Like many of Bangka’s pepper farmers, Mr. Sukirman started learning about pepper cultivation from his parents at a young age. However, despite his early start, he only began his own pepper farm in 2010. Within his ten years of managing a pepper plantation, Mr. Sukirman encountered numerous challenges including one that resulted in him changing his plantation commodity from pepper to palm oil. Surprisingly, this commodity shift is a widespread practice adopted by many farmers in Bangka—especially by those who no longer see pepper as economically profitable. That said, it is not easy to separate pepper from daily life, especially as a farmer in Bangka, as being a pepper farmer is a big part of their identity.
When his shift to palm oil did not reap success, Mr. Sukirman decided to not give up on pepper farming as he realized that pepper can be stored for needs in the future. This time though he re-planted peppers with a new and different system: the agroforestry system. Through this method, Mr. Sukirman plants bananas, eggplants, and scallions on his farm, in addition to the pepper. “Growing vegetables on the farm has helped my family meet our food needs. Luckily for us, we haven’t had difficulties accessing staple foods during this pandemic because the farm produces enough for our own consumption,” he says.
Mr. Sukirman also shared his insight into how pepper cultivation practices have evolved over time. He recalled being able to easily predict the weather, which made it easy to plan agricultural stages for their farms, “but today, the climate has significantly changed. It no longer fits with previous patterns and we often face long droughts that causes our pepper plants to dry up and die.” Farmers cannot cope in these conditions as they are no longer able to accurately predict weather patterns. “Due to these conditions, I only manually irrigate the younger plants (<1-year-old) while leaving the older plants (>1-year-old) without water as they can already withstand drought stress.”
He also observed the change in the use of fertilizers over time: “Previously, my ancestors never used fertilizer on their pepper plants. But since I learned the importance of using fertilizers from my trainings, I now apply compost at the start of the planting process and continue to apply fertilizer every month.” Together with fellow farmer, Mr. Sajari, they make their own fertilizer from cow manure and plant biomass to meet the farm’s needs.
Mr. Sukirman also encountered similar problems as other farmers with pests and diseases on his farm. He has experienced leaf worms and fungus attacks and applied the appropriate measures to tackle the issues, but with the high rate of occurrence on his farm, he hopes to find practical and easily applicable ways to detect and prevent pests and diseases from occurring.
Despite these challenges, Mr. Sukirman has never reached out to pepper experts to ask questions or find solutions to his problem, as he usually speaks to fellow farmers or gets information from farmers’ stores (Toko Tani). Comparing past and present conditions of pepper farmers, he said that there is a need to increase pepper productivity and price to motivate farmers to maintain cultivating pepper. Speaking from his personal experience, he says, “financial assistance for farmers to produce their own compost would be useful so that they become independent in securing agricultural inputs, especially during the pandemic. If farmers can do this, they do not need to rely on compost sellers who have been difficult to reach due to COVID-19 and the social restrictions (PSBB)”. Mr. Sukirman’s cultivation activities have been little affected by the pandemic as he has worked independently to fulfill his own input, labor, and equipment needs.
Relating to the business side, Mr. Sukirman only relies on his fellow farmers to get the later information on pepper prices, although getting the most updated pepper prices are not as important to him as he only needs it when he wants to sell. However, he tends to sell his peppers to buyers whom he is already familiar with, such as to PT CAN’s collectors and other local buyers. He sells his pepper to PT CAN collectors because he says they give him a fairer (and higher) price compared to the market. Mr. Sukirman continues to meet directly with pepper collectors and buyers while maintaining the social restrictions, however, he said that he would be happy to adopt an online application for pepper cultivation and business if it could help facilitate and support the process of buying and selling pepper. “I would be happy to have an application that could help me and I would even be happy to share this application with my friends so that more farmers can hopefully find success for their pepper farms”.