Some of my fondest memories of this last trip to Sumatra were of visiting some of the more remote locations like Maria Dolok, Dolok Silau and Sidamanik. Some of my past blogs have focused on the desperation experienced by farmers at the moment, and while it’s certainly necessary to communicate those challenges, I thought that for this blog I would focus on some of the more positive aspects of the Sumatran scape.
There’s something pretty amazing about being in remote locations — the air gets cleaner and the people get friendlier. The simple day to day life of these rural farming communities is a thing of beauty, perhaps because of the absence of competition and the increased sense of community. I visited several amazing farms while I was out in these regions. Most of these farms are new to the supply network, but they had already shown great promise as suppliers of premium parchment to the Simalungun mill. Each farm had its own appeal; sometimes that was related to coffee when we saw awesome coffee practices and quality results, and sometimes it was related to social interaction with people, families and their personalities.
As I stopped on the doorsteps of several local producers (in Sidamanik) to check their parchment, the quality was amazing. It was sweet smelling, clean and pure-looking parchment coffee. The method for assessing parchment is pretty rudimentary — you check the visual appearance (for consistency, moisture content and colour) and then sniff the coffee, looking for a sweet banana-like aroma. These two combined are the most obvious signs of quality. This small producer and many others ticked those boxes which is a great accomplishment considering they are so new to the supply network feeding the Simalungun mill. They were also proof that small premiums and consistent buying attract quality and a willingness to produce excellent products. These small producers were a great example of the local term ‘super parchment’ — clean, fresh and fit for the specialty market. We also visited a farm where, as we walked in, it was immediately apparent that it was different to the typical growing scene in the north of Lake Toba. Perfect intercropping and sustainable practices were on display, these guys are farming forward into the future and linking sustainable farming into their other seasonal crops. Palm sugar trees and banana trees provided shade, food and additional income streams from other crops like pineapple, chilli and tomato intercrops between the coffee trees, in a way I best describe as organised chaos.
The farm we visited next (still in Sidamanik) was owned by a husband and wife and their five daughters. It was an amazing example of a family-owned and operated Sumatran small holder. With two girls of my own and another on the way, it was easy for me to connect with this family in a personal way. It’s hard to explain why, perhaps it was just some kind of ‘all-girl family’ bond? The willingness of the family to be present on the farm and contribute as a family unit is engrained in the Sumatran way of life. Kids look after the young ones while their mum harvests: coffee and their own farmland becomes their playground. What is clear is how hard women in Sumatra work in the coffee cycle — from picking and harvesting to the day-to-day operations. They are truly the unsung heroes in Sumatra and no doubt in many (if not most) other growing regions throughout the world.
So out of the negatives come so many positives — from the success of our Simalungun coffee as a whole, to the individual micro-stories occurring daily at ground level. Low prices and adversity will be overcome by hard work and a sense of community in these places. Corporate investment remains risky while the low prices continue, and while small holder coffee producers have their own set of unique challenges, they are making it work (and always have done so too!) The end result is amazingly unique and beautiful, both for the coffee and small holder farmers of Sumatra.