In Indonesia, climate change takes a bite out of apple crops

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PASURUAN, INDONESIA (REUTERS) - As dark clouds gather in the morning sky, Indonesian apple farmer Ali Akhbar hurries to finish spraying pesticides onto his trees before yet another afternoon downpour.

It is officially the start of the dry season in East Java province, but non-stop rains have caused havoc for thousands of apple growers like Mr Akhbar again this year - upsetting the flowering season, damaging blossoms and shrinking harvests.

The unseasonable weather has also caused an increase in pests and diseases, forcing some growers to take out loans to keep up with the surging cost of pesticides to ensure years of work do not go to waste.

"It's so difficult now - the weather is unpredictable," Mr Akhbar, 49, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at Andonosari village in East Java, which is home to the country's largest apple orchards.

He used to spray pesticides on his crops once a week, but has to do it twice weekly now, and uses more potent chemicals.

After years of similarly unpredictable weather, disappointing harvests are barely enough to cover farmers' production costs, said Mr Akhbar.

Agriculture experts blame climate change for the prolonged rainy season and a rise in temperatures that pose a serious threat to Indonesian apple farming, a sector that once brought stable incomes for thousands of rural families.

Hotter and rainier

Apples are not native to Indonesia. The fruit is said to have been brought into the country by Dutch colonisers in 1930 and first planted in the Pasuruan regency, where Andonosari village is located.

Today, some of the largest apple-growing areas in the country of 270 million people include Batu, Malang and Pasuruan - all in East Java province which has a subtropical highland climate.

Apple plantations are also a huge draw for agro-tourism in these areas, with Indonesians flocking to the orchards to pick the fruit and enjoy the cooler air.

But from its heyday in the early 1990s, when the number of trees reached nearly 10 million, the sector has quickly declined. There were only about 2.4 million trees left by 2016, according to the latest official statistics.

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