Money Does Grow on Trees
Dipolah Seng & Wayan Budianta
When the ground starts to shake from falling durian, it’s music to the ears of farmers in the village of Belatung in Bali’s southern Tabanan district.
For the farmers who cultivate the trees that produce the prehistoric-looking, cannonball-sized fruit, falling durians mean good fortune and a lot of cash.
Durian is one of most sought-after fruits in Indonesia. Those with a taste for the pungent, fleshy treasure diligently search it out whenever it is in season. And they are willing to pay up big for their bounty.
In a single season, the lucky owner of a productive durian orchard can make enough cash to buy a new motorcycle or stock up on much-needed household items.
In Belatung, situated at an altitude of 800 meters, durians grow with wild fecundity. Families in the village own up to 20 durian trees each on their land.
When the durians start to fall, crashes and thumps can be heard all through the night from anywhere in the village.
“Happily, nobody takes his neighbors’ durians, as every family has plenty of their own,’’ joked Wayan Sumantra, 57, a resident of Belatung.
The small village of around 50 families is well known in Bali as the tourist island’s center of durian cultivation.
Other towns in Bali known for their durian include Mangesta, Apuan, Pacung and Penebel. The productive area forms a wide swath running from east to west at the foot of Mount Batukaru.
The trees were planted around 15 years ago by residents. Durian trees have now supplanted many of the wild trees growing in the forest in the area.
“We have the original Mount Batukaru durian — and I’m not talking about the large, wild type with very thick skin and only small sections of fruit,” Wayan said.
“Our hybrid prized durian isn’t of the well-known Bangkok or Monthong variety; it stems from a marriage of several varieties of durian. The seed comes from the original, or asli , durian. A stem cutting was taken from around the region of Apuan, which was then crossed with durians from neighboring Pacung.”
The result yielded a smallish fruit no larger than a child’s toy ball, with a thin outer skin. The seeds are about the size of an adult’s thumb and the flesh inside the fruit is thick, sticky, sweet and creamy — everything a durian-lover could ask for.
Each tree that is more than 10 years old can yield more than 200 durians a season, earning owners around Rp 2 million ($240) per tree, depending on offers from wholesalers. With around 20 trees each, farmers can make up to Rp 40 million in a single season.
The fruit’s annual season falls between September and February. After the harvest, the leaves wither and the trees won’t flower again until August.
Belatung’s hybrid durians are in such high demand that they are nearly impossible to buy in the village during harvest time, as they are quickly snapped up by wholesalers as soon as the trees begin to flower.
For buyers coming in late, it is still possible to find leftover fruit for sale after the season has gotten into full swing. Harvested from deep in the forest, far from the village, the leftover fruit is of lesser quality and can be bought for around Rp 5,000 apiece, compared to the better fruit that sells for Rp 10,000 to Rp 20,000, depending on size.
Quality fruit can fetch even steeper prices in Bali’s Batu Kandik and Badung markets, or at roadside stalls along Jalan Gatot Subroto in the island’s capital, Denpasar. With abundant profits to be made, it’s no wonder that durian vendors are appearing in ever greater numbers.
Eager buyers go from village to village with their special baskets, visiting each farmer who knows where to get durian from the forest.
These buyers can score a basket of 20 durians for less than Rp 100,000. They are then able to sell the durians for Rp 150,000 to buyers from the city.
All this money can be made early in the season, before the most delicious durians have even fallen from the tree
In the high season, Belatung is inundated with durian business-folk who almost seem to fall out of the trees like the durians themselves, and congregate on every street corner. The sellers spread out their durian with no particular care, stacking them on the bare ground.
Each fruit costs no more than Rp 10,000 and can be enjoyed by buyers on the spot. Sundays usually bring durian fans from the cities, who sometimes buy up to five fruits at a time to take home.
Many people make the drive up to the region just to get their hands on some fresh durians.
As Selvi from Nusa Dua put it, “Where else can a local buy a durian as big as a motorcycle helmet for only Rp 10,000?”
“Everyone knows that in Denpasar, you’ll pay three times as much, but if you eat your durian at the place where it’s grown, it will be that much more delicious,” she added.
With that kind of devotion, durian sellers can rest assured their sales are going to hit the ground running.