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Agrometeorological Learning of Farmers through Measuring Rainfall and Observing Fields and Crops

Last modified November 10, 2010 10:57

Farmers are known as good observers of their own fields and habitats. Their ways of knowing and the body of their local knowledge is called ilmu titèn (the ways of carrying out careful and detailed observations, and the results that are memorable) by the Javanese farmers in Gunungkidul, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. They were recently questioning the indicators for decision making they traditionally referred to at the time they used to start planting according to their local cosmology (pranata mangsa). These indicators appeared no longer adequate in their present form. From their training in a Climate Field School (CFS), they knew that climate change was influencing their habitat.

Yunita T. Winarto, Kees Stigter, Esti Anantasari, Hestu Prahara and Kristyanto



Farmers are known as good observers of their own fields and habitats. Their ways of knowing and the body of their local knowledge is called ilmu titèn (the ways of carrying out careful and detailed observations, and the results that are memorable) by the Javanese farmers in Gunungkidul, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. They were recently questioning the indicators for decision making they traditionally referred to at the time they used to start planting according to their local cosmology (pranata mangsa). These indicators appeared no longer adequate in their present form. From their training in a Climate Field School (CFS), they knew that climate change was influencing their habitat.


Agrometeorological Learning in Gunungkidul, Yogyakarta

A group of researchers (anthropology and other disciplines, of the Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta) doing their ethnographic fieldwork and a visiting agrometeorologist recommended these farmers to continue their detailed observations, for a better understanding of the changes in their habitat. Yet, no reliable measurements of rainfall, of which the basics were taught in the CFS, were carried out. We therefore ordered ten farmer rain gauges with engraved calibrated scales from the USA for farmers’ daily rainfall measurements and assisted the farmers in where and how to mount the rain gauge, how to meaure the rainfall, and what to observe in their fields related to these measurements. That was the beginning of a collaborative research between farmers and scholars coming from very different disciplinary backgrounds.


After deciding on 10 points-of-observation based on areal representation, variations in soil conditions, field elevations and cropping patterns, and after reaching consensus of when and how to observe what and by whom, the daily rainfall measurements and field observations began in early November 2008 and lasted for 8 months, till June 2009. Throughout that period, continuous intersubjective reflection and evaluation took place between the two parties, farmers and scholars. Going to the field many times throughout the planting season is common for farmers. However, going every morning to the field at a particular time and taking note of what they measure and observe were new habits to get used to. Being consistent in doing that needed additional efforts and discipline that initially was not always there. Neither were all of them happy to carry out the observations without any compensation for their time and gasoline (for using motorbikes).


Bringing notes and pens to the fields and taking notes while observing were also a new practice. We discovered that not all of them did their note taking immediately after measuring the rainfall and observing the fields. They relied on their memories as they were used to and did the writing at home. Filling in the data-sheets we prepared was another new task to master. For us, preparing the data-sheets so as to enable the farmers to write down their findings in a simple way was also a new challenge. Based on a continuous evaluation and critical comments by farmers themselves, we improved several times the sheet’s lay-out, spacing, and items to observe. For the anthroplogy students it was also the first experience of processing rainfall data into graphics and agroecosystem observations into stories and matrixes, so as to be ready for the agrometeorologist to interpret them.


Two way learning

It was fortunate that, as anthropologists doing ethnographic fieldwork, we could accompany the farmers every day, in rotation, while also keeping track of the way they were practicing their measurements and observations. There was a direct and intense daily dialogue between the two parties on constraints and questions related to their monitoring, their ways of taking notes, and their findings. Both parties learned from it.. Soon we noticed farmers’ enthusiasm when they could relate the rainfall events to the numerics of the water trapped in the rain gauge. Furthermore, by also observing fields and crops at the time they measured the rainfall, they were also able to directly see the relationships between rainfall (in numerics and as events), visible soil moisture and soil surface water conditions and the growth of crops. Gradually, their local taxonomy of rain in words was enriched by incorporating numerics for each classification of rain while our quantitative approach was enriched by characteristics and impacts of rains as locally determined (Table 1).

Table 1. Rainfall classification in farmer lexicon and rain gauge numerics


Categories of rain in local terms

Rain characteristics

Impacts on soil

Equivalent in numbers


Udan kremun

Small rain, very soft, short duration

No trails on the soil

Can’t be measured

(0 mm)


Udan thletik

Fast small rain, lasts only a minute

No trails on the soil

Can’t be measured (0 mm)


Udan gerimis

No sound of the rain, can be felt by hands, long duration

No trails on the soil in short duration of rain. Drops on the crops in long duration of rain.

