and Contagion
Like the two previous villages, Arjasa also experienced similar situations. Rainy season came earlier, forcing farmers to hastily pick their tobacco leaves and sew them up with thread and dry them while they could. Unfortunately, the rainy season also wreaked havoc on the papaya gardens. The garden plots that have been created and cared for without chemical fertilizers and pesticides were attacked by pests from the neighbor’s gardens.
It is the first time they used a permaculture method for growing papaya. In the midst of thunderous clouds and chasing rain, farmers in Arjasa shifted from tobacco fields to papaya plantations to harvest and rehabilitate soil in their gardens. They loosened the soil, then added dolomite and salt.
From some aspects, planting without chemical inputs can be very difficult for them to adapt to in the long history of ‘chemicalized’ farming behavior. On the other hand, the dynamics of planting and gambling with the seasons can provide a thorough experience of the importance of creating adaptive and resilient garden spaces. Farmer’s experience with the diseased papayas enriched their long journey of learning. They understood that a ‘resilient’ garden is unable to stand alone. Soil rehabilitation and biodiversity in the garden are also indispensable.
It was May 2021. The rainy season had long passed and farmers were preparing their fields for the upcoming tobacco planting season. In the middle of the year, some farmers has even harvested the lowest leaves of their tobacco. They had started to carry and dry them, though not many did it and chose to fill their plots with watermelon instead. At the same time, the gardens that they have made in the corners of the house began to fruit. Ginger, turmeric, and lemongrass plants were starting to show signs that harvest time had come.
One by one farmers removed the ginger, turmeric and kencur plants. They started harvesting and cutting the lemongrass as well. In a similar way with tobacco harvesting, collecting plants in their home garden is done in turns by different gardens. The seeds that we give to them are also not harvested all at once. We introduced a planting calendar system to avoid simultaneous harvests occurring in all village areas. From here, farmers began to learn to manage planting and harvest time based on their activities in the fields for other agricultural crops.
May left the blazing heat of the sun behind and the rain came again in the middle of the year. At that moment, farmers were still harvesting their ginger, turmeric, kencur, and lemongrass, and despite their knowledge of where to sell them, they used them in their own kitchen. They no longer need to buy ginger, turmeric, kencur, and lemongrass because their gardens have provided them.
It was Rina, a farmer from Wareng who told us, “Even though the yield is not much, we are happy that we don’t need to buy them anymore. We use some of the harvest for our own purposes in the kitchen, and some are processed into powdered drinks. The results will be partly for family consumption and partly distributed to neighbors.” Karsidi, a farmer from Pampang Village said that now her son who sells meatballs does not need to buy ginger in the market. Ginger, which is relatively expensive, can now be harvested from their own garden and reduces the capital costs.
In June, which was occasionally cloudy, we visited the garden of a farmer named Suryadi in Pampang Village. At this time the crops from the first planting month had been harvested. Suryadi’s wife came out to greet and told us that the turmeric in the garden can produce 9 kg of rhizomes!
We moved from Pampang to Wareng Village. That afternoon we helped Sarno’s family to do his first harvest. The soil in the garden plot in Sarno’s backyard was already loose with cracked ginger and kencur, signaling that they had to be removed immediately. Marwiyah, Sarno’s wife, went to get some farming tools to help us pry and uproot the plants from the soil. As it was their first experience, they had no idea that pulling ginger and turmeric roots would be laborious. While they wondered why it took so much of their energy, it turned out that the results were quite beyond what they had imagined. Sarno and Marwiyah get 8 kg of turmeric from the first harvest.
From Yogyakarta we went to the eastern part of Java in the village of Arjasa. Farmers had uprooted their gadung which had been planted along the bamboo trees. A farmer named Siti, said that the harvested yams are used as main ingredients for making gadung chips, which previously had to be bought. Siti’s gadung is now not entirely from other gardens, because she has it herself in her own garden. Juhairiyah, who sells cassava tape in Sukowono Market, also uses her yields to increase raw materials needed to produce tape.
Pandemic and Efforts to Cut the Chain
No one ever thought that a massive outbreak would hit. From the beginning of 2020 to the middle of that year, rural-urban relations were showing their limits with the disruption of many food supply chains from agricultural land in villages to meet various needs in cities. It didn’t take long, as people tried to run from the city and return to their home village. Those who were hungry left big cities because they knew that those remaining in the cities would become the most vulnerable ones. From the outbreak, we learned that the village was the first place where many people could gain absolute control over many basic needs. The little garden in the corner of the yard was just the beginning.
As rain intensified in July 2021, farmers in Wareng and Pampang harvested their crops in the second month. They learned about meeting family needs and searching for side income in the first month, hence in the following month they started to sell processed ginger, turmeric, kencur, and lemon grass powders other than brewing them themselves at home. Still, several farmers keep selling them in raw condition.
From plagues, pests, unpredictable seasons and weather, to infectious diseases from neighboring gardens, this is what makes us understand that our agricultural system and food supply chain is vulnerable and weak. As it has no resilience at all, all needs can only be met if you buy it. But today, farmers in Wareng, Pampang, and Arjasa have the opportunity to cut the chain to markets. Their yields that previously had to be sold to the middleman can now be processed and marketed themselves. They can sell fresh ginger, turmeric, kencur, and lemongrass directly to local partners without going through long supply chains that don’t give the farmers the opportunity to know where their crops will end up. Even farmers in Arjasa with yam and cassava no longer need to buy most of the raw materials for chips and tape from other villages. In the end, our one-year journey with farmers in Wareng, Pampang, and Arjasa was a long and vigorous learning journey. We learned so much about how permaculture can be applied in Java. (Re)