NO GENDER ISSUES IN SEMEN CENTER © Duncan Graham 2007
The official all-male Saudi delegation was more than a mite surprised. They knew that Indonesian women are allowed to drive cars and might even be found in offices working close to unrelated men – though undoubtedly in inferior positions.
But to discover in East Java a feisty Muslim woman minus headscarf as head of a branch of a national government department was a bit more disturbing. Particular when the business conversation turned to issues of testicle size, ejaculation rates and sperm count.
For Dr Herliantien is the only woman in Indonesia running a livestock artificial insemination center – and when you're dealing with potentially embarrassing issues there's just one way to behave – direct and matter-of-fact.
She's also a lot of fun, though it's clear that behind the laugh lines are the scars of some tough times on her road to the top.
"I didn't experience discrimination while studying veterinary science at Surabaya's Airlangga University, though there were only seven women and 42 men," she said. "The difficulties came after graduation.
"I had a staff problem at one time so I challenged the man to compete against me. If he could do the job better then he was welcome to it. He backed down."
Not surprisingly, for although this public servant is no Madam Lash she's also no cipher. Unlike some bureaucrats she didn't get her job by coming from the boss's village or having a dad in the military.
"I came from a poor family in Surabaya, one of eight children," she said. "My parents were determined we should have a good education – for them this was the number one issue.
"My mother was a strong woman who'd had minimal schooling. Yet she confronted the local Catholic schools and successfully pleaded with them to enroll me despite having no money."
Clearly the policy paid; all eight kids have become tertiary educated professionals. Herliantien is the only vet, a discipline she chose because her father was involved in selling animal feed.
The chance to work for a private company where she could earn a mint was turned down, because it meant living in a dormitory and separation from her husband, sculptor Djoni Basri.
So instead she joined the government and for the first few years had to walk or hitch rides to work at a farm on the slopes of Mount Arjuno, north west of Malang in East Java. The couple didn't even have enough money for a motorbike.
At the time livestock husbandry was hardly taken seriously. The story goes that president Soeharto had a ranch and got interested in cattle breeding. He decided that artificial insemination (AI) was the way to lift the quality of the nation's herd, and suddenly the cash tap was turned on.
Helped with grants and loans from the Japanese, a purpose-built facility was created on a beautiful 67-hectare site seven kilometers outside the ancient city (now the village) of Singosari. The center's slogan: One drop of semen – One million hopes.
Herliantien studied in Japan, learned English, worked in the laboratory, became its head and four years ago while still in her 40s took over the whole complex.
This now houses 134 bulls and bucks, many that she's selected and imported from Australia. All have names. Hygiene and health care are critical issues, making the center a five-star hotel for celebrity studs with massage and pedicures on the house. Plus free sex.
Twice a week Dandy, Missy, Rozzy and their mates are led to a dummy cow draped with a hide and sprayed with the odor of oestrus.
With a minimum of foreplay and indifferent to the feelings of his mechanical mate he mounts and enters an artificial vagina made of wrinkled rubber and pre-warmed for maximum pleasure.
His ejaculate is trapped in a test tube, passed into the lab and after checking for sperm quality is diluted and frozen in thin glass tubes known as straws. These are preserved at low temperature in liquid nitrogen, then sent to farmers around the province for use by trained inseminators. One ejaculate can be used to serve up to 300 cows.
This means that a bland old bovine with no redeeming features can carry the offspring of a mighty broad-shouldered bull whose mum may have been a top Aussie milk machine, and his dad the sire of splendid vealers Down Under. Genetics rules, right?
The AI system has been a huge benefit to Indonesian farming. The Singosari center (one of nine in the nation) has been so successful that it has won numerous awards and international accreditation.
It's the showplace of choice when presidents and other heavyweights want to display Indonesian innovation and the ability of government agencies to exceed targets and meet overseas standards. It also has a clever marketing and promotion section producing, among other things, school materials encouraging kids to drink milk and eat meat.
The center is exporting semen and aggressively hunting for new markets. It sells fish sperm (it would take another story to explain how this works) and has pioneered a program offering farmers a choice of progeny. The technique used is a commercial secret.
What would you like in your stable – a red calf or a black and white cutie? Male or female? One that will go to the butcher – or the dairy?
A quarter of the 78 staff are female, and not all are wearing white coats in the air-conditioned lab and offices. Herliantien urges young women to take on any task, but it seems it's the blokes who have the hang-ups.
Why aren't women working in the bull barn? "Because the bulls are too strong," said an otherwise progressive male supervisor, a little sheepishly. So are there men on the staff like Bali bodybuilder Ade Rai so powerful they can stop a determined 750 kilogram bull with the scent of heifer on heat up his nostrils? "Well, no, but …"
"Women should not be deterred from getting work in animal husbandry," said Herliantien, 51. "It's quite wrong to think we can't work with animals and outside. It's a very satisfying job.
"Issues of complexion and dirt no longer apply. There are cosmetics and sunscreens to stop our skin turning black and protective clothing like overalls to keep you clean.
"This is not a female take-over. We need to work cooperatively with men, not in competition.
"Using money we've earned through exporting semen we run an incentive scheme paying bonuses, and a study program sending employees around the country and overseas.
"I urge my staff to use every opportunity to better their education and continue sending their children to school. We need to think ahead, to understand what others are doing.
"Even though our budget is inadequate we've been able to do so many things because we're committed. We've been able to adapt. We don't get lazy.
"We'll create a new breed of beef cattle - the Indonesian Red. It might take 25 years, but we'll do it. I want to show it can be done. Our dream will come true."
(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 February 07)