Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Urgently needed: better ways to grow onions in Indonesia

Photographic essay by Dr Richard Markham.

ACIAR project: Sustainable productivity improvements in allium and solanaceous vegetable crops in Indonesia and sub-tropical Australia http://aciar.gov.au/publication/fs2016-hort/2009/056

Onions are one of the most important - and profitable - crops that smallholders can grow in Java.
But farmers risk harming themselves and their environment through excessive use of agro-chemicals.

Many farmers are applying as much as five times the recommended rate of fertiliser and, in an attempt to control a poorly understood mix of pests and diseases, they are spraying their crop every couple of days, right up to harvest, with a noxious but ineffective brew of insecticides and fungicides... There has to be a better way - and researchers are determined to help the farmers find one!

It's back-breaking work but, after the rice crop is harvested, farmers dig up the flat rice fields to form raised beds, separated by irrigation channels, to grow onions.

Even when the beds are formed and the crop is growing, the work continues - including daily watering

... and lots of spraying with pesticides. Water to prepare the sprays is drawn from the irrigation ditches... and the sprayers are washed out again, right into the ditches that everyone is wading through, to water and tend to the crops.
Farmers use a seemingly random mix of chemicals (whatever is on offer from the vendors), without protective clothing and without normal precautions, such as keeping food and drinks at a distance from the pesticides.

Despite all the spraying, caterpillars crawl out of the harvested onions, seemingly unaffected by the chemicals. They have become resistant to these products. Meanwhile, women are exposed to unsafe levels of the pesticides, as they sit in the sun, sorting the crop.

A fundamental re-think of the system is needed, starting with a serious discussion between the Australian and Indonesian researchers (on the right), the extension staff (in uniforms) and farmers (holding the bunch of onions).
The solution starts with new research to properly diagnose the problems. Here an entomologist from Queensland samples 'army worm' caterpillars. Monitoring the pests with light traps (foreground) and spraying only when moths reach a 'threshhold', can immediately cut the number of insecticide sprays by half.

Another set of problems are caused by virus diseases. Farmers store their own onions to plant again next year, not realising that when they select nice small bulbs to replant, they are most likely selecting the ones stunted by viruses, thus propagating or even exacerbating the problem.
Commercial stores are not immune, they simply store up the problems on a larger scale.

But long-standing practices can be hard to change. Cirebon onions are famous for their fine quality and this farmer believes he is preserving that reputation by saving his own planting material.

Despite the problems, onions remain a key industry and source of employment in the area - hence the high priority accorded by the Indonesian government to finding a solution. Many of those employed by the onion industry are women.

Another load heads off to market - but there is still not enough supply to meet local demand at some times of year. Another incentive to boost production - but in a sustainable way, without damaging people's health or the environment.

Additional income can be provided by processing the onions into various products.
These have been sliced, deep fired and dried, to enhance their flavour and ensure a longer shelf-life.

Food processing also provides employment, for women and men and export income for Indonesia. This consignment is bound for Nigeria.

Onions can also be propagated from 'true seed' - and, if appropriate precautions are taken, this seed can be guaranteed as free from diseases. When onions are grown for seed, 'tunnels' can be used to exclude diseases (and the insects that carry some of them)

Virus diseases, although they can cause serious losses, can be hard for farmers to understand and diagnose. Here, John Thomas, a virologist from Queensland, searches for virus symptoms in a field of onions in Java intended for seed production. Even an experienced plant pathologist like John will not depend on symptoms alone for diagnosis. Samples will be subjected to molecular testing in Australia - and this capacity is being established by the project in Indonesia as well.

Onions intended for planting material are 'grown on' from true seed at locations in the cooler highlands of Java, where diseases pose less of a problem. Healthy onion plants grown in the highlands can provide 'clean planting material' for farmers in the lowlands.

Growing onions for and from seed is a complicated business. The project is providing the training needed to establish a 'clean seed system' for this vital crop.

Like most ACIAR projects, this one has a benefit for Australian farmers. Project Leader Steven Harper (on the right) is conducting trials at Gatton Research Station looking at specific aspects of appropriate fertiliser applications for onions.

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