From seedling to seedking
Batu is East Java’s Eden.
Rumpled hills and smooth valleys, modest mountains dressing their cleavage with clouds, well watered, cool and fertile, lush and lovely.
It’s famous for apples, flowers and vegetables that grow fast and in abundance. The town square parades its prosperity with a celebration of kitsch, giant concrete fruits.
So natural to assume the markets in towns nearby are overflowing with fresh, cheap, local produce, helping the nation reach its goal of food self sufficiency.
Wrong. The delicious big red carrots are from China, the crunchy, sweet apples from New Zealand and the US. All look splendid and are priced equal or cheaper. Why?
“That’s a very tricky question,” said Hendro Basuki, 76, who’s been a seed producer for more than 40 years in the Republic, and 20 in this region. “There are so many factors involved, including infrastructure.
“If there was a highway between Batu and Malang (East Java’s second largest city), expenses could be cut by ten to 20 per cent. (The current road is narrow and choked.)
“Bureaucracy is also very annoying with permits and licences. Our costs are still too high.”
Then he uttered a heresy: “Batu isn’t suitable for apples. There’s no winter to shed the leaves so they have to be hand picked. Better to import from NZ. Batu is best for leaf vegetables, like beans, leaks, spinach and lettuce.”
As a young agricultural engineer who turned to horticulture in the late 1960s, he was employed on a Dutch project that required a close look at Indonesia’s horticultural industry.
“I found it backward,” he said. “You have to understand the history. The Dutch were mainly interested in plantations of coffee, cocoa, tea, rubber and tobacco. They never really had a policy on rice production or horticulture.
“I had no great expectations for my life. However God thought otherwise.”
His dream of a comfortable future on a couple of hectares with around 16 workers was rapidly uprooted, replanted by an analytical mind sharpened by personal research and overseas travel that spotted trends and techniques.
Now Hendro’s companies Bibit Baru and Selektani have four seed-production farms in three provinces and 1,500 growers who double as workers. They learn the techniques of modern plant husbandry, growing, pollinating and harvesting seed in plastic-sheeted greenhouses big enough to shelter a Boeing.
“I call them ‘growers’, not ‘farmers’, because they have knowledge and skills, know how to plan and organize and actualize,” he said.
“Farmers are conservative and it’s difficult to introduce new technology. The situation has improved. Our job is to educate and modernize.”
His companies’ products are exported to Europe and the US; some are sold domestically. However traditionalists prefer to let a few plants go to seed to provide a resource for the next season rather than spend on new varieties.
The results can be seen in the shops: Shrunken cauliflower heads, midget broccoli and the famed manalagi (“I want more”) apples introduced in the colonial era when jaws were stronger could be used in baseball if the dangers to strikers weren’t so great
The squishy, sick tomatoes, a variety pioneered in Italy for the pulp industry, would be better used for political protests.
Hendro’s growth from south Central Java village lad to a national seedking has much to do with the Japanese occupation of Java.
His father and uncles were interred; their crime was to be well educated shopkeepers, speakers of Dutch and therefore suspect. Their businesses were confiscated. The once well-off family used sacks for clothes and grew vegetables to survive.
Hendro was the youngest of seven, just eight when the invaders arrived in 1942. He soon learned to plant, till and harvest.
“I was a good observer and a curious child,” he said. “I was always asking questions about nature, like ‘why is there rain?’ I’d already been to a Dutch school so could speak the language.”
After the war the family bounced back and Hendro went to the Indonesian University. His folks wanted him garlanded with a stethoscope but he failed entrance tests. No matter, as long as he graduated with a title – and engineer was good enough to calm parental anxieties.
Next a grant to study tropical horticulture in the US and a planned PhD at the University of Hawaii. Along the way he mastered English and German and visited Europe.
Business beckoned. He dropped his doctoral thesis to concentrate on the commercialism of agriculture. Before this happened he learned a useful lesson in human behavior.
Like his fellow students he got by on a monthly grant of US $150. Unlike his classmates who were frequently in debt before the next payment, the frugal Indonesian had US $ 50 tucked away.
Now he includes cash management in the programs taught to his grower employees, wishing they’d buy cows instead of motorbikes to boost their incomes rather than status.
Back in Indonesia and after working for a German company and on the Dutch project he set out on his own, starting in 1971 in Medan, North Sumatra.
In 1992 he took over an old Dutch coffee plantation in Batu at an elevation of 1,400 meters and started building the greenhouses where geraniums, snapdragons, begonias and tomatoes are pollinated by hand.
“Not many investors are interested in seed production,” he said as the pregnant clouds tumbled off the peaks and broke their waters.
“It’s long term, capital intensive and the risks are great. But the returns can be good, 20 per cent or more.
“I have research programs in place with the Dutch. I’d like to do the same with NZ so we can both benefit.
“I’ve got money, but there are things of the soul to consider. I’d like to see a time when being a farmer is an honorable occupation. Too many want to leave the land, creating future problems.
“Looking back I think I’ve helped give people work – and something they need. That’s important – that’s satisfaction.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 December 2012)