Life

Traditional farming techniques
stand test of time


Trisha Sertori, Contributor, Gianyar

A return to early organic agricultural methods is proving as economically healthy as the crops produced, according to several Balinese farmers who are growing rice, spices and coffee organically across Bali.

Multigenerational rice farmer, I. Made Chakra of Pengosekan village in Gianyar, has for many years been tilling his family plot of 5,000 square meters organically, a task made easier earlier this year with assistance from the Indonesian Development of Education for Permaculture (IDEP).

Chakra says he began to move to organic farming when he observed the increasing loss of naturally occurring animals and insects on his farm. A loss, he says, caused through the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in modern farming methods.

""I remembered my beautiful childhood. There were frogs, eels and dragonflies everywhere. I remember when I was a boy thinking how lucky I was to be born in a place where people didn't need money.

We could survive on the rice fields alone. We had vegetation such as ferns growing on the edge of the rice fields and plenty of protein with the frogs and eels,"" said Chakra, adding that he had felt a sense of pride as a child to live among such plenty.

The introduction of Green Revolution rice dramatically changed how rice fields functioned, according to Chakra, who witnessed the rapid collapse of what had been highly successful closed environments that were in balance with the earth's natural cycles.

""I am now quite sad. There is no more of that pride in what we naturally have here. In the past there was a very close connection between the people and the land. That connection has faded away now.

""Modern farming has severed that connection I loved. I want my children to experience growing up with that connection to their land,"" Chakra said.

Putting his energies into ensuring his children have access to that connection through his organic farming techniques has helped Chakra rediscover traditional organic farming methods, which he shares with others through regular village development programs.

Chakra says these programs are essential because not only was much of the natural environment lost to modern farming, but knowledge also.

""It's extraordinary, but many farmers today do not realize that the vegetables they grow produce seed. That they can harvest and grow seed from their vegetable crops. They are so used to having to buy seed for growing, it's as though that's all they know.

So we teach people about seed harvesting during our village development programs,"" Chakra said, adding he has established a seed collection bank on his property with further plans for a rare plants seed bank, that will also house seed from early rice strains.

A workforce of ducks is the backbone of Chakra's rice farm, which he calls his ""lovely workers,"" because as they travel across the rice fields they devour pests, turn the soil and leave natural fertilizer in their wake.

""Chicken tractors"" are another feature of the farm, and these birds, like their avian duck cousins, fertilize patches of soil, scratching and tilling it ready for planting.

""I move their cage each two weeks. The earth they have worked over is ready for planting and very healthy. I do not need to use any chemical fertilizer or pesticides at all. Local farmers find that unbelievable,"" said Chakra who also uses the Systemized Rice Intensification (SRI) planting method for his rice, which gives yields four times higher than traditional planting methods and uses 80 percent less water.

In the SRI system single grains of rice are planted 30 centimeters apart, growing and dividing to give much higher yields than the standard practice of mass planting seeds.

Chakra said the higher yield was due to the rice receiving greater sunlight and less competition from the other rice plants, which in turn also reduced the water levels needed in the rice fields.

And with water access becoming a growing issue among rice farmers, the savings in water use alone should be convincing farmers to change farming techniques, Chakra suggests.

""People are fighting over water now and that will just get worse into the future. But farmers are still reluctant to shift to organic farming with the SRI method. It's a matter of seeing and believing.

""When I harvest my crop they will be able to see I harvest more rice at a lower production cost and sell organic rice at nearly three times the price of rice farmed using chemicals. Organic farming is simply better economics,"" said Chakra.

To guarantee his rice is organic, Chakra needed to establish a filter system for chemically laden water run off from surrounding farms. IDEP staff member Made Suraja from Singaraja stepped in and developed a multifilter pond system that echoes natural wetland systems.

""We looked at wetlands and saw that where chemical run off was spilling into lakes, nature had addressed the problem with water hyacinth. So we built water hyacinth ponds that filter the chemical runoff, which then passes through a stone garden before entering the rice fields.

We have fish living in some of the ponds as biological indicators, which tells us that the water is healthy,"" Suraja said.

He pointed out that for arid zone Singaraja farmers a move towards organic farming was essential for their future survival.

""There are many benefits in organic farming for farmers in areas like Singaraja. We can grow a lot of legumes such as peanuts and long beans, which are nitrogen-fixing plants.

""When these plants are used as rotation crops, farmers have much better corn yields. If they mulch, less water is needed and by using cow dung as fertilizer they do not have the costs of chemical fertilizers, and much healthier soils,"" said Suraja.

But like the difficulties Chakra faces in Pengosekan, convincing Singaraja farmers to change their methods is not easy, so a model organic farm had been established in Singaraja where people can see the benefits first hand.

""We invite people to come and see what we are doing and in that way they witness the economic benefits of organic farming. Seeing is believing, and the fact is, that if farmers don't change their methods there will in the future be more and more farmers facing extreme poverty.

""The cost of buying chemical pesticides and fertilizers is growing to be more expensive than what farmers earn from their harvests. More and more chemical fertilizer and pesticides are needed to grow crops as the land is degraded from over use and pests become more resistant. And none of it guarantees a better harvest,"" said Suraja.

For Seribatu village coffee and spice grower, Wayan Kesuma Yasa, organic farming, when coupled with agrotourism offers benefits to the people of his village through employment and to tourists through education on Bali's agricultural industry.

Yasa set up his BSA coffee and spices agrotourism venture six years ago and has been pleased with the level of interest shown by visitors to Bali in coffee and spice growing techniques. Due to his direct coffee sales Yasa also benefits local coffee growers purchasing ""all their good quality coffee beans,"" guaranteeing local farmers a ready, and growing, market for their produce.

""I prefer to be able to sell only organically grown coffee, which is what I grow on my plantation, but I can not say that other farmers follow my way of farming,"" said Yasa pointing out that because of his organic farming techniques his property was alive with birdsong every morning.

Yasa's coffee and spice plantation is wholly organic, with cow dung and leaf mulch allowing for the growth of microorganisms within the soil structure that aerate and breakdown the natural fertilizers, returning nutrients to the soil.

""I don't use chemicals in my plantation so there are lots of animals in the soils and loads of birds here. I believe 100 percent that organic farming is a better way to farm because it keeps the soil healthy and nature in balance.

""I drink my coffee here every morning, just to see the view and listen to the birds singing to me. This is a simple business where we still roast the coffee by hand over a wood fire and grind it by hand in small amounts -- the old way, the original way,"" said Yasa proving that our ancestors had it right when it comes to farming and coffee.

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