In Heart of Bali’s Salak Country, a Struggle for Survival

In Heart of Bali’s Salak Country, a Struggle for Survival

By Anton Muhajir on 01:00 pm Mar 23, 2014
Category Environment, Featured, News
Tags: Bali, Bali Farmers, salak

Sibetan was once the heart of Bali’s salak-growing industry, but oversupply and an influx of imported fruit have seen the price of
the distinctive snake fruit plummet. (JG Photo/Anton MuhajirIn)

The snake fruit, or salak , grown by I Nyoman Sepel Dyantara are unlike any other salak grown in Bali. There is no dusty taste, just a completely sweet taste with a nice crunchy texture.

Sepel’s salaks feel fresh because of the high water content. That’s because they are plucked right out of the tree just minutes before by one of Sepel’s farmer.

The salaks are harvested from a garden behind the office of a farming group named Mekar Sari. The plantation is just one of hundreds of salak plantations in Sibetan village in the Karangasem district of Bali, a two-hour drive from capital Denpasar.

Sibetan is a village which is on the map for its salak, famous for its sweet and fresh taste; big, crunchy flesh and superior quality. But it is now under threat because many farmers are considering other fields. The reason is simple: nobody buys them.

Geographically, Sibetan is the ideal place to grow salak. It is situated on a slope at an elevation of between 350 and 900 meters above sea level. The soil is slightly acidic with high moisture content, and consists mostly of clay and sand. The area has a monthly rainfall of around 100 millimeters with an average temperature of 25 degrees Celsius.

The soil’s fertility stems from the 1963 eruption of 1963 eruption of Mount Agung, Bali’s biggest volcano, which scattered volcanic ash over this hilly area. And so Sibetan became a top fruit producing region, growing not only salak but also durian, bananas and other tropical fruits.

But salak proved to be the most popular product. So high was the demand that farmers in the village gradually switched to salak. Eventually, Sibetan became synonymous with salak, and vice versa.

Sepel recounted his childhood when salak became the village’s icon. The entire village was dependent on the fruit, while Sibetan became the nursing ground for all varieties of the fruit, from sugarcane salak and Balinese salak, to pineapple salak and jackfruit salak.

Sepel’s parents could afford to send him to a university in Mataram in the neighboring island of Lombok, because of salak.

“Salak to us was an effective means of sending people’s children to college,” he said.

Meanwhile, university students and researchers also flocked to Sibetan to study its salak.

At one corner of the farmers’ group office is a cupboard stuffed with awards and souvenirs from visiting students or farmers’ groups. At another end were more awards, plaques and medals hung on a wall beneath a picture of Mekar Sari founder I Wayan Putu Ardika receiving yet another award from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The awards and recognitions amount to nothing now, Sepel said. Farmers are faced with a bitter option: sell the salak cheap, or let it rot.

This month in Sibetan, the salak harvest season was at its peak. “There’s so much [salak],” he said adding that each farmer can collect around 1.8 tons each harvest season, which happens twice a year between January and March and between August and September.

Most farmers grow the sugarcane salak variety, which normally sells for around Rp 15,000 ($1.30) per kilogram, three times more than other varieties. But recently that is not what happened.

“We have no choice but to sell them cheaply,” said one farmer, I Wayan Pica Antara, adding that middlemen took advantage of the surplus of salak by paying just Rp 5,000 per kilogram. “We might fetch a better price selling directly to the city but it is not worth the labor and transport costs.”

Sepel realizes that farmers need to cut their dependence on the supply to get a better price, by forming a collective to sell directly to Bali’s hotels and gift shops.

But the idea hit a snag because most hotels accept consignment first and pay later. “We’d have to wait for months to get paid while we need the money right away,” Sepel said, adding that major hotels preferred imported fruits.

Pica said money was the only obstacle in Sibetan’s way of getting back to its glory days. The village farmers need huge capital to transport and pay overhead expenses to sell directly to customers and earn a bit of profit. They also have plans to process salak into chips or dodol (a toffee-like confection) which have better shelf-life, but lack proper skills and need money to buy the necessary equipment and build a processing center.

Worse still, with growing demand for imported fruits , not even the middlemen want to buy them. Large amounts of unsold salak end up as mulch or as pig feed. This has been going on for years now, Sepel said, forcing the younger generation to look for better-paying work in the construction and hospitality industries, while the older generation is forced to give up their land to make way for holiday homes and hotels.

But Sepel is not giving up on the industry that defined his village. Through his farmers’ group he tries to come up with a financing scheme through banks and cooperatives.

“If there is a steady flow of cash we’ll be alright. All we have to worry about is producing more salak,” he said.

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