Reeling from crop failures, farmers look for ways to survive the drought in NTT

Local residents in Sikka are preparing the wild yams.

With rising temperatures and the Covid-19 pandemic, farmers are facing greater risks of harvest failures and famine in Sikka Regency, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), where failed crops often mean no income or foods for the whole family. The villages need to work on solutions to help the poorest and the most vulnerable during trying times like these.

Around six sub-districts in Sikka are vulnerable to food crises in 2020. Many farmers in Sikka who grow crops such as rice, maize, beans, and sweet potatoes have experienced crop failures. Struggling to earn a living, the poor farmers start to run out of food.

Residents in Done Village, for instance, are currently facing a food shortage after the rice and corn harvest failed.

Harvest failures commonly caused by extreme heat, strong winds, and pests are taking a severe toll on local farmers. Without crops to eat or sell, they now have to go to the edge of the forests to look for wild yams, commonly used for natural pesticides. Wild yams, if properly cooked, are edible and safe. Otherwise, the plants can cause poisonings, such as itching, intoxication, nausea, and vomiting.

“The mothers came to me and said that their family had been eating wild yams for more than a month,” said Director of Wahana Tani Mandiri in Sikka Regency, Carolus Winfridus Keupung, who is accompanying local farmers.

The food insecurity that threatens the villages in Sikka is not caused by poor food distribution. So far, people still can get easy access to food from other regions. Transportation and communication routes are still reliable.

“The problem is that people don’t have enough money to buy food,” said Winfridus.

There are exceptions. Some farmers can survive by growing and selling other crops, such as coffee, cocoa, and coconut.

Other farmers, however, are not as lucky. Farmers with small rice fields usually grow and harvest their crops for their own consumption. The majority of their crops are immediately stored for food supply for one year. To pay for their children’s education, they have to find additional incomes, such as selling cakes and fishing. When the dry season arrives and the land is too barren to grow rice, farmers living near the outskirts of the city leave their homes to find jobs as construction workers.

This method of looking for an additional income doesn’t always make up for the lost profits from crop failures. Those wanting to fish at the sea have to invest in fishing boats and trawlers, and the Covid-19 pandemic has caused job loss, especially the blue-collar jobs. Furthermore, farmers who raise chicken and pigs also have to deal with pests and diseases.

Bananas, which are nutritious and filling, are among the crops that local residents commonly grow in their gardens. However, bananas cannot replace rice as part of their daily meals. part of your daily meals. They only grow a handful of banana trees in their gardens and, thereby, the crops can only meet the needs of the family for one to two days.

Winfridus and his organization, Wahana Tani Mandiri, with support from Yayasan Inobu, have prepared a plan to help the poorest farmers start a chicken farming business. Unlike raising pigs which is more time-consuming and costly, raising chickens can make money faster as farmers can sell the eggs. Many residents are also interested in growing vegetables in areas near water sources. They can sell these vegetables to buy rice, pay their children’s education, and pay for health care.

In the past, Sikka residents used to eat corn, but now most residents consume rice as their daily food. Now farmers are implementing intercropping agricultural systems comprising corn and rice. Both crops are widely-consumed and profitable. However, there is a drawback: rice is a water-intensive agricultural product. That means rice is highly vulnerable to the drought in arid lands like in NTT.

“Harvest failures happen all the time here,” Winfridus said. “One time, we thought about switching to sorghum.”

The fiber-rich sorghum is a local food highly resistant to drought. “However, the residents are used to rice and corn which have a softer texture, while sorghum has a more chewy texture,” said Winfridus, adding that sorghum needs to be processed in various ways to make it taste better.