0.5—5 mm (depends on rain duration).


Udan klithak-klithik

  1. Udan klithak-klithik sedèlo

  2. Udan klithak-klithik suwé

Small rain with the sound as: “thik-thik” on the roof. Some farmers categorize this rain similar to no. 3.

  1. Short duration

  2. Long duration

Some trails on the soil: the soil becomes wet in both the short- and the long-duration of rain, but no standing water in the field.

  1. 1—3 mm.

  2. 3—5 mm.


Udan pral-pril

Small rain in April which does not fall every day, only once in a while either in short- or long-duration. Sound on the roof.

Simlar trails to no. 4 (soil becomes wet, but no standing water in the field)

1—5 mm or

5—10 mm.


Udan ora deres nanging kerep (not heavy but frequent-intense)

Not heavy, but noisy on the roof with long-duration of rain.

Another term: “udané awèt” (persisting rain)

On top of “red-soil”: the soil becomes very wet.

On top of “heavy-black soil”: some standing water on the soil.

<30 mm.


Udan deres bres

Heavy rain, very noisy on the roof, harder than no. 4, but usually does not persist in a long-duration of rain.

The soil becomes very wet, sticky, and leaves holes when people step on it.

>30 mm.


Udan bar-ber (very heavy rain) and banjir in very heavy-intense rain which floods the field.

Heavy rain in September, October, November, December; high frequency and intensity, long duration.

If the rain lasts for one day, there will be standing water in the field, especially on heavy black soil. In the absence of drainage, the field becomes flooded.

>70 mm.

(in 2008/09, up to >100 mm)

Their and our learning did not stop there. When the dry season of 2009 had actually started they experienced continuous rainfall up to June 2009, an unusual phenomenon. Without any information officially provided to the farmers by state agencies that 2008/09 was a La-Niña year, the farmers were not ready to modify any strategies to survive better in such a condition. Several crops grown in a multiple cropping strategy in a dry rain-fed ecosystem, such as tobacco, chili, and a newly introduced bean called koro, were damaged. Such was their learning experience resulting from a combination of present unexpected weather conditions, precise knowledge of rainfall numerics, and the direct impacts of related events on plants and fields, while also referring to their traditional knowledge. As farmers themselves indicated, with what they learned they would now be able to anticipate better any similar future weather condition, provided they would be officially informed through reliable climate forecasting.


Agrometeorology and water management

The regular visits by the agrometeorologist were used to present, explain and discuss the graphics of rainfall distribution at the 10 points-of-observation over time and their relation with the agroecosystem data collected by farmers. Farmers were also able to use those opportunities to raise questions on puzzling phenomena confusing them.

Identifying vulnerability problems and discussing possible solutions under their conditions were also part of the agenda. Flooding in heavy rains and lack of water in long droughts were identified as situations with the highest vulnerability for these farmers in dry rain-fed ecosystems where neither drainage nor water impoundment in the fields were common. Unfortunately, the scholars’ suggestions to collectively build drainage and storage ponds during heavy rains were not successfully followed by any collective action so far. Building drainage and ponds would be a new socio-cultural institution involving large areas of fields criss-crossing the administrative boundaries. Without any support from and action by local authorities, the farmers felt helpless. However, reinterpretation of their local cosmology for these new and still changing conditions also appeared far fetched.


Agrometeorological Learning in Indramayu, West Java

Based on the experience in Gunungkidul, Yogyakarta, the anthropologists approached the farmers in Indramayu, West Java, in March 2009 where the first Climate Field School had been introduced in 2003. Responses by farmers’ representatives of the Indonesian Integrated Pest Management Farmers’ Alliance of Indramayu Regency led to the establishment of a 50 points-of-observation network representing diverse ecosystems spread from the west to the east and from the north to the south of Indramayu regency. We agreed to develop a 3-years collaborative programme consisting of farmers’ rainfall measurements, using locally constructed cylindrical rain gauges, and agroecosystem obervations followed by a Climate Field School based on farmers’ highest vulnerabilities to be detemined during that period. The set-up was similar to the one in Gunungkidul. However, due to the larger number of farmers and points-of-observation, a more complex organization had to be developed by farmers themselves.


Unfortunately, due to more complicated socio-cultural problems in comparison to Gunungkidul and the external funding involved, the collaborative research by both parties was terminated after only 4 months of farmers’ rainfall meausrements. However, in that short period of observations, at the beginning of an El-Niño period in 2009/10, farmers learned much from the severe drought that delayed their planting season. They applied some preparedness strategies such as practicing dry-nursery instead of wet-nursery seedbeds, selecting rice varieties with more suitable lenghts of their growing season and building ground-water ponds, which all proved to be beneficial.


