The sun is hot overhead and birds chirp in the background as Keke walks up and down the narrow rows of his rice field. All around him, as far as the eye can see, luscious, green rice plots stitch together like a patchwork emerald quilt.
Keke crouches down to inspect his plants. He’s pleased — he planted his crop about a month ago, and things are going well. Last year was very different.
Rice farming drives the economy in Keke’s village in West Java, Indonesia. Unlike some of his neighbors who have been farming for decades, Keke began rice farming two years ago when his father-in-law gave him 0.3 hectares of land. To his delight, his first crop grew, yielding one-and-a-half tons of rice. But the next time, the harvest failed. Keke was confused.
“I was worried, but I borrowed money and planted again,” he says. “But I failed again.”
Keke repeated this process many more times. He borrowed money. He planted. The harvest failed.
“Imagine,” he says. “I failed five times.”
A better way, together
Keke’s story is one shared by many smallholder rice farmers in Indonesia. Although rice farming is a staple of the local economy, many rice farmers struggle to make enough to get by. Disease, pests, drought, and lack of access to quality seeds and fertilizer can wreak havoc on a rice crop and determine whether a farmer will make enough to support his family from harvest to harvest.
Many farmers are not properly trained, meaning they often don’t know how to treat diseases that plague their crops, while others continue outdated, often harmful farming practices passed down from the previous generation. Making matters worse, even when rice farmers do learn about optimal seeds and the best products used to treat diseases, they often can’t obtain the financing they need to invest in their crops.
As Keke was reeling from his fifth failed harvest, he was invited to attend a meeting in his village. The meeting was led by Mercy Corps, a leading global organization that empowers people to survive through crisis, build better lives and transform their communities for good. The meeting brought together technical experts and advisors to speak with rice farmers and local community leaders about how to improve their farming practices.
At the end of the meeting, Mercy Corps invited Keke and his neighbors to join a new program they were launching to train farmers on ways to improve their yields, increase their incomes and ultimately transform their lives.
Keke wasn’t sure what to expect, and some of his neighbors advised him not to join. After all, other groups in the past had made promises that had fallen flat. But Keke liked what he heard. Maybe this is a better way, he thought. He decided to give it a try.
An opportunity for change
In 2014, the John Deere Foundation reached out to Mercy Corps to explore ways that they could partner to improve the lives of smallholder rice farmers in Indonesia. Mercy Corps has a long history connecting smallholder farmers around the world to the resources they need to grow more food, earn more money and strengthen their communities. In Indonesia, witnessing the challenges rice farmers were facing, Mercy Corps believed there was a better path forward and saw an opportunity to improve the lives of rice farming families.
From the very beginning of their work together, the John Deere Foundation and Mercy Corps have leveraged the talents and passion of John Deere employees from around the world to help identify and implement interventions to support farmers. In 2014 and 2016, teams of John Deere employees worked alongside the farmers, planting and harvesting rice while learning from the farmers’ hopes for the future. In return, our employees shared with the farmers their expertise on topics like financial literacy, business planning, and agronomic practices. With a mutual commitment to improving the lives of smallholder farmers, and a belief that a better world is possible, the partnership between the John Deere Foundation and Mercy Corps has grown.
Today, that partnership has an ambitious goal — equip 20,000 Indonesian rice farmers to increase their income by at least 28% — in three years.
The difference with Mercy Corps is that they provide assistance and bring in experts to show the way.”
‘We’re not afraid anymore’
Mercy Corps began by working with 245 farmers in Keke’s village and other villages in East Java and West Nusa Tenggara. This initial group of brave farmers, which includes Keke, were chosen because of their willingness to try new approaches and their eagerness to share what they learn with their neighbors.
In partnership with local farmer group unions as well as agricultural experts, Mercy Corps is teaching rice farmers about selecting the best quality seeds for planting, how to detect and treat diseases, and the importance of timing for planting, care and harvest.
In the first nine months, farmers say they have noticed a considerable difference.
“Before, I didn’t have any knowledge of farming,” Keke says. “I did my farming based on what people said. They told me, ‘use this’ or ‘use that.’ I did not know.”
Now Keke is working alongside Mercy Corps and technical advisors to practice the mantra of “right intervention at the right time” to tend to his crops.
“In the past, other groups dropped off medicine (crop protection chemicals) and seeds and left without training or support,” he says. “The difference with Mercy Corps is that they provide assistance and bring in experts to show the way.”
To date, Keke’s rice yield has improved by two-thirds. He is optimistic that by continuing to implement the best practices he has learned he can improve his yield even more. But he also wants to pass it on.
Keke is eager to share his knowledge with his father-in-law and his neighbors so they can grow more rice and earn extra income for their families. He even wants to open a business to provide nearby farmers with pesticides, crop protection chemicals and fertilizers.
“Perhaps for previous years, we were afraid because we often failed,” he says. “We are not afraid anymore, because we are already equipped with the knowledge.
“We can never succeed if we never try.”
Planting a Future
In 2014 and 2016, teams of John Deere employees visited West Java, Indonesia to work alongside rice farmers and learn about their daily challenges and hopes for the future. In return, the John Deere employees shared with the farmers their expertise on topics like financial literacy, business planning, and agronomic practices. Photos courtesy of Sam Ward for Mercy Corps.