The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, October 13, 2005


CLEAN LIVING IN WEST JAVA © Duncan Graham 2005

Keen to know what you’re really eating and want to check personally? Duncan Graham reports from a West Java farm that welcomes visitors and urges inspection:

If you’re a hard-wired health-conscious foodie, then paying an extra 30 per cent for organic food can be a small price. But only if the product has been grown without pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

Who knows if the vegetables are really as described? They look the same as any other produce in the market, as red or green or yellow as the cheaper foods. Often they taste the same – though growers disagree.

Maybe corrupt or careless farmers have doused the leaves with toxic bug-killers. Perhaps they’ve saturated the soil with noxious products from heavy metal industrial plants. And, horror, horror, they’ve might even have used human waste, the so-called night soil. (“Nice looking fruit – funny smell, though.”)

Then the harvest has been stuffed in a pretty bag with a fancy label saying “organic”.

Any ill effects aren’t likely to be felt till long after the evening meal has been digested. Cancers grow slowly as the body accumulates poisons and take years to appear. By then you’ve long forgotten what you ate and where you shopped.

Just washing before cooking is no guarantee of safety. Plants ingest chemicals and build these into their leaf and root structure.

Certifying quality isn’t just an Indonesian problem. Australian farmers have been jailed for selling wrongly labelled grains in a bid to get the higher prices that organic produce attracts. Their crimes have been discovered only after laboratory tests.

The Indonesian pioneer of organic farming has solved the problem with a three-pronged approach: His product is certified organic by an international agency (the National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia), his farm is open to the public and his name and face are on the packaging.

So if organic is your bag, look out for plastic wraps of veggies on your supermarket shelf with the trade mark Agatho. If these show a balding and bespectacled white-bearded bule looking organically robust then you should rest easy that what you read is what you get.

What the packaging doesn’t say is that Agatho Elsener is a Catholic priest and that profit from his enterprise goes back into the community.

More than 20 years ago Pastor Agatho left Kalimantan where he’d been a missionary for two decades and moved to West Java. Although he knew little about horticulture he’d read books on organic farming and believed this could be one cure for a polluted planet and poor health.

Using money raised in his native Switzerland Pastor Agatho bought six hectares of sloping land at Cisarua outside Bogor. Here he set up a foundation – Bina Sarana Bakti. A three storey concrete building was erected with demonstration plots and lecture rooms. These are used to spread the word about the benefits of organic farming to growers and consumers.

Pastor Agatho, who has become an Indonesian citizen, is currently in Switzerland for eye treatment. Field manager Sudaryanto said farmers from many parts of Indonesia had attended courses at the farm and taken the concept of organics and sustainable farming back to their home villages.

Overseas visitors have also stayed to learn about the system when used in the tropics.

“Because our produce is specialised and grown for a specific market we’re able to set prices,” Sudaryanto said.

“You can find our organic vegetables in many Bogor and Jakarta supermarkets and we sell to passing traffic direct from the farm. We also supply some restaurants and we’ve exported to Singapore but it’s difficult to maintain the quantities required.”

Two decades on and the venture continues to employ about 100 local people. It produces and sells a tonne or more of fresh food every week under the slogan The Organic Way – All In Harmony. But it hasn’t all been trouble free.

Although up to 50 types of vegetables are grown, carrots have been a major success, according to Sudaryanto. Fruits have grown well but keeping sticky fingers off the property has been difficult, so the enterprise has concentrated on vegetables.

The farm is 900 metres above sea level in a high rainfall area. Life here is like living under a waterfall: in one year 322 thunderstorms were recorded!

The corrugated translucent roofing isn’t just for shelter and catchment – some crops suffer when machine-gunned by heavy-calibre raindrops. The water is trapped in concrete gutters around the main building, then channelled through the crops.

A silt trap in a creek that runs through the property collects topsoil during heavy downpours and which would otherwise run to waste. This is then dug out and mixed with compost.

The creek cascades down the valley and into two pipes which drive a turbine. This produces electricity for the farm.

Harmful insects are repelled by planting bushes that generate natural pesticides around susceptible crops. When these aren’t successful sprays are made from the seeds of plants with insect-killing properties.

Rotational farming is practised. When a crop is harvested a different vegetable is grown in the same area or the soil is left fallow. This helps balance the nutritional needs of plants and prevent leaching of trace elements by hungry monoculture crops.

Unlike conventional one-field, one plant variety farms, Pastor Agatho’s enterprise mixes different crops in one area. This makes for a cheerful color scheme but complicates harvesting.

Nitrogen-fixing plants and animal manures are used instead of artificial fertilisers. The idea is to build a soil that’s fertile, balanced with a wide range of nutrients, and healthy.

The downside is that the process is labor intensive and takes much longer than conventional farming. Special training is required of workers who are used to traditional farming methods and behavior. For example, staff are not allowed to smoke on the property.

Much easier to buy a drum of chemical from your local friendly pesticides salesman and spray every winged creature in sight. Like carpet bombing, this system of farm management kills foe and friend; not all insects are harmful. Bees, for example, help pollinate crops and other insects enjoy devouring aphids.

Factory fertilisers supply the necessary nutrients but they are expensive. They can also produce strange side effects like giant cabbages with all leaf and no heart – or by upsetting the ratio of other chemicals in the soil.

If you remain unconvinced, go and look for yourself. The farm is off the main road between Bogor and Puncak. You’re less likely to get wet in the morning. It’s about a two hour drive from Jakarta. Best to phone first for instructions: (0251) 254 531.

(First published in Jakarta Kini, October 2005)

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