August 13, 2008

Surono Danu: Making rice work harder for farmers

-- Oyos Saroso H.N., The Jakarta Post, Bandarlampung

AS the sun sank in the west, Surono relaxed in a plastic chair on the porch of his home and chatted with friends.

SURONO DANU (JP/Oyos Saroso H.N.)

His modest home in Nambah Dadi village, Terbanggi Besar district, Central Lampung, was once used as a "laboratory" where Surono conducted his research on local rice, which led to the birth of two new rice varieties -- Sertani-1 and Emespe, or MSP-1.

Surono, a member of the Lampung chapter of the Indonesian Farmers Union (Sertani), discovered that the Sertani-1 variety had a higher yield than other rice varieties and required a shorter growing period. The variety also requires less fertilizer and water and is more resistant to plant diseases.

Sertani-1 is now widely used across Indonesia: Many farmers have planted the seeds and enjoyed the harvest. Sertani, which employs Surono, has also enjoyed the profits as many farmers continue to order the rice variety he invented.

But Surono's lifestyle and financial conditions remain the same: The 50-year-old father of five still leads a simple life in a modest house and talks about things as they are. A former civil servant, he once turned down an offer to teach at a university in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and it is no surprise many of his colleagues consider him somewhat eccentric.

Surono has dedicated his life to assisting farmers: He has been conducting research since 1985 and says he will never stop working for farmers. He is also grateful to the farmers that have helped him with his research.

"The ones who have helped me a lot are farmers who did not graduate from elementary school ... many are illiterate. I like to mingle with them because they are more honest, disciplined ... they do not cheat," he said.

"If I ask them, 'please plant these seeds', they will plant them, and paddy plants will grow."

Surono said being a paddy researcher was a tough job that required meticulousness, persistence and passion for the work. To conduct his work, Surono wakes at 2 a.m. -- when most people are asleep -- to observe the pollination process of paddy stalks.

"I must get up early, before the natural pollination process occurs," he said.

He then opens the paddy pollen pods for the pollination process -- a delicate task, he said, because great care is required to prevent any damage to the plant.

"This Rp 7,500 (less than US$1) tool," he said, holding up a small claw-lie tool that he uses to open pollen pods, "is my trusty instrument."

Given the results of his research, people might assume Surono works in a sophisticated laboratory with a sophisticated -- and complete -- set of equipment. But Surono, who does not even own a plot of land, plants the seeds in pots kept in the small yard of his family home. No wonder, then, it took him 22 years to produce the excellent Sertani-1 variety.

Surono said that besides helping farmers, he has also worked on the pollination process in protest against the government, which recently increased imports of hybrid rice seeds.

"I work hard to develop high-yielding varieties also because I worry about the disappearance of many local rice varieties," he said.

"If we can produce our local high-yielding rice seeds at a low cost and in an efficient way, why should we import them?" he said.

But he has never thought about the personal rewards of his research.

"My job is to help the farmers. I won't stop working until Indonesian farmers are prosperous. I don't want to register my findings at the patent office," he said.

In 1999, Surono successfully modified rice seeds and produced a variety that could be harvested in 95 days.

"I called it Emespe-1 (MSP-1). It stands for Mari Sejahterakan Petani (let's make farmers prosperous). The seeds of the Emespe variety have been planted in Bogor," he said.

Surono also provides a free consultation service for farmers from various parts of the country.

"Farmers from outside Lampung who seek advice from me are usually rich; they have cell phones and inspire farmers in their area. They come from almost every part of Indonesia."

As a researcher, Surono has one simple hope: That the government will pay more attention to Indonesian researchers so they can develop better crop varieties that will help farmers.

Source: The Jakarta Post, Mon, 07/21/2008

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