Kristiana Mendonca (3rd from R) with family and Research Assistants Luis Pereira (2nd from R) and Armindo Moises (R)

The 450km Tour de Timor has taken cyclists through rice paddies in Baucau, corn fields in Viqueque, cassava plots in Manufahi, coffee plantations in Ermera, and wheat fields in Maubisse. Yes, wheat fields.

“There must be something very unusual in the climate of Timor to permit wheat being grown at so moderate an elevation,” Alfred Russell Wallace observed during his travels in East Timor almost 150 years ago. “The fact that potatoes and wheat of excellent quality are grown in abundance at from 3,000 to 3,500 feet elevation, shows what the climate and soil are capable of,” Wallace wrote in The Malay Archipelago.

Wheat and barley were first introduced to East Timor during Portuguese times. Today they continue to be grown by a small number of subsistence farmers, mainly in the highlands of Ainaro, Manufahi and Viqueque districts.

The Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries (MAF) Seeds of Life program is currently conducting replicated trials of 17 new wheat and barley varieties in three sites in Ainaro and Manufahi districts. This is the second year of trials, after a smaller trial of four varieties in Maubisse in 2008. From these trials Seeds of Life will select which varieties to trial on local farms in the future.

Kristiana Mendonca, 50, and her husband Alberto, are keen to participate in the on-farm demonstration trials (OFDTs). The Mendoncas grow wheat and barley in the fields surrounding their home in the suko of Aituto, near the town of Maubisse. Kristiana says that it is too windy to grow corn on the mountain slopes, and her family has planted wheat and barley on this land for as long as she can remember.

They grow the local varieties of titboa (wheat) and aisnata (barley) on approximately half a hectare of land, planting in April or May for harvest in August or September, and again in November for harvest in March.

“The biggest problem is lack of rain,” Kristiana explains. During good seasons when they have enough to spare, they will share their harvest with neighbouring families, giving two handfuls of wheat or barley to each family. She says they also sell to other farmers who come to their farm to buy seed, and also to the government. During poor seasons when they harvest less, they use the grain just to feed their own family, and to replant in the following season, storing the grain in sacks which they hang in their kitchen.

Wheat is a staple food crop for a small proportion of Timorese families. According to a 2006 World Food Program (WFP) report, only five percent of total calorie intake in East Timor comes from wheat, compared to 34% from rice and 29% from corn. Rather than making flour from the grain, farmers usually cook wheat and barley in a similar way to the staple corn dish batar dan. The grain is pounded to rice-size grit pieces and then boiled with green leafy vegetables and beans to be eaten as a thick porridge.

Kristiana's wheat field in Maubisse

The Mendoncas supplement their food needs by growing and selling coffee and beans, and raising and selling animals.  “We use the money to buy rice and sugar and salt and other everyday necessities,” Kristiana says. However they often run out of grain, and have to rely on bananas, potatoes and taro, which they also grow around their home, to feed their family of 10. January and February are the toughest months, when food is often scarce.

For this reason, Kristiana is keen to try new varieties of wheat and barley, which may deliver a higher yield than the local varieties. But she adds that she plans to grow any new varieties alongside the local varieties that she has farmed since she was a child.

When the Tour de Timor cyclists sped downhill past the Mendoncas’ farm this week they would have seen a blur of wheat almost ready for harvest, and a crowd of children lined up by the road, cheering on the riders. Kristiana’s hopes for her children are universal. “I want them to be able to finish school and have a good education,” she says, “but this depends on if we have enough money to support them”.  Through growing higher yielding varieties of wheat and barley the Mendoncas should be able to both improve their food security and increase the surplus harvest they can sell for extra income, helping them to support their children in the future.