Rice is arguably Bali’s most important crop and much of it is grown on picturesque terraced hillsides. Some of the most spectacular terraces are in the inland hills of eastern Bali. While staying in Tirta Gangga we took a guided hike through rice paddies seeing it in its various stages of growth and learning a lot about how it is grown.
(see slideshow below)
Rice requires plenty of water and we saw an extensive system of canals, ditches, diversion gates and other infrastructure needed to properly distribute and apportion the water that flows from the nearby mountains. Irrigation cooperatives, called subak, allot water and maintain the distribution system based on centuries old practice much like the acequia system in New Mexico. The canals we walked along were well maintained and over by Sidemen we saw workers installing new rock-lined waterways. A team of 8 or more men were digging ditches, breaking rocks with sledgehammers, preparing concrete and cementing the smaller rocks into walls to form permanent canals, all a part of the subak organization.
Flooding is only a part of the growing cycle where plants sit in water, at other times they are left to normal precipitation patterns and water is diverted elsewhere. It is possible to grow two to three crops per year on the same land and it was in all stages of development within the area we visited. Field preparation is done using human or animal labor and once soil is turned over in preparation for a new crop it is flooded for a month while seedlings are grown in beds nearby. Once the soil is prepared and seedlings are ready they are planted by hand and the field is flooded for some weeks. Later the fields are left to dry and the grass grows to maturity producing heads of the grain. It is harvested also by hand often gathered in attractive sheaves and later thrashed and left to dry, often on plastic on or along roadways.
There are a number of rice cultivars and there is ongoing research to improve their characteristics. Traditional varieties are still grown and indeed prized for their flavor and color but most of the rice is white rice. Because there is little opportunity to expand arable land, the major focus has been on improving yields. In its early years the so called “green revolution” relied on increased use of fertilizer and pesticides but through sustained efforts promoted mainly by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) a lengthy and complex breeding effort has produced varieties referred to as “green super rice”. Varieties from throughout the rice growing regions of the world have been meticulously selected and bred using standard breeding methods to produce new cultivars that have much increased yields while being more tolerant of drought, flooding and pests while also requiring less fertilizer and chemical applications. Unlike the genetic modification we are familiar with, lead by big corporations, these varieties are obtained from interbreeding normal rices and not by gene insertion to produce patentable characteristics such as herbicide and insect resistance.
The super rice we saw had much shorter stems and much fuller heads than traditional varieties growing nearby. In addition to much increased yields we were told these super varieties can produce three crops instead of the normal two for older kinds. In the absence of abundant water in many areas, only one crop can be grown and other crops such as beans, peanuts and tapioca are grown at other times. Plants growing along terrace walls that we would call weeds were also harvested for livestock feed. People were tending the rice pulling weeds which were then placed in the irrigation ditch to rinse them and were fed to pigs. Our guide continually reached out at the elephant grass to capture grasshoppers that he later gave as a treat to his fighting cocks when we visited his home.
The rise in tourism (80% of Bali’s income is from tourism) has caused serious social upheaval in rice growing areas because as land is purchased for development the farmer gets a large one-time payment which is quickly spent leaving the farmer without land for future income. In addition the resorts and villas, that we so enjoy, use plenty of water and produce plenty of waste water that works against agricultural sustainability.