From poo to you
In East Java Duncan Graham finds a farmer planning to make his business totally organic, even though consumers are still unprepared to pay the premium prices the products attract overseas.
Organic produce is readily available in Europe, North America and Australasia where certification schemes are in place and policed. That’s not the situation in Indonesia.
A few specialist health food shops in Jakarta and Bali, usually in areas where foreigners live, sell foods labelled as organic. You’re unlikely to find these in the traditional markets; the fruit and vegetables may well have been grown without the use of artificial fertilizers or chemical sprays, but they aren’t marketed as such.
Masngut Imam Santoso (left), the high priest of zero-waste farming, wants to change this situation so all food is grown organically. As an advert for his products he needs no digital enhancements, looking lean, fit and lively.
He sits in his pendopo (a traditional high-ceiling house built around four timber pillars) in the village of Srengat near Blitar. Beneath huge portraits of Javanese nobles he remembers back 70 years when as a five-year old he had to cut grass for the family farm’s livestock.
“It was hard but it taught me discipline,” he said. “I was brought up with the work ethic. It’s part of the teachings of Islam. God loves traders – that’s in the Holy Koran. It also says we must use time efficiently.
“God also helps those who help themselves. Sadly this truth isn’t always applied.”
In the days when little Masngut was discovering which side of the scythe was sharp, the farm had about 125 laying hens and five cows. Now it has 15,000, plus 8,000 ducks and 400 cattle – all on about ten hectares.
Masngut calls his system “natural” and he’s written a book on his ideas, Mau Kaya? Ayo Saya Ajari (Want to be rich? Let me teach you) Integrated Farming.
Others might label it “intensive”, “recycling” or “sustainable”. The terms aren’t clearly defined, making it difficult for consumers to know what they’re buying, particularly when there’s no independent credible certifying authority regularly auditing farmers.
“We’re about 80 per cent organic,” Masngut said. “We’re working towards 100 per cent, but it takes time. Indonesians aren’t ready for this yet and I doubt they will be in my lifetime. We persist because it’s profitable.”
Indeed it is. What was once a small family holding has become a major semi-industrial enterprise employing almost 200 across all sectors.
The Santoso farm and its diverse products have attracted the interest of universities and government departments. For several years Masngut toured campuses giving seminars, but now insists students come to him.
“Theory is fine,” he said, “but there’s nothing as effective as seeing for yourself. This is why I’ve been overseas to see how they get high yields from animals and the soil. Breeding is important (he has cows from Australia) but so is feeding.”
According to the Ministry of Agriculture about 140 million people work in primary production. Not all own their own land, often having less than a hectare or are landless and have to labor for others.
By North American and Australasian standards the Santoso farm is small, but it’s highly productive because of the way it’s run.
A processing plant using corn straw and high-protein soy bean waste bought from a tofu factory is used to make dry feed for the chickens. These are kept in battery cages alongside fish ponds. Insects that thrive in the birds’ manure are fed to the fish.
The rest of the droppings are trucked to a factory where they are sorted, dried and sterilised in a furnace before being bagged in 40 kilogram sacks and sold as organic fertiliser. The washdown from the cowsheds is used to irrigate fields of corn and rice.
Some of the waste is refined and sold as a concentrated liquid fertiliser – five liters for Rp 40,000 (US $ 3.40), which is more expensive than milk, as Masngut pointed out. He also plans to use the manure to produce biogas to fire the furnace. At the moment coal is imported from Kalimantan.
Although he went to Malang’s Brawijaya University Masngut never completed his economics degree, preferring instead to boost the farm’s output.
“I saw the Brantas (East Java’s longest watercourse that sustains 12 cities and regencies) and its many tributaries,” he said. “I noticed how they all come together to make one great river. I thought that farming should be like that, with different produce coming together to make one system.
“I also like the English proverb – don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
“In Java we have a proverb: If you have two eggs just eat one and keep the other to hatch a chick. But too many eat both eggs. It’s difficult to change mindsets – the Javanese need to be more ambitious. They should be rich. (Masngut is Javanese.)
“I’d seen how fish like bugs (left) so developed the chicken-waste to fish-food system. And from that one thing led to another. It’s not a question of having more land, but using what we have more efficiently.
“It’s difficult to get farmers to follow my example. They’re conservative people, slow to take up different ways of doing things. They don’t trust the government and most of them don’t have the capital. They need low-interest loans. I’ve been telling the bureaucrats this for years, but they won’t listen.”
Another problem is security acceptable to the banks. In many rural districts farmers hold land under the adat (customary law) system, where ownership is acknowledged by the community
Masngut rejected the suggestion that he should be labelled an inventor. “I just observe, and think and apply,” he said.
“Another factor driving me is that I’ve never liked the food you get in shopping malls – it gives me headaches because of the chemical additives and preservatives.”
(First published in J Plus 3 August 2014)