The smiling farmers of East Java, Indonesia
It’s almost impossible to speak Bhasa without smiling. Some of my favorite expressions from Indonesia’s main language include apa kabar (how are you), luar biasa (excellent) and nogosari (banana rolled in soy meal, steamed in a banana leaf). They all roll off the tongue, like the easy hum of an engine, yet still somehow end on a singing note.
The expression, sama-sama (you’re welcome), with that final -a held for a second or more, epitomizes the East Javanese spirit. Its easy to get swept away in this place. No surprise then that every farmer we met on our four-day tour, had his own wide, toothy grin. These are the smiling farmers of East Java, Indonesia.
Agriculture in East Java centers around rice and corn. These are the staples that feed the 240 million plus people currently living in this island-nation nestled in the South Pacific. That makes Indonesia the fifth-most populous country in the world, right behind the United States. When you consider that every person in Indonesia consumes an average of 130kg of rice per year, it means Indonesian farmers face a massive challenge every year to provide enough food for their country.
Many of the farmers we met said they not only accept this challenge, they take pride in helping to overcome it. Take Haji Yatim for example. He is a rice and soybean farmer from Jombang district of Jember and also the leader of the local farmers’ group in his area. When asked why he liked being a farmer, H. Yatim replied: “I like to be useful for my family, my community and my government. All of the farmers here [in Jombang] can make the country stronger through food security. I feel satisfied and proud that I can contribute every year.”
Farming in East Java does not come without its challenges. Planting and harvesting are still done mainly by hand, which is no small achievement in the heat and humidity of East Java (I didn’t stop sweating for four days straight). It is the type of work that requires a strong will and daily determination. It is all the more inspiring that farmers like Haji Suparman, who has grown corn and rice in Situbondo for more than 40 years, keep on smiling.
Pests and diseases, too, continue to pose a danger to the crops in East Java. Moths, corn borers and trips (sucking insects) as well as fungi like downy mildew can wipe out a season’s worth of work in a few days. It’s quite a depressing sight to see rows of corn leaves whitened by downy mildew. But through their years of experience and knowledge, the farmers of East Java have largely been able to meet whatever challenge comes their way. H. Muhammad Ihsan, who has been farming rice near Jember for 32 years, put it this way, “I want to show everyone that farmers in the rural areas can also be successful and have a good life.” And, I might add, keep on smiling. Terimah kasih (thank you).