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A Tale of Coffee From North Sulawesi

A farmer in Candi rejo village, East Bolaang Mongondow district is manually roasting his coffee beans. Source: Ainur Rofiq.

January 15, 2020

By Budi Nurgianto

It was still early in the morning, and the clock just struck  seven. A number of men in East Purworejo village, in the Modayag sub-district of North Sulawesi’s East Bolaang Mongondow district were still huddling together, keeping themselves warm wrapped in their sarong. But Sukiman was already busy preparing for harvest and at eight a’clock sharp, he set off for his coffee plantation, not far from the village.

That particular morning, Sukiman resumed picking beans from his some 700 meter square coffee plot. During the annual harvest season, he would pick coffee beans three times in a week.  Sukiman said he could collect some 20 kilogram of coffee beans in a day and in would take two weeks at the most to harvest his entire plot.

“I pick coffee beans in the morning. I rarely do it in the afternoon because it often rains,” Sukiman told Ekuatorial on Thursday, December 19, 2019.

In Purworejo, coffee, of the robusta (Coffea Canephora) variety has been planted for generations by more than 100 farmers. Each of these farmers can produce up  to 257 kilogram of coffee beans in a single harvest season, or some 258 kilograms per hectare.

Data from the Bolaang Mongondow district agriculture office shows that up until 2017, there were some 100 hectares of coffee plantations in Purworejo village, or about one third of the total coffee plantations in the Modayag sub-district. Coffee farmers in the village usually tend coffee plots of about half a hectare to one hectare, each planted with up to 500 trees. Every family in Purworejo are coffee farmers.

But in the past years, farmers in Purworejo have been increasingly leaving behind the tradition of growing coffee, and shifted to  other types of agriculture. The areas planted with coffee in the village has been consequently, steadily shrinking.

Coffee plantation in the district of East Bolaang Mongondow covered 2,354 hectares in 2018, or slightly down from the 2,365 hectares in 2007. Out of that, only 1,630 hectares were producing  coffee beans. In 2018, the district’s coffee production stood at 581 ton per year slighly less than the 583 tons of the previous year.

Sukiman said that altough coffee production in Purworejo remained quite high, the village’s coffee plots were beginning to see a significant shrinkage.

In the past three years, the surface of coffee plantations in Purworejo village had shrunk by 11 hectares — about 11 football fields. Many of the coffee plots managed by farmers were converted into horticulture cultivation. The farmers gradually cut off the coffee trees and replaced them with short-term crops such as tomatoes and rica, a local chili variant.

 “I myself, am left with a plot of coffee with 230 plants. Its production is now down to 100 kilograms of raw coffee beans,” Sukiman said.

The gradual shrinkage of coffee-planted land can also be seen in the sub-district of Bilalang in the neighboring district of Bolaang Mongondow. Coffee-planted areas in  this sub-district now covers 279 hectares, or down from the 291 hectares, five years earlier. The district itself had a total of 3,989 hectares of coffee plantations which produced 2,478 tons of coffee beans per year.

Amiludin, who grows coffee in Bilalang III village, said that the shrinkage was mostly due to the absence of replanting new trees to replace the ageing crops. Many of the local farmers opted to fell their old crops and replace them with other perenial crops such as cocoa and clove. They also planted tomatoes and rica between the crops.

The fluctuating and uncertain prices of coffee were also driving farmers away from coffee as their main crop.

“Even though coffee production here is relatively high,it has not significantly affected the welfare of farmers. Many of the coffee growers in Bolaang Mongondow are still in the economically weak category. Many even live below the poverty line,” Amiludin said,

The net revenue of coffee growers in Bolaang Mongondow only average around four million to five million rupiah per month. A low amount, considering that the monthly expenditure of an average family there, stood at around six million to seven million rupiah. The highest level of revenue for coffee growers in Bolaang Mongondow is during the main harvest in November. During that period, their revenue could reach seven million rupiah a month.

