Sumatra, January 2012: 2

WEDNESDAY

After a few hours of sleep at Wahana (jetlag and barking St Bernards are not a good combo!) we set off to visit more farms, heading north to Merek. A trip that should have taken an hour took two as we were low on gas and had to go through three gas stations before we found one with fuel on offer. But eventually we pulled up on a bumpy country lane and met Mr. Ginting, a farmer and collector who gathers cherry from 50 local growers as well as his own half hectare plot where he’s growing a mix of mature and young trees. He sells to Wahana who sends trucks to collect the cherry, ensuring that the time from harvest to processing is kept to a minimum. The plot we’re visiting belongs to one of his suppliers and is a 0.5 hectare plot growing 7 year old Ateng. The owner doesn’t tend to prune these as the yield is higher at the top of the trees, so they’ve grown to their full 2 meters and they use ladders to pick from the top. Here also, the yield has been low in the last couple of years but this coming harvest is looking up.

       

I asked how the transition from selling the mills cherry instead of parchment has been for them, and Ginting explained that while selling parchment at the moment would have been financially more beneficial to him,   the general feeling is that selling cherry is less work than pulping themselves so the difference in price is outweighed by convenience. He currently pays the growers 8700 rupiah per kg, and sells it to Wahana for 8900, clearing 200 for his commission. This February he’s projecting to move about 7000 kg cherry per week from his 50 farmers. All of them are of course free to sell to one of the three other local collectors, just as Ginting is free to see to other mills than Wahana, but he has built up a loyalty with his suppliers and buyers that means he carries on with the new cherry procedures. One of the ways he secures supply is by pre financing the cherry, offering loans in advance against promise of supply. Quality wise there is no premium for riper cherries, but Wahana will accept under ripe lots only up to a certain sensible level so they know if they pick too many greens they might not be picked up. The growers generally avoid picking greens anyway, as they weigh less than ripe cherries and when picking greens the stem and future flower bud usually comes off the branch, destroying the next fruiting.

When asked if there would ever be a possibility to buy coffee just from this small group of producers, the answer was no, volumes not being high enough to warrant the extra work- but I hope that in time this attitude will change and that they put logistics in place to at least experiment with this.

Leaving the farm we drove to the sleepy fishing village of Tongging for lunch, and it turned out that we had to catch it ourselves so Alex and I clambered onto one of the floating fish pens where lunch was swimming around, net in hand. We caught about 8 big fishies to feed the crew, and I made sure to save half a fish for the hungry cats waiting to peruse out leftovers. Lunch was had  in a little wooden lookout pavilion by the water, to the sound of carpenters putting a new roof on the restaurant- the old one blew off  in a recent storm and was strewn in pieces on the other side of the road. The landscape climbing up and down from this little village was some of the nicest I’ve seen so far, I couldn’t get any pictures to do it justice but I promise you it was well nice!

       

Next up was a stop in at Mr Bayu’s farm in Simalungun, another grower and collector who gathers cherries for Wahana from 160 other producers. His own plot is 8 hectares and was started 4 years ago when his son Bau Jr was born. The 160 other farms range from 1-4 hectares, so this is quite a nice sized operator having started as a collector in 2009. We were a bit unsure about the varietal he is growing, he called it Caturra but it didn’t look like it to us, one suggestion was that is could be Sigarar-Utang, the ‘debt payer’. A high yielding plant, his crops have nonetheless been down by about 30 % the last two years, the last time he felt he had a 100% crop was 2010 when he did 10 tons of cherry per day from his 160 suppliers, over a 90 days harvest period. This year he hopes to be up by 5% again, to about 670 tons of cherry. He recently cut the undergrowth around his trees as part of routine maintenance work, and the trees looked full and healthy, not shade covered but not looking like they were too adversely affected by this. He showed us how the cherries mature starting from the tip of the branch ripening first, then the middle of the branch (where the mid harvest and best cherries sit-also where he chooses mother seeds from) to the cherries closest to the trunk where light is lower and ripening is slower.