Local successfully alters plants’ genetic makeup

He lives in a makeshift shelter surrounded by neat rows of fresh garden produce that he cultivates a few metres from the main north coast road, along Madang-Bogia Highway.

His beautiful garden fascinates travelers along that section of the road at Karkum village, in Sumgilbar LLG of Sumkar district in Madang.

Robert Batalo is amazingly full of smiles and a strong-willed person.

Although Batalo has never been to any agriculture school, he has successfully altered crops through his own style of breeding practices.

He has changed the genetic make-up of plants to develop crops with more beneficial characteristics. All these were done in the name of self-sufficiency, which only a handful of people in rural pockets of PNG master.

Batalo originally comes from Bagulum village in Mumeng LLG of Bulolo district, Morobe province. However, he has spent most of his adult life with his wife Dawas, children and grandchildren at Karkum, a sleepy coastal village along NCR.

He has fitted himself nicely with the local community and is proud of what he is doing to sustain his family’s living, which comes exclusively from agriculture.

Batalo first began planting rice in 2009 after watching a TV documentary on cereal during a visit to his daughter Angela in Lae. He was so inspired by this crop that he wasted no time in obtaining seeds from the National Agriculture Research Institute in Lae, which he brought home and planted on a two hectare piece of land at Karkum.

After over four months, Batalo harvested over sixty kilograms of grain. After milling, his harvest fetched him 40 kilograms of rice, which he enjoyed with his family.

After the rice harvest, Batalo decided to plant legumes. He started off by planting peanuts, using his own ideas in nitrogen fixation through crop rotation method.

During his next trip to Morobe, Batalo was given an African yam sucker from his daughter’s colleague in Finshhafen.

Batalo cut the sucker into several pieces and made a nursery. Today, he has over 50 mounds of African yams planted neatly in rows in his block.

Interestingly, Batalo’s own domestication of plants has, over the years, increased yield, improved disease resistance and drought tolerance, and improved the taste and nutritional value of crop plants.

Furthermore, his careful selection and breeding has had enormous effect on the characteristics of crop plants he had cultivated.

Batalo brought in taro from Lae to plant at Karkum on the sandy soil, which he nurtured with other produce such as sweet potato and over one thousand four hundred pineapples. 

He even went to the extreme of cultivating a plot of round cabbages which he obtained from the highlands, and the cabbages are growing so well.

“I always want to prove that crops from other places can grow in my garden so I just collect any new crops to try out,” he said.

At the edges of the garden, he planted pawpaws and bananas, all in neat rows.

Recently, the Member for Sumkar, Ken Fairweather, stopped by during his electoral trips along NCR and bought pawpaws from Batalo’s maket haus near his garden.

His effort has been recognised by the Madang Provincial Department of Agriculture officers, and rice experts from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, who nominated Batalo as a model farmer in the area.

He was even invited to speak on rice at the local NBC Radio station a couple of times to encourage and motivate farmers to grow rice and be self-sufficient.

“I have more self-confidence,” Batalo says.

“The communication within my family is very open now. I started sharing everything, my thoughts, my doubts and we discuss everything, including economic issues. This is an important example for our kids.

“My wife knows much more about the difficulties I’m facing in my day-to-day agricultural activity now. When I feel my family very close to me, I feel supported.

“Rice cultivation has greatly changed my way of thinking, I see others in a different way. I think when we improve ourselves, we are improving the whole society.

“Growing rice is one of the best things that happened in my life,” Batalo states.

(Robert Batalo in his rice plot)

James Kila