“Because of uncertainty in revenues, many of the farmers are choosing to become farmers in horticulture and clove,” Amiludin said.

There are eight major coffee-producing districts in North Sulawesi  — Bolaang Mongondow, East Bolaang Mongondow, Kotamobagu City, South Minahasa, and Southeast Minahasa, South Bolaang Mongondow, Minahasa and Tomohon City.

Data from the Agriculture Ministry shows that in 2018, total coffee production from eight districts was 4,038 tons of coffee beans. Bolaang Mongondow and East Bolaang Mongondow were the two largest coffee producing districts in North Sulawesi with respective annual productions of 2,478 tons and 742 tons. 

(Chart above shows eight coffee producing districts in North Sulawesi, area of coffee plantation, and coffee production for 2018. Data: Agriculture Ministry and North Sulawesi Statistics Agency.)

Bank Indonesia data for 2017 shows that North Sulawesi was one of the main coffee producers in eastern Indonesia. Coffee production in this region could contribute up to six percent to the local economy.

Coffee was the third largest main commodity of North Sulawesi after coconut and cocoa.

Until 2019, data from the Agriculture Ministry shows that coffee production in North Sulawesi reached 4,038 tons per year, placing it as  the second largest coffee producing region on the island after South Sulawesi which has and annual production of 30.992 tons of coffee.

(Chart above shows 23 coffee producing provinces in Indonesia in 2015, with North Sulawesi producing a total of 3,044 tons

Suprianto, a barista in Kotamobagu City said that the shrinkage of coffe planting areas in Bolaang Mongondow was nothing new and constituted a problem that continued to be unresolved. He attributed the shrinkage to three major problems.

First, Coffee prices that were unfriendly to farmers. Coffee prices in Bolaang Mongondow have so far been entirely set unilaterally by collector merchants, without involving any bargaining with the growers.  Farmers also only knew that the cleaner the coffee beans, the higher their price they could fetch. Payments were also done cash on the spot, and not  in set  down payment for future harvest.

Under the latest system, buyers and growers agreed on a set price for the commodity, long before the coffee were ripe for the picking.

“Coffee farmers also often are not familiar with the selling price of their coffee in the market or at the retail trader level. As a result, many of them are selling their coffeee cheap,” Awaludin said.  

Secondly, the climate change factor, one marked by changes in the rain patterns in Bolaang Mongondow. This climate change is shifting the harvest season from September to now in December. Rising temperatures also tended to quickly damage coffee crops. Many old coffee plants dry up and dye and the result is a quite significant drop in production.

Thirdly, coffee farmers tend to have the perception that modern coffee processing was difficult and costly and thus their coffee were usually treated in the simple, traditional way. Coffee farmers in Bolaang Mongondow on average, relies on the sun to dry their coffee beans. Almost none of these farmers use modern drying machines. The process they use is still very simple, that is picking the beans, and immediately dry them under the sun. There is no other process involved, such as selecting the beans, or separating the ripe ones. 

“This is what lowers the quality of their coffee beans and farmers then become reluctant to cultivate coffee. If this problem can be overcome, I am certain that this will bring a positive impact on the welfare of the farmers,” said Suprianto.

Aside from the steady decrease of coffee-planted areas in North Sulawesi, climate change is also exerting an impact on coffee productivity. Rizaldi Boer, a lecturer at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, said that a significant impact of climate change on coffee crops in Indonesia is the lowering of productivity levels. Rising temperatures forced an earlier flowering of the plants and thus produce lower quality coffee beans. Rising temperatures also affected the metabolism of the coffee plants, such as their photosynthesis and respiration, also leading to inferior beans.

Climate change can also increase pest attacks and coffee plant diseases. The rising temperature is encouraging the multiplication of pests and coffee plant diseases. A number of analytical studies have even concluded that pest problems affecting coffee crops will increase further in the future compared to the conditions in 1960-1990.

