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Fresh from the oven: A worker pulls tofu out of a kettle, ready for the market.
Steam rises from boiling cauldrons of soybeans as workers stoke the flames of wood-fires below. Chickens scratch in the ash-covered floor of this home tofu industry in Sukawati, Gianyar.
Workers’ children play while their parents pour liter after liter of the boiled, ground soy into cloths to drain before it sets into thick creamy sheets of tofu.
More than a dozen workers daily produce 40,000 squares of this protein rich food from 500 kilos of raw soybeans, all of it destined for the local market.
Tofu producer, 40 year old Ketut Murana, set up his home industry six years ago, driven into the business when his wife, a tofu vendor, repeatedly came home empty handed, unable to source stock.
“My wife bought tofu from others, but then because a lot of people were buying tofu, she couldn’t get any stock. The tofu was always sold out. So I had the idea of making our own tofu. I learned the process by trial and error. 200 kilos of soybeans were lost in the learning process, but only watching does not teach: I had to get in the kitchen to work it out and kept adjusting the machines,” says Ketut of this finicky food that requires boiling in the water runoff from salt production if it is to set.
The demand from the public for a cheap and healthy protein source can be seen in the growth of Ketut’s business.
Traditional: Workers process soy curd into tofu in Sukawati, Gianyar.“We started with just that one shed and now we have four. When we started we were using just 50 kilos of local soybeans, now we have four sheds and need 500 kilos of imported beans every day,” says Ketut who is concerned by the recent price hike in soybean, driven by the drought across the US that is destroying crops there. He stresses locally grown soybeans are better, but difficult to source.
“The price is now Rp 8,000 [84 US cents] per kilo [of imported soybeans], up from Rp 6,500. I have not put up my prices yet because I have stock for another two days. After that I will have to raise my selling price, but at most only by 10 percent, certainly not the 25 percent I have heard of. That makes tofu more expensive than meat and that is sad for customers,” says Ketut.
Hot and healthy: Women prepare tofu for a second boiling.This staple food producer fears too great a price hike for tofu will have a serious impact on his customers. “People here prefer meat, but it is too expensive to eat often, so if tofu is also expensive, for sure they will choose meat,” says Ketut.
Across the narrow river from Ketut’s home, many hectares are deep green with crops. “That is traditional style tobacco. Our old people chew it to strengthen their teeth. Farmers here don’t grow soybeans, they grow rice, chilies and tobacco. On one hectare a farmer can harvest 30 klongkon (traditional measurement) of tobacco and sell it for $400 per klongkon. That’s $12,000 per hectare, so it is a valuable crop and has always been grown here,” says Ketut.
Farmers planting soybeans can expect a yield of 600 kilos per hectare at between 45 and 80 cents per kilo - earnings of little over $400 per hectare, according to Ketut, who believes the time has come for the Government to step in to stabilize soybean prices, as it does with rice.
“The Government needs to stabilize soybean prices so people will want to plant the crop. They must subsidize farmers, but soybean seed is also expensive at 90 cents a kilo, and so that also needs subsidy,” says Ketut. “Here people like to eat tahu tempe. Kids cry for this at the market, so it would be very hard if we run out of soybeans,”
Central, provincial and local Governments are working together developing food security strategies, according to the Gianyar Department of Agriculture.
However targets do not necessarily guarantee outcomes. Officer with the department, I. Wayan Wiranata says Gianyar has a target from the Central Government of 5000 hectares under soybean this year, however just 700 hectares have been planted with the crop. He explains Gianyar is part of a “cluster” in Bali focusing on organically grown rice as its main crop under the P2PN (increase of national rice production program).
“Here, as in Badung and Tabanan, rice is the most vital crop with soybeans coming second. When there is enough water rice is the preferred crop, so many farmers here are planting three rice crops each year, instead of two rice plantings and then one of legumes,” says Wiranata, adding that his office can not force farmers to plant specific crops, regardless of targets.
In order: A woman racks up fresh tofu.
He adds that only a few farmers choose to plant soybeans “because rice is easier and the returns stable. The market is firm [for rice] but the soybean market fluctuates.”
The high end tobacco crop of Sukawati is not an option for most farmers says Wirinata, as soil and weather patterns differ across the region.
In Bali the main regions for soybeans are Jembrana and Klungkung, says Wiranata.
Also concerned by the steadily rising price of soybean is pedagang keliling es kedelai (mobile soy milk vendor) Mas Sunarto who traverses Gianyar’s towns on his motorbike laden with fresh soy milk.
“Sometimes I have to source imported soybeans, but local soybeans are much better as they thicken when boiled. They are not dried, but fresh. I boil these into soymilk at home, so this is pure soy water. It’s high in protein with very little fat, it’s a healthy drink,” says Sunarto who, when he can source soybeans, sells around 10 liters of the nutrient-rich milk alternative daily.
— Photos by JP/J.B.Djwan