How Robots Can Help Save Bali’s Rice Industry

Living up in Ubud I enjoy immensely the changing cycle of rice planting. The vibrant greens, the harvesting golds, the ducks on parade, the fields of glistening level mud, and the delicate seedlings planted out in rows again. Such a romantic vision and one that typifies the Bali brand. It is one of the key attractions that brings us all to Bali, so even not seeing it but knowing it’s there is enough to keep the millions coming to Kuta every year, with not a rice field in sight.


I see many an archetypal Balinese rice farmer up here. He is invariably very thin and bronzed, shirtless with a bamboo hat and riding a 1950’s bicycle. Oh, and he looks about 70 but more likely around 50-60. A very romantic image again – but dirt poor.


There are no young farmers around these days that you can see; the sons have mostly migrated to businesses associated with the tourist industry. Ask a married Balinese in the town about how he might help his father with the rice harvest and he gently laughs at the thought.


In many cases, the shift away from farming has even been encouraged by the father because it is difficult to envisage a suitable livelihood for all his sons.


The Rice Business


Growing and selling rice is just like any other business. You have inputs of materials and labor and supplies, and outputs of a product.  You sell the end product and take off your costs of production and expenses and end up with a profit. For rice farmers at the bottom end of the supply chain, the profit pickings are very slim.


First, on the output side, selling prices are set by government decree so that Indonesian poor can afford their staple food. Hence plain rice is a commodity and enables only a low selling prices.


On the input side, Suharto’s New Order introduced artificial fertilizers and insecticides that gave temporary yield increases but eventually removed the beneficial biodiversity such as snakes and worms so that rat plagues became more frequent and the soil hardened from lack of biomass. Now yields are dropping unless more and more fertilizer is used. At one stage farmers increased production to 3 crops a year but discovered decreasing yields produced the same output as 2 crops per year but with 50 percent more work!


Much more importantly, the new methods replaced standard composting that required only labor, with artificial replacements that required cash. So production inputs became much more expensive and the funds available for basic necessities dried up. My pembantu and most of her cousins didn’t get past year 12 because the family could not afford school uniforms.


Add to that the demands of a new society where children MUST have a motorbike and phone and western clothes, all requiring cash. A friend recently overheard 2 teenagers talking in a music shop about a guitar. “I’ll just get dad to sell the cow,” one said.


So it is no surprise that farmers themselves are seeking alternative income sources, such as:


  • Sell off land for more and more hotels and bungalows that suck the water out of the subak or water table and reduce arable land availability,
  • Sell off the land for small business strip development along roads.
  • Becoming part-time farmers with income from other sources.


How Rice Farmers Can Increase Income


Like any business, farmers can make more disposable income by either increasing prices or become more productive.


With prices constrained for the basic commodity it makes sense to diversify into higher value niche products – better value rice varieties for example, and alternative crops from crop rotation or allocation of land to other products entirely.


Productivity Improvements


For productivity, there are already proven means of increasing yields. One example is going back to organic fertilizers, a second is from changed production methods.


Around 2005 farmers from Subak Wangaya Betan began combining “waste” from rice milling, chicken raising, and cocoa and coffee production with a proprietary microbial product into a form digestible by cattle. The resulting manure was composted to produce fertilizer and this was used to progressively replace urea. After two crops, productivity had increased from around 5 tonnes/ha to 8 tonnes/ha. Cows consequently became much more valuable, certainly much more than a guitar was worth to the son!


In a similar case with organic fertilizers, farmers also stopped using petrochemical pesticides. The beneficial creatures that had disappeared from their fields gradually returned. Since then the farmers no longer have had any significant disease problems.


SRI Productivity Improvements


A second significant productivity improvement is possible from the use of SRI techniques – System of Rice Intensification. SRI also uses organic methods with younger seedlings singly spaced and planted earlier and with great care to reduce transplant shock.


Rotary Ubud was involved in an oversight role for an SRI pilot in 2008, and it convincingly demonstrated to us that SRI increases yield, saves water, reduces production costs, improves soils and potentially increases income. We saw yields increase by over 20% from just one crop and nearly double after one year to nearly 12 tonnes/ha. In any production environment, these are massive gains. The 2011 world record for SRI output is 22 tonnes /ha.


Standard hybrid rice typically has 26 tillers (grain-bearing stalks); with SRI this can increase to 65 tillers once biomass has been restored to the soil.


SRI requires a moist rather than a “flooded” soil. Farmers like to flood the soil because it helps prevent weeds and so reduce maintenance. In contrast, SRI is very labor intensive, with the sawah typically hand weeded with special tools, and this is especially a problem for part-time farmers.


Robots to the Rescue!


Bali is not the first to experience aged farmers hit with crop maintenance. Japan has had a similar problem for decades and their government has encouraged the development and use of automation wherever possible because rice is critical to their culture as well.


Drones are most suitable for Bali’s topography. They are already able to gather data and protect crops, using sensors for assessing plant health, identifying weeds, identifying insects, and spraying fertilizers. Systems now being developed in Germany use a CO2 blue laser on a drone – sensors recognize plants by contours, compare them to their database, then use the laser to heat up the weed cells and destroy it. So look forward to seeing a swarm of Terminator drones over a rice field near you.


How to Save the Sawah From Ourselves


Yayasan Konservasi Bali Sawah has a bold program to help secure the future of working landscape or sawah in Bali.  Currently, in the pilot phase, this program plans to have tourists fund a rice field conservation model that will place sawah in a trust so that the Bali brand is retained. Sustainability will be addressed by improving all inputs and outputs so that farm incomes increase, youth have a reason to stay and the sawah and subak are saved.

Email PhiPhi Kaplan for details at [email protected]


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