“The result is that in 2050-2070 it is predicted that coffee would be difficult to fine anymore. Coffee production in those years will drop significantly. Even more so because recent rain patterns have already led to a drop in coffee quality,” Boer said when contacted by Ekuatorial on Thursday, January 9, 2020.


Preventing shrinkage of coffee plantations

Sehan Salim Landjar, who heads the East Bolaang Mangondow district, said that in the past three years, his administration had already been busy trying to halt the shrinking of coffee plantation area by calling on growers to not convert their coffee plots into horticulture cultivation.

The district administration had even launched a coffee replanting program for the Modayag sub-district. The move was taken so that the coffee bean production of the East Bolaang Mongondow district  could be maintained and coffee  can continue to be a main crop there.

A study conducted by the East Bolaang Mongondow district showed that there were 13 villages undergoing serious shrinkage of their coffee-planted areas. They were named as Candi Rejo, Lanut, Liberia, Moat, Modayag, Modayag II dan III, Mokitompia, Mototompian, Purworejo, Purworejo Timur, Sumber Rejo, and Tobongon. 

Coffee-planted areas in those 13 villages had shrunk by 12 hectares because the land plots were converted into horticulture cultivation. The construction of a new road linking villages in Modayag sub-district also ate up some 1,2 hectares of coffee plantations.

“Therefore, the government is starting to focus on empowering coffee growers so that they do not cut down their coffee plant anymore. The government is also promoting polyculture for coffee plantations,” Sehan said when contacted on December 21, 2019.

The process of roasting coffee beans which is being done manually by a female farmer in Candi Rejo village, East Bolaang Mangondow district. Source: Budi Nurgianto.

Meanwhile, in Bolaang Mongondow district, shrinkage of coffee plantation areas took place in four villages in the sub-district of Bilalang — Bilalang Baru, Bilalang III Bilalang III Utara, and Bilalang IV.  These four villages have lost coffee plantations totalling 230 hectares.  

Bolaang Mongondow District Head, Yasti Soepredjo Mokoagow, believed that there were two problems behind the continuing shrinkage of coffee plantation in the region. The growing population was resulting in an expansion of human settlements and many coffee plants had to be cut off to give way to new settlements. Secondly, low coffee prices and the difficulties in processing the beans in a modern way, was pushing farmers to convert their crop into short time ones such as tomatoes and rica.

Mokoagow said that the Bolaang Mangondow district administration was currently trying to empower farmers in order to halt the land conversion. This was done through efforts to improve their capacity in treating  coffee beans as well as in marketing. The government is even trying to probe cooperation with new investors who are willing to buy coffee beans from farmers in Bolaang Mongondow.

 “A number of investors from America, the Philippines and Europe have already expressed their interest. We now only have to develop quality,” Mokoagow said.

Jenny Karouw, the head of the North Sulawesi Industry and Trade Office, said that the shrinkage in coffee planted areas in North Sulawesi could have been actually prevented  by providing markets to absorb the coffee produced by the farmers.

The North Sulawesi administration was currently assisting administrations in coffee-producing districts to find markets for their coffee. A number of countries such as the United States, the Philippines, the Netherlands, Germany and South Korea were currently being probed as potential markets for North Sulawesi coffee.

“At present, we have demands starting to come from China, the Netherlands and Ukraine. We hope that the market for North Sulawesi coffee can develop further and coffee production can increase,” Karouw said, adding that up until 2017, North Sulawesi eported 6,402 tons of coffee beans and spices worth $6.4 million. The export destinations included Singapore, the United States, Japan, the Netherland, South Korea, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, China and Vietnam.

But for coffee growers in Bilalang III , the government’s efforts to find markets for their coffee have yet to lead to  a good impact on farmers at the local level. Many growers were still facing difficulties in marketing their products because they lacked a knowledge on markets.

“So far, what is happening is that the farmers always sell to collecting merchangs at very low prices. If the government really find markets for our coffee, we farmers, will of course be very happy and in support for that efforts,” Amiluding said when contacted again on Tuesday, January 7, 2020. Ekuatorial.


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