Farmers and consumers benefit from sustainable agriculture

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by Anton Muhajir
Published at Third World Resurgence

While figures and statistics are increasingly showing that sustainable agriculture is viable in ensuring food security and rural livelihoods, it is important to note that agriculture is also about human experiences.  Sustainable agriculture is a story about lives, about how farmers struggle to make changes for a better future.  Drawing on the Indonesian experience, this article presents a set of such stories about farmers in Indonesia who have proven that sustainable agriculture works.

Organic rice farming helps children’s education
JENIA, a woman farmer from Munting village on Flores island, Indonesia, can now plan her children’s education better as she does not have to worry about food for her family. She and other farmers from the village have benefited from sustainable agriculture on an island which is known to suffer from annual food shortages.

In the 1970s, farmers in this village, located in Manggarai Barat District, Flores, in the province of East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), were introduced to the Green Revolution way of agriculture. This area is the rice barn of NTT, otherwise known as a semi-arid group of islands in Indonesia.  Rice grows easily because Munting village has plenty of water and can plant rice the year round on 5,100 ha of wet rice fields. In 1970, farmers were introduced to agro-chemicals to boost rice production. Over the years, the farmers began to feel the economic burden of buying agro-chemicals, as they need more chemicals to produce a certain amount of harvest. They started taking loans from middlemen and repaid the loans by selling off the harvest before its time, at a very low price, to the middlemen.

In 2004, a local NGO Yakines facilitated the introduction of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which uses less water and inputs. Farmers began to reduce the use of agro-chemicals. They replaced chemical fertilisers with rice hay combined with effective microorganisms. To control pests they used gamal (Glicidia maculata) leaves. Because they used local inputs, the debts to middlemen were reduced and yields increased.

‘SRI is a more effective method. The paddy has more shoots, less pests and the harvest is more,’ said Paulus Gambur, another farmer in Munting. Before, farmers faced pests such as the brown hopper. After organic pesticides began to be used, most pests could be reduced. The harvest increased to 8-9 tons per ha compared to 4-5 tons per ha before applying the organic SRI method. The number of farmers applying the SRI method increased from only five in 2004 to 50 farmers now. The area increased from 25 m2 to 50 ha of rice fields now in Munting.

A positive ‘side effect’ when farmers switch to organic systems is the awareness of the need to organise themselves. With the Green Revolution, farming was an individual activity, but when farmers switched to the organic system, they began to realise that working together is more beneficial in terms of burden-and profit-sharing. Thus the men formed a farmers’ group. The women also established a Joint Credit group (UBSP) through which members manage their farm produce and post-production processing. A unique feature is that they have reestablished the food barn called lancing. Farmers store their harvest to get seeds for the next planting season and to ensure food during the fallow period in the lancing. They also store rice in different barns to ensure they can send rice to their children who are studying at Labuan Bajo, the capital city of the Manggarai Barat District. ‘Now our group can plan better for the education of our children in the city,’ Jenia said.

Income is increased
In Bali, Ketut Wiantara, a vegetable farmer in Pancasari Village, Sukasada, Buleleng District, has a similar experience. For years, he had used chemicals on his farm but ‘I had to take out more money to buy fertiliser and pesticides, while the harvest decreased over the years’. Three years ago he decided to switch to organic methods.

With his friends in the Kelompok Tani Muda Mandiri (young farmers group), he learnt from the Internet organic farming methods using cow urine and followed the examples set by Indian farmers. He keeps four cows and uses the urine for fertiliser. The urine is passed through a cement-based container, and the liquid is turned using a small machine to remove the ammonia. Then the urine is left to stand for some time after which 1 litre of cow urine is mixed with 10 litres of water. The mixture is kept in a small dam that can contain 1,000 litres. It is from here that the urine mixture is channelled into Ketut’s paprika garden. The cow urine serves as both fertiliser and pest control agent.

Paprika is Ketut’s prime crop. He applies the drip irrigation method in a semi-hydroponic way, using the cow urine to water his crops. While the paprika is in the greenhouse, Ketut also plants carrots, lettuce, stawberry, and other vegetables. He gets a gross  income of Rp. 10 million (a little less than US$1,000) a month from his garden. Ketut and other members of the group benefit from organic farming because they sell the produce to a niche consumer market. Thus the price is also higher and they are no longer manipulated by middlemen. Faciliated by the Bali Organic Association, they supply vegetables to the Aero Catering Service at the Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali that caters to at least 2,000 passengers every day, and to several organic outlets and restaurants in Bali. Thus they are able to get a better price for their organic produce.

