Fri, 15 Sep 2000

Farmers struggle to bring back citrus glory

By Kartika Bagus C

KARANGANYAR, Central Java (JP): Those visiting the scenic Tawangmangu resort in the 1980s would have sweet recollections of the famous local citrus.

In the past, it would be incomplete for people frequenting Tawangmangu to return home without the Tawangmangu citrus as oleh-oleh (gifts) for friends and relatives.

The Tawangmangu oranges were highly priced for its sweetness and large size.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Tawangmangu sub district was the main jeruk keprok citrus producer in Indonesia. Plantations covered thousands of hectares in Kemuning, Tawangmangu and Kemuning villages.

In those years, the oranges were the pride of the Karanganyar regency because it contributed significantly to the local administration's coffers. Each kilo could then fetch Rp 8,000.

"1984 was our heyday, when the price of oranges rose to Rp 8,000 per kilogram. We could pick 20 quintals (2,000 kilograms) in each harvest from a 2,500-square meter plot of land," said Suwarni, 36, a farmer from Karangsari village.

Most farmers in Karanganyar enjoyed the sweet fruit of their toil in those good old days. Another farmer, Djuwarno, 57, said he managed to send all his four children to college thanks to the good orange sales. He recalled that orange was the best selling cash crop.

Why has the heyday gone? The Tawangmangu oranges largely became history after a virus epidemic destroyed the priceless trees in the late 1980s. Agriculture experts called the virus CPDV (citrus phlegm degeneration virus). The plague destroyed orange trees throughout Karanganyar.

The virulent virus affected the leaves and roots of the trees. The infected trees would wilt in less than two weeks, then die. This airborne virus spread quickly.

The virus plagued the orange trees for three consecutive years. Efforts to eradicate the virus ended in vain because it had affected a vast area concurrently. Besides, the virus was relatively unknown and the pesticides available were not effective.

Few trees survived the calamity, especially those in farmers' gardens. Farmers then began to replace the orange trees with other cash crops such as paddy and vegetables.

Orange farmers were traumatized by the virus epidemic. For years they refused to plant oranges.

But the virus was not the only reason for the vanishing Tawangmangu oranges. The development of recreational facilities such as motels and inns that ate away agricultural land, were also to blame.

Some farmers built recreational facilities such as inns on their land because it appeared more profitable than planting citrus. Others sold their properties for economic reasons.

Has the Tawangmangu citrus completely become something of the past?

"No, it's not extinct yet. Each family still has one or two citrus trees but they do not produce as much or good quality fruits as before. They now costs only Rp 2,000 per kilo," says Suwarni.

In fact people in Tawangmangu are longing for the day when orange trees will once again be their golden goose.

"We are trying to plant them again on a large scale," says Djuwarno, a farmer.

Apparently Djuwarno is not the only one who is dreaming of replanting the famous citrus. Farmers who once lived a prosperous life, thanks to the plant, share the same dream.

Their wish has received positive response from the Karanganyar agriculture office, which has begun a seedling project for 150 hectares of land earmarked for citrus plantations.

"We have been trying to restore the land by burning down the remains of citrus trees that had been infected by the virus," says Indarto, an official at the agriculture office.

The government's efforts have gained popular support. The project would not only be good for farmers but would also make Karanganyar regency greener.