BATU’S CORE PROBLEM: TOO HARD, TOO OLD, TOO DEAR
© Duncan Graham 2006
Apples from Batu in central East Java were once nationally famous, a prize product of Indonesian agriculture. Now this emblematic industry is dying. Duncan Graham reports:
It used to be the standard weekend family excursion for the frazzled folk of Surabaya: Drive to Batu, about two hours south, overnight in one of the many hilltop hotels and come home with a weighty wicker basket of cheap hand-picked apples.
It’s not just the Lapindo mud volcano blocking the toll road that’s crimped this pleasant pastime. Batu apples are now more expensive than imports. They’re not well presented and don’t taste so good as the foreign varieties.
Easier to wheel a trolley into the local supermarket and buy big Fujis from China, every one flawless in their dinky plastic waistcoats. Or glistening rose-red Washingtons from the US, looking more plastic than real. Or crispy Gala from New Zealand.
The pretty rolling town of Batu, about 20 kilometres outside Malang, is still a popular getaway and literally blooming. It welcomes visitors to its flower-filled streets with some grotesque statuary.
Most feature the local produce, including an Atlas-like man attempting to heave a huge concrete apple. The monument is chipped and worn and the figure looks bowed down.
Which makes a useful metaphor for an industry that isn’t quite on its knees, but is heading there according to a new report.
Australian student David Cook, 42, spent a year at Muhammadiyah University in Malang conducting a field study into the Batu apple industry. He concluded that production is declining and farmers are turning to more profitable crops.
“I think there’s little likelihood of government-initiated change,” he said. “Apples will remain iconic in Batu because most backyards have trees. Many are old, diseased, not particularly productive, but nevertheless a constant reminder of days gone by.”
His report, which has been published by the Australian Consortium for In Country Indonesian Studies, claims cheap imports, particularly from China, failure to plant new varieties and poor management techniques are to blame.
A separate report on East Java fruits commissioned by the Western Australian government’s trade office and written by Indonesian researcher Budi Daroe ignored apples. The unhappy state of the industry and the quality of the produce ruled apples out of any potential export business.
Cook’s findings have been confirmed by Abdul Kadir, the former head of the Agriculture Department in Batu, and Sumeru Ashari, head of horticulture in Brawijaya University’s Agriculture faculty.
However Professor Sumeru said there were signs that the industry could recover as Dutch experts offering new varieties had promised help.
It was the Dutch who first planted apples in Batu about 80 years ago. Growing apples in the tropics has never been easy. They favor mild climates and do well in temperate parts of the globe.
The sub-tropical areas around Batu are 1,000 metres above sea level and cool. It’s a frost-free zone and two crops can be harvested year round if the trees are defoliated by hand to stimulate fruiting.
There’s plenty of sunshine, and ample rain in the October to March wet season. The soil is fertile and well drained, particularly on the hillside terraces.
However it’s this style of farming that’s now a problem. The narrow rows and steep slopes make the use of heavy machinery like tractors dangerous. Heaving 20-kilogram baskets of fruit up and down steep banks is not a welcome job for school leavers who’d rather work as motorbike couriers.
Elsewhere in the world apple trees are now planted on flat land where picking, pruning and spraying can be mechanised, and the backbreaking tasks eliminated.
In the past this didn’t matter because Indonesian labour was cheap and plentiful. But that’s also the situation in China which has now become a major exporter, savagely undercutting the price of the local product.
There have been massive new plantings of modern varieties in the People’s Republic during the past two decades – and most have been on level land.
More than 500,000 hectares have been dedicated to apples in Batu, with smaller plantings at Poncokusmo and Nonkojajar east of Malang. Manalagi is the main variety. (See sidebar) Some published figures claim two million trees – others up to eight million. Commented David Cook:
“There’s a great variation on tree numbers because the official number depends on whether you include all apple trees or just the productive ones.
“Batu has a severely ageing apple tree population. Small farmers have large abandoned orchards that they can’t afford to rip up, replant, fertilise or change in any way.
“Instead farmers leave the older trees to fend for themselves, though they still send laborers to check for fruit. Most likely is that the true figure of trees that are too old is much higher than any of the statistics reveal.”
Not surprisingly much of the produce is poor quality. Apples that can’t be retailed go to a juicing factory at Kusuma Agrowisata, a large hotel and agro-tourism enterprise in Batu. This has only 14 hectares of apple trees, so buys in at least half a tonne of fruit from local farmers every day.
On receipt the misshapen apples have to be checked by hand, with blemishes, bruises and rot cut out before washing.
An estimated 80 per cent of the Batu crop is juiced or processed to make dried apple chips and other products, including alcoholic cider – which sells at more than double the price of beer. All are marketed within Indonesia.
As the apple industry goes sour farmers are turning to flowers, vegetable and garden plants for their income – and doing well. It takes five years for an apple tree to become productive, but cut flowers for the export market can provide a return in months.
Popular is Sandersonia, also known as Christmas Bells or Chinese Lanterns, a native of South Africa. Up market housing developments and the new international airport terminal at Surabaya have bought tens of thousands of ornamentals from Batu.
“Foreign investment in cut flower production – mainly from Japan, with some interest from Singapore and China - has been successful for a number of reasons,” said Cook.
“It gave farmers the capital to bulldoze their apple trees and use the land for greenhouses – something few were prepared to do or fund on their own. Local and foreign investment is not going into apples.
“There’s a lot more direct selling with garden plants and cut flowers, with no middlemen. The work is also easier than harvesting apples.”
THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE
If Eve had plucked a Manalagi apple at the behest of the serpent, the whole history of the world might have been different. Adam – who always looks like a Caucasian in the Biblical pictures - would have knocked back the fruit as too tough for his taste.
Consequently the Tree of Knowledge would have remained out of reach and Isaac Newton wouldn’t have discovered gravity by sitting under an apple tree in 1665 pondering the physics of windfalls.
The Manalagi (‘give me more’) apple developed from the Golden Delicious imported by the Dutch, and famous for its long shelf life. It’s a small white-green apple, slightly sweet and usually too hard for Western palates.
And indigestible for many Indonesians too if supermarket sales are any guide. Put a tray of Manalagi against the imports and the local produce will still be there when the other bins are empty.
Fresh produce prices rock and roll through the year according to supplies and seasons. Earlier this year David Cook’s research found the price of Batu apples, both Manalagi and the thick-skinned Rome Beauty above Rp 15,000 (US $1.60) a kilo compared to Fuji from China at below Rp 10,000 (US $1).
Apples are among the earliest known edible fruits with references dating back more than 5,000 years. The tree is a native of Kazakhstan in central Asia. There are now more than 700 cultivars world-wide.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 December 06)