by Ibu Kat
In an era when farmer’s kids can’t wait to put that traditional low-status occupation behind them, an interesting cross section of Indonesians are flouting cultural norms to pick up a shovel. Leading up to the Ubud Food Festival which celebrates the culinary bounty of the archipelago, I talked to a few non-traditional farmers about their career choices.
Har was born in Central Java. His mother was widowed at 17 with two children and the landless family was very, very poor. As a kid, Har used to daydream about the treat of unaffordable instant noodles instead of the endless cassava that was the family’s staple diet. “Since I was a child I had a big dream… I wanted to have my own business doing something that would help my family and other people,” Har told me. “I had many different jobs but wasn’t happy. Then in 2007 I heard that a Balinese was looking for workers on an organic farm.”
These days Har farms some leased land three kilometres up Jalan Sri Widari in Ubud where he and his workers produce a wide variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs for a clientele of about 50 people. But can it be profitable? I wondered. Har grinned. “This is the best business in the world. Farmland is disappearing under development, and there are fewer farmers growing food while there’s an increasing demand for healthy produce. And these days, the internet makes marketing easy. We sell everything we can grow.”
Chakra and Gede, both Balinese farmers’ sons who initially turned their backs on farming, returned to the land about a decade ago and are both dedicated to sustainable agriculture. Gede runs a thriving business from his farm in Baturiti and Chakra established the Tri Hita Karena Foundation and coordinates farmers for Sawah Bali.
What motivates modern, educated Indonesians to leave the city and start farming? Afi studied communications and public relations in Jakarta. A year in Australia working with food-oriented events started her wondering where all this good stuff was coming from. “I felt a disconnect, working with the consumer side without engaging or knowing what it takes to grow the product. So I changed my focus to food producers and made a trip to Sumatra where I stayed with farmers on coffee plantations and learned about their lives and work.” Traveling to Bali, she met Big Tree Farms co-founder Ben Ripple and worked for him while visiting farms around the island. That’s when this savvy, fashionable young woman decided to go back to the land. “As an Indonesian engaged in ethical food production, I saw that I could make a difference.”
Afi went to stay at Bumi Langit, a 3 hectare working organic farm near Jogjakarta which offers classes, training and apprenticeships in sustainable energy and integrated food production systems. Here she met other like-minded people and honed her skills in organic cultivation. She and business partner Samantha are developing a business based on a 1.5 hectare organic farm near Bogor. They plan to cultivate produce and process it without preservatives for the domestic market. “My personal vision is to make an example of profitable sustainable agriculture. Food security is a huge issue. But farmers are aging; I’m encountering a situation where I can barely find a farmer to work on the farm.”
Afi seasoning the soil that used to grow conventional rice, with chicken manure and burnt rice husk.
Samantha was born in Jakarta but moved to Singapore when young and studied there 13 years before moving to the US and acquiring a degree in industrial engineering. She worked briefly in a Singapore shipyard but quickly realised she didn’t enjoy the work she had trained for. She’d been interested in organic foods for a long time, but although it was a booming business in the US and Australia there was very little happening in Indonesia. Then her sister introduced her to Helianti Hilman, founder of Javara, a Java-based company distributing organic indigenous foods. Heli invited Samantha to intern with Javara in a project linking farmers in Bogor with 5 star restaurant chefs.
“That was a turning point, spending time with farmers and chefs,” she told me. “It was clear that farmers didn’t know what to plant for the consumer; they kept growing ubi when the restaurants wanted rucola. I saw a missing link between farmer and consumer that I felt I could provide.
“Afi is knowledgeable about farming and I’m strong on the food processing side, drawing on my background as an industrial engineer. We hope to influence the food scene in Jakarta, making it trendy and exciting to choose organic foods.”
Nessa grew up in Jakarta, attended the British International School there, then graduated from university in London before working abroad for nine years. In that time she and her husband became interested in vermiculture, recycling and composting, scavenging coffee grounds from Starbucks and unsold vegetables from the markets of Beijing to feed the worm farm in their apartment.
They decided to move back to Indonesia and learn to farm. In February 2014 they started working at Bumi Langit. “We learned everything from composting, growing vegetables, cutting bamboos and harvesting rice to milking cows. I owe so much to the Bumi Langit family for their help and guidance. At the end of 2014 we decided to settle down and we bought some land in Kasongan, Java. A house is in progress, and we’ll be farming there and starting a family.
“A lot of people I know are not farming to get rich, they’re farming because they think it’s the right thing to do. You gain skills. You’re never hungry. You know exactly where your food is coming from and you know it’s safe. There are emotional benefits; farming makes me happy. Basically I can sum it up into one sentence. I got into farming because it felt perfect.”
Then there’s Slow Food Bali (SFB), established in 2011, which promotes the production of sustainable food with fair returns to farmers. Its recently launched Youth Network, the first in ASAEN, is a growing group of students and recent graduates of Udayana University Faculties of Agriculture, Agricultural Technology, Public Health and Food Science and the Polytech Food Science Center in Denpasar. Its goal is to develop youth programs which encourage more small-scale agriculture, along with protecting the rich biodiversity of Bali.
I met two of the Youth Network members and if these young people represent the future of farming in Bali then I will sleep easier at night. Kadek is from a farming family, but his father left the land. When Kadek decided to start farming last year the family field had been abandoned for seven years and was overgrown with ylang ylang. It took weeks of hard work to clear and till before he planted it in rice and to his astonishment harvested a bumper crop. Inspired by his success, several farmers who had abandoned their fields in his village have returned to grow rice. Recently Kadek was voted subak leader and he is introducing the concepts of SRI and chemical free cultivation. He was also selected for a scholarship at a sustainable agriculture training centre in India and has become fluent in English. This remarkable young man has indeed had a transformative year!
Wahyu hails from Singaraja. Although he’s not of farming stock he was attracted to study farming at Udyana University. “Farmers are aging, their kids don’t want to farm; they want to work in villas and spas. I thought, what about the future? Who is going to grow our food? I decided that I would join the young people who are continuing the story. When I graduate I want to be a farmer. I have a little land in Canggu where real estate is very expensive now but I won’t sell it. I will grow food.”
Why did Orin, who was raised in Bali before leaving for school in the US and Canada, return here as an adult to farm? “I believe agriculture is the foundation of civilisation and all human advancements are based on being able to grow more food than we can gather from nature. Exploiting nature for food production instead of enhancing it, maximising yields without nourishing the soil, ensures an unstable future. I wanted to produce my own food because I care about where my food comes from and about the environment.”
Orin has had extensive training in sustainable agriculture and design. He and his partner recently established the Kulkul Farm, a social enterprise which he describes as a living/learning farm. It’s also a functioning market garden which sells produce to Green School and specialty restaurants; a gardening store and nursery will open soon. Kulkul Farm currently offers a Permaculture Design Course, a living soils workshop, and a range of short courses. “We want to make farming more popular and accessible to people who might not have considered this option. To know your food, grow your food.” With constant news of contaminated and adulterated food being sold, that is excellent advice. If we can’t actually grow our own, we can purchase it from people we trust.
You know, I feel better about things.
Photos provided by the farmers. Header image is taken from the Kulkul Farm; see http://kulkulfarmbali.com/
Our thanks go to Cat Wheeler for permitting us to publish this piece.