[TFR] In Indonesia’s apple-growing heartlands, erratic rainfall and rising temperatures are eating away at farmers’ profits

[TFR] PASURUAN, Indonesia, May 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As dark clouds gather in the morning sky, Indonesian apple farmer Ali Akhbar hurries to finish spraying pesticides onto his trees before yet another afternoon downpour.

It is officially the start of the dry season in East Java province, but non-stop rains have caused havoc for thousands of apple growers like Akhbar again this year – upsetting the flowering season, damaging blossoms and shrinking harvests.

The unseasonable weather has also caused an increase in pests and diseases, forcing some growers to take out loans to keep up with the surging cost of pesticides to ensure years of work do not go to waste.

“It’s so difficult now – the weather is unpredictable,” Akhbar, 49, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at Andonosari village in East Java, which is home to the country’s largest apple orchards.

He used to spray pesticides on his crops once a week, but has to do it twice weekly now, and uses more potent chemicals.

After years of similarly unpredictable weather, disappointing harvests are barely enough to cover farmers’ production costs, said Akhbar.

Agriculture experts blame climate change for the prolonged rainy season and a rise in temperatures that pose a serious threat to Indonesian apple farming, a sector that once brought stable incomes for thousands of rural families.

HOTTER AND RAINIER

Apples are not native to Indonesia. The fruit is said to have been brought into the country by Dutch colonisers in 1930 and first planted in the Pasuruan regency, where Andonosari village is located.

Today, some of the largest apple-growing areas in the country of 270 million people include Batu, Malang and Pasuruan – all in East Java province which has a subtropical highland climate.

Apple plantations are also a huge draw for agro-tourism in these areas, with Indonesians flocking to the orchards to pick the fruit and enjoy the cooler air.

But from its heyday in the early 1990s, when the number of trees reached nearly 10 million, the sector has quickly declined. There were only about 2.4 million trees left by 2016, according to the latest official statistics.

Successful apple-growing needs just the right amount of rain and sunshine, as too much or too little can severely affect the fruit’s quality.

In Pasuruan, where the dry season usually kicks in from April and lasts until September, farmers plan the flowering and harvesting seasons according to the weather.

They usually start pruning trees in January to prepare for the flowering season in the following two months, and then begin harvesting in April.

Indonesia’s weather agency forecast¬†higher-than-usual¬†rainfall again for 2022, after last year saw 70-100% more than normal levels.

This April, rain continued well into the month and, combined with rising temperatures, severely impacted harvests.