Healthier life
Nuraini, a consumer of organic food in Solo, Central Java,  has a personal experience with organic products. Sixteen years ago she was diagnosed as suffering from diabetes. Since then she decided to consume organic rice. (Diabetics are asked to reduce or refrain from eating rice.) ‘I wanted to maintain my health by not consuming rice that is contaminated with pesticides,’ she said. Nuraini, an employee at the Agriculture Faculty of the Tunas Pembangunan University in Solo, is convinced that organic rice is healthier and can minimise further impacts of diabetes on her health. According to her, so far she has been able to maintain a healthy body with stable weight.

Having benefited from organic rice, she decided to open a small shop that sells organic rice, and disseminate information on the benefits of eating organic food. Her shop not only sells products, but has become an information reference point for her neighbours, and a way to conduct consumer education on the benefits of organic products. Nuraini is supported by a local NGO called Lembaga Studi Kemasyarakatan dan Bina Bakat (LSKBB or Community Study and Skill Development Institute).

Organic product marketing has been able to facilitate a change in the way agriculture products are sold. The conventional market is not in favour of small farmers due to the long distribution chain. The highest profit usually goes to the wholesale and retail traders rather than to farmers.  LSKBB tries to bridge this gap by facilitating relationships between the consumers and the farmers. One way to do this is by arranging visits for the consumers to organic farms.

LSKBB once arranged such a trip to an organic rice farmers’ group at Dlingo village, in Boyolali, Central Java. ‘Now we know how farmers use healthy seeds and fertilisers,’ said Rahayu, a consumer of organic products, after such a trip. On the other hand, farmers also began to realise the need to produce healthy food. ‘In the past, we were not concerned about the health effects of our products. But once we know organic is healthy for us as farmers and for the consumers, we wanted to shift the way we produce food,’ said Cipto Mulyatmo, a farmer in Boyolali.

Cipto had shifted gradually from chemical-based farming to organic agriculture, using compost, liquid organic fertiliser and natural pest control agents. Farmers now harvest 6.8 to 7 tons of rice per ha per season from about 15 ha of fields that are allocated especially for organic rice of local varieties. Farmers also use a separate miller to mill their rice so as to avoid contamination with inorganic rice products.

Policy deficit
While farmers and consumers are switching to organic products, albeit very slowly, the Indonesian government has not matched this development with proper policies and programmes. The government’s Go Organic 2010 programme has become mere rhetoric, with little implementation. Instead, the Indonesian government is thinking of importing chemical fertilisers as part of its Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery Revitalisation Programme.

Additionally, the organic programme is focused more on products for export and those that fetch a high price, such as coffee and cashew nuts. The government is using a corporate approach by setting up standards and a certification board. Yet, the field visit in Boyolali shows that what is needed is trust-building between farmers and consumers. Small farmers cannot afford certification and local consumers only need to go and see for themselves that the product they buy is organic. This has escaped the attention of the government.

In contrast to the government which has no national policy, strategy or programme to boost organic production, some communities are developing their own local policy. The organic Kintamani (Bali) coffee farmers, for instance, incorporate organic policies into their traditional laws governed by a traditional institution called Banjar. ‘We are not allowed to use urea and other chemicals. If found to do so, we will face punishment,’ said Nengah Kempel, a coffee grower.  I Wayan Jamin, the head of the  Subak Sukamaju (Subak is a traditional farmer grouping in Bali, based on the water system), said that adat  (customary) punishment was first agreed on in 2005, in order to ensure the quality of the Kintamani coffee. There are many such initiatives coming from farmers’ groups, even in the midst of a policy deficit.

Sustainable agriculture is not just about organic growing. It is a whole chain of production systems that work, but the policy deficit has unfortunately undermined a production method that has been proven to be ecologically and socially friendly, and capable of ensuring food security.

Anton Muhajir is a freelance journalist based in Bali, Indonesia. This article was summarised in English by Hira Jhamtani.

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