Constraints in sustaining collaborative learning

A collaborative program focusing on learning about agrometeorological phenomena in farmers’ habitat for a longer period is different from a short-term top-down project involving some money to spend by state agents or other parties. Sustaining a collaboration with farmers in carrying out detailed observations for a relatively long period, involving large numbers of farmers in a learning context, is not simple. The following are some constraining factors we experienced in both places, with more complex problems in Indramayu than in Gunungkidul:

  • For farmers such programmes are “projects”. Accordingly, our activities in introducing new ways of learning were also perceived as a “project”, usually involving considerable funding. In such a perspective, farmers expected money to compensate their time and efforts in carrying out the observations. The large number of farmers in Indramayu meant that we needed an excessive amount of money to compensate individual farmers, their activities, equipment and infrastructure (rain gauges, daily observations, transportation costs, farmers’ meetings and meals, data processing and stationaries). Given the difficulties in obtaining reliable data in Indramayu, such external funding could not be defended very long.

  • Some farmers had been trained in various Farmer Field Schools. In Indramayu some had also developed farmers’ experiments through what they called “Farmers’ Science”. However, using to a certain extent standardized and systematized procedures in measurements, observations and note taking, aiming at sufficiently reliable data for their own benefit as well as other parties’ needs, became no major concern of the local elites and leaders of these farmers.


  • The case in Indramayu reveals that problems start when these local elites and leaders appear after all to have ideas, perspectives, and interests which are not sufficiently in line with the scholars’ objectives and responsibilities in producing data, understanding and agrometeorological services. Farmers became confused now not only by climate change but also by differences in proposed approaches.


  • Local norms and values based on hierarchy in their cultures could be a hindrance in the ongoing negotiations between scholars and farmers as the parties involved. In a Javanese culture such as in Gunungkidul, sustaining a harmonious relationship, solidarity and unity as community members is highly valued, despite existing disagreements and contestations. Bad personal relations between leaders from both parties may negatively influence decision making, even if a majority of farmers does feel differently.


Yunita T. Winarto. Academy Professorship Indonesia (API) in Social Sciences and Humanities and Professor in Anthropology, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Indonesia, Kampus UI, Depok 16424, Indonesia. E-mail:


Kees Stigter. Visiting Professor, Agromet Vision, Poncogati, Block Taman, RT8/RW11, Kec. Curadami, Bondowoso 68251 (or P.O. Box 16, 68208 Bondowoso), Indonesia. E-mail:


Esti Anantasari, Hestu Prahara and Kristyanto. Graduate students and research assistants of Professor Winarto in the API-program on climate change (address as above). E-mails:;;



  1. Stigter, C.J., Zheng Dawei, Onyewotu, L.O.Z., Mei Xurong, 2005. Using traditional methods and indigenous technologies for coping with climate variability. Climate Change 70:255-271
  2. Stigter, Kees, 2008. Coping with Climate Risks in Agriculture Needs Farmer Oriented Research and Extension Policies. Scientia Agricola (Piracicaba, Brazil), 65 (special issue) [online]: pp. 108-115.
  3. Stigter, Kees, Yunita T. Winarto and Tanya Stathers, 2009. Rainfall Measurements by Farmers in their Fields. INSAM, under “Accounts of operational agrometeorology” of 2 November.
  4. Winarto, Yunita T., Kees Stigter, Esti Anantasari and Siti Nur Hidayah, 2008. Climate Field Schools in Indonesia: Improving “Response Farming” to Climate Change. LEISA Magazine 24(4):16-18.
  5. Winarto, Yunita T., 2010. Climate and Culture: Changes, Lessons, and Challenges. Paper presented in the Award Ceremony and Scientific Paper Presentation for the First Academy Professor in Social Sciences and Humanities at Universitas Indonesia. Depok, 4 March.
  6. Winarto, Yunita T., Hestu Prahara, Esti Anantasari and Kristiyanto, with comments by Kees Stigter, 2010. Rural Response to Climate Change: Rainfall Measurements by Farmers in Java. Paper presented in the International Seminar and Workshop on: “Learning from Climate Change and its Consequences: The Role of Scientists and Entrepreneurs”. Depok: Universitas Indonesia, 4-5 May.

[A substantially shorter, partly rewritten and journal edited version of this paper will appear under the title “We’ll continue with our observations”: Agro-meteorological studies in Indonesia. In: Farming Matters (formerly LEISA Magazine), 26 (4), December 2010.]


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