The Family’s Garden is a Rice Plantation

Somehow I made it to adulthood and had no idea how rice made it to my plate. Even sadder is that until now, I don’t think I cared. I only consumed it without any thought about the process.

When our group of teachers first arrived in Jakarta, we were taken to the Taman Mini Indonesian Museum where Indonesian life was explained via miniature models. The climate and landscape of the country has made rice an ideal crop for the area. According to our tour guide, machinery changed the rice industry for Indonesia, and not in a good way. Traditionally, thousands of hectares of rice plantations were harvested by hand. Workers would spend majority of their day bent over as they chopped off the top of endless rows of the crop. The tools were simple and took a toll on the workers’ hands.

Today, many large foreign-owned companies control the plantations. They use machines to grow and harvest the rice. It requires less workers and as a result, thousands of Indonesians are jobless or have had to search for work elsewhere. Those who have kept their plantations are earning less for their rice because it takes them longer to work the fields by hand. They harvest less rice in the same amount of time it takes the machines. At the end of the day, they earn less money for their rice. Although nearly every acre of undeveloped land is covered by rice paddies, Indonesia still imports rice to help feed its 237 million inhabitants.

When we stayed with our host family in one of the villages in Ogan Ilir, my host sister, Regita, offered to show us their family ‘garden.’ She led us down a narrow path to a rice plantation that was lined with rubber trees. “This is my family garden,” she said, although her English is limited.

The mother showed us the strings they have tied above the rows. They hang bells and shirts on the strings and shake them periodically to scare the birds away. Even after I saw the paddy with my own eyes, I did not develop a full understanding of how the rice made it to my plate. All I saw were little green plants that looked to me like wheat at the top and scallions at the bottom.

On the morning of our last day in the village, the mother and father spreaded out a large blue tarp on the front lawn. They poured three large bags of small, brown, stick-like things onto the tarp.

The father used a handmade tool resembling a push-broom to spread the brown things out on the tarp.

Regita explained that it was the rice. It needed to set out in the sun to dry out.

The father, who spoke no English, used his foot to agitate the brown shaft and little white grains emerged. It was the rice! The father then picked up a handful of the brown things, said something in Indonesian, and then showed us the rice. Then, the mother came out of the house with a small bag of rice they purchased the night before. In essence, they were showing us the rice before harvest, after harvest, and after it had been processed.

Who separates the grain from the husk I asked? Regita typed in the question into her Indonesian-English translator and showed us the answer: The Factory.

The father then spoke to us in Indonesian using an assortment of hand gestures to help us understand. “Do we grow rice in Mississippi or New York?” was what he was asking. ” No,” we sadly replied. “No,” I thought to myself…we only consume it… which further adds to the profits of the large corporations.

At that moment,I realized I play a teeny tiny role in the process that drove down the rice prices for farmers such as him who are only trying to provide food on the table for his family….and a couple of American teachers.

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