‘We know our doctors and dentists, why don’t we know our farmers?’ asks a recent post. Good question; commercial agriculture is slowly but surely being countered by people who want to connect what is on their plate to a producer and a place and to know that the food they eat will not harm either themselves or the environment. This is a reasonable desire, but not one that is easy to satisfy. In Bali, as around the world, a number of producers have responded to this demand. We interviewed ‘our farmer’, Agus Ariesta, to get an insight on organic farming in Bali.
Tell us a little about yourself
I am originally from Tabanan in Bali and I now live in Denpasar with my wife and three children. I have a degree in Animal Husbandry. I am a producer of organic fruits and vegetables and I also work as a consultant on aid development projects.
How did you get into organic farming?
I developed an interest in organic farming whilst working for John Hardy, founder of the Green School and of Bambu Indah, as his chief gardener. I completed a permaculture course at the IDEP foundation and was then put in charge of managing John Hardy’s permaculture farm. It was extremely interesting and I learnt a lot that I still use for production, but we found that ultimately permaculture is hard to do at a commercial scale. We switched to organic farming on 4 hectares in Jatuliwah and this proved to be a much more effective method. Eventually I started my own farm in Baturiti near Bedugul.
Where and how did you start your own farm?
I started in 2008 with only 70 are of land and at first I planted only flowers. I always wanted to pursue a pure organic ideal and felt that flowers would be an easier way to start. However flowers die very quickly once they are cut if they are not coated with chemicals so after a short while we stopped producing flowers and started producing organic vegetables. At first we had only two employees and I was busy with both producing and delivering to our customers. We now have 1.7 hectares and grow over 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables that we deliver directly to our customers.
What farming methods do you use for organic production?
We were determined to produce 100% organic from the beginning and to do this we leased land that had either never been used or at least not in the last ten years. This means that the soil is very fertile and that there is no chemical residue from previous production. We started our farm with seeds from Switzerland because at that time seeds for many of the varieties we wanted to grow, like rucola and mixed salad, were not available in Indonesia. Then we select varieties that we know we can grow organically without much waste; we have identified over 50 varieties so far that grow well. We use rain and rain-harvested water for irrigation and maintain high standards of sanitation by daily harvesting, weeding and manual removal of waste organic matter. We make our own organic compost from cow manure and organic waste from the farm and occasionally use a neem spray, which is a great natural pest deterrent.
Do you still get your seeds from Switzerland?
No our seeds now come from mixed sources. We save a lot of our own seed but in order to use only saved seed we would need to expand our area considerably. Now it is possible to buy many more seed varieties in Indonesia and we use sources that have committed not to introduce GMO’s. We still collect and use interesting seed varieties from friends.
What are the challenges of organic farming?
The main challenge for us is matching production and demand. We used to rely only on the expatriate market with customers that come in high season and then leave again. We have a very loyal customer base but it can be hard to adapt to this demand, especially as the high seasons combine with both the dry season and the rainy season when market prices sky rocket for many varieties. Recently we have attracted larger clients, such as restaurants and hotels, but have found that while the orders are big these clients are prone to buy from the (non-organic) market when prices drop. The chief challenge is therefore to match production to demand without investing in cold storage, more land and greenhouses. Apart from that, there are some vegetables that are very difficult to grow organically; such as large tomatoes, melons, onions, garlic and the cabbage family.
How do you respond to this challenge?
We would like to expand our production area and invest in greenhouses to be able to adjust more easily to demand from the production side, as well as to be able to grow more varieties. Also our customer base is expanding and includes more than 20% Indonesians so there is less fluctuation in demand. In general, we take it one step at a time, making sure we do things right rather than rushing.
How do you see the future of organic farming in Indonesia?
I mentioned that I started organic farming through my experience as chief gardener for John Hardy. However my passion for organic farming was kindled through observing farming practice in Bali and the health of my friends and family. I am not from a wealthy family and our diet was fairly basic as I grew up. However it was the same as the diet that my grandparents had. When I compare the health of the last generations (my fathers and my own) to that of the previous generations I can see a clear difference and I think that comes not only from the type of food but from the quality of what we eat. I am convinced that the high incidence of pesticides and chemicals in our diet is doing great damage and my passion is to reverse this trend. My vision is to see organic fruits and vegetables on the market for the same price as non-organic and with time there is no reason that this should not be possible.
Do others share your vision for an organic future?
Indonesians are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of industrial agriculture, even if not all of them are acting on this awareness. Also, there is a small but growing group of young Balinese who have started to farm organically using the same methods as we use. Many of these young farmers were working for and with me at John Hardy and later at PT Bening. We continue to collaborate and many of them have their own customer base. This is a new trend as farming is still considered an undesirable occupation by most Balinese and I am very proud of them and what they have achieved. I would like the status of producers to be elevated and to link producers and customers through courses and seminars. For example, currently raw food courses are incredibly expensive but there is no reason that in the future we cannot run raw food courses for Indonesians at Indonesian prices.
How about organic certification?
This is a dream for most organic farmers in Bali and totally unaffordable. The government is still slow to support the organic farming movement and support is only really accessible if you have contacts. This is a shame, they could learn a lot from Thailand on how to facilitate small farmers going organic. The approach we use is ‘come and certify yourself’; Bali is small and we are proud to show people our farm.