Part 2: Stories from My Dad’s Plantation

In my first article, I told you about my Dad’s experience as an oil palm farmer in managing relationship with his laborers, facing elephants, orangutans and other wild and pest animals. This time, I would like to share how Dad and his workers manage the plants in his farm.

Dad is intercropping oil palm and Areca tress

Intercropping is rooted in the palm fields

Back to the story of Sunar and Isah, the couple who takes care Dad’s farm. I see Isah as a smart and dilligent worker’s wife. She initiated to plant some jengol trees ( Archidendron pauciflorum), planted vegetables between palm trees, and breed chicken as additional income for their family.

Isah might not be aware that she was actually applying a polyculture within the palm field. This farming technique is contrary to the anti-palm oil claim that palm fields are monoculture. There is nothing more amazing to see jengkol trees grow among the oil palm trees. The trees can grow big and lush because they are also enjoying the fertilizers given to the palm trees. Among the jengkol and oil palm trees, there is a large amount of ant colonies. They help to pollinate the flowers around this area. The ants’ eggs are favourite of carnivore birds like magpies. That is why palm fields are habitats for many kinds of birds. 

As I took a walk in other small farmers’ fields, I could see that they spare some muddy fields to raise cows and bulls. Dad told me that oil palm trees could not be planted on wetlands. They will fail to bear fruits. The big corporations with their big budget could dry the land by building canals. Small farmers could not afford to do that. They will prefer to raise fish or other animals that live in the mud or water. 

We also had tried raising crickets as a business. Having unlimited supply of leaves from grass or oil palm, the crickets can grow big within weeks and be ready to be harvested. These crickets are commonly used as complimentary food source for ornamental fish and bird. In some advanced areas, I read that this eating insects such as crickets and grasshoppers have becoming a lifestyle because they provide efficient protein sources, said that much better than beef or chicken.   

In Meranti, which is located several hundred kilometres away from Dad’s farm, I once heard that oil palm and sago are combined to introduce poly culture to palm oil farmers. Meranti is well known for its sago, which most of the products are developed and sold in Riau where they made sago noodle. Once I visited a cafe that sells sago noodle in Kandis. It tasted amazing. Much softer than wheat noodle.

Some varieties of fern grown on our oil palm trees are edible.

Without complicated and thorough study, the spirit to combine various plants or intercropping or poly culture is actually applied as an instinct by farmers in palm oil producing countries. They need to manage the livestock while the oil palm trees have not been productive yet. They will plant vegetable or farm livestock with short harvest period. What I saw, this habit remains up until their oil palm trees are 25 – 30 years old and stop producing. 

Back to the story of Sunar dan Isah. They have no higher education in farming. The oil palm gives a living for this family, bearing two children and providing them with sufficient food and education, enable them to live in a house with ceramic floors and electricity. We bought their chicken eggs, vegetables, including sweet potato shoots and ferns that live among the palm leaves. The most special of all is jengkol. Though this fruit is smelly and disliked by many, its price can spike as high as beef price. Isah’s jengkol which a name called by my mother.

Jengkol trees also grown on our plantation. The price of Jengkol fruit could spike as high as beef price.