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Muharjo: Planting the seeds of organic health - Jakarta Post
Last modified: 2010-03-29 22:31:01

Muharjo Seeds of Organic HealthIs it possible to create a business where justice prevails? Where customers, owners and workers all benefit?

Muharjo, the founder of organic farming business Kembang Lestari, thinks it is.

Muharjo's back yard is pretty big, and it seems the men and women there are busy working away. Men are carrying sacks of rice, compost and fertilizer while women are weighing rice, removing dirt from it, and then putting it into sacks. Although all seem to have their hands full, so to speak, the atmosphere is by no means serious.

"Even though this business belongs to me, I'm thankful that all my employees and customers feel a sense of ownership, so it can be run in an atmosphere of mutual trust and honesty," explains Muharjo, 60, who pioneered his organic farming business in 1992 in his remote village of Bangkerep in Bantul, about 40 kilometers south of Yogyakarta.

When attending a seminar on organic agriculture in 1990, Muharjo, a farmer at the time, realized he - and his friends - had been poisoning the earth, himself and others using conventional farming practices, fertilizers and chemical pesticides.

"I had to switch to semi-organic agriculture with all the associated risks of failure," said the 1970 graduate of Jetis Technical High School in Yogyakarta.

At the start, Muharjo received much criticism from his neighbors. They were not sure his plants would grow successfully using less fertilizer than before. So local residents were surprised at how abundant his first harvest had been, how fragrant the rice was and how tall the rice stalks were.

Muharjo had bought 5 kilograms of local rice seed of the Mentik Wangi variety, in Boyolali, to be planted in his 1,500-square-meter rice paddy.

Despite the harvest being abundant, other farmers failed to take up his ideas, as his organic rice was still more expensive than rice harvested the conventional way.

"I didn't give up though...The difficulty was in the marketing. Thank God I met Mrs. Lukman Soetrisno, the widow of late sociologist Loekman Soetrisno from Gadjah Mada University, at the seminar. She even bought my organic rice," said the father of four.

After this, many other lecturers followed her example and bought Muharjo's organic rice. Finally, Muharjo offered to sell it at the UGM cooperative in Bulaksumur, Yogyakarta, in 1995.

Until now he has been supplying around 100 kilograms every week to the UGM cooperative in Yogyakarta.

"So I became a rice broker for other organic farmers, because if I had to rely on my own harvest, I would not have enough supplies," said Muharjo who retired from the public service in 2006.

Muharjo said the organic rice market opened up in the past 10 years since he started organic farming in his village.

In 1992, Muharjo obtained funding from an overseas NGO to promote organic agriculture for one year. He also traveled to other cities including Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, Semarang, Palangkaraya and Palu.

"In those places I talked about organic agriculture with government agencies, the private sector, education institutions and so on. When I came face to face with farmers, I introduced them to organic agriculture, mentioning the benefits [of organic farming] and then telling them about the advantages of becoming prosperous together," Muharjo said.

Noticing the potential of the market had opened up, Muharjo kept telling conventional farmer groups organic agriculture was the way to go, and that they should switch.

"Because I was also a farmer, people wanting to argue otherwise could come to my house to see for themselves."

His struggle has not been in vain, especially in Bantul regency where 25 groups of organic farmers now work on 50 hectares of land. Although this is a relatively small area compared to the conventional rice plantations in the regency (around 1,600 hectares), Muharjo is happy that organic agriculture has continued to expand.

In his own village, he became the head of the Kembangsari organic farmer group, which comprises 94 organic farmers who manage 12 hectares of land.

Muharjo's business was established on foundations of fairness. He serves all the needs of organic farmers in Bantul, including those up and downstream. He procures their supplies of seeds and compost fertilizers, and provides them with consultation, purchasing, marketing and other services.

"I have been able to do all these things because the business I run has been based on fairness. We all benefit through increased prosperity and the consumers are also guaranteed their health," said a smiling Muharjo.

He also keeps more than 40 pigs on his farm and uses their manure as organic fertilizer.

Through his company Kembang Lestari, Muharjo has built relations with various groups of organic farmers, including in Magelang, Boyolali and Salatiga. In terms of marketing, he has also opened two agencies in Jakarta that order 10 tons of rice and other organic agricultural produce each month.

For a long time, Muharjo has also been thinking about standards so he can guarantee the quality of organic agricultural produce. In 2000, he helped pioneer the establishment of a quality-guarantor institution for organic agriculture in Indonesia, the Board of Indonesian Organic Certification (BIOCert).

BIOCert, based in Bogor, is the only institution in Indonesia that can provide licenses or certificates of quality guaranteeing organic agricultural produce. Those certificates are recognized by the international organic agriculture certification institution based in Switzerland.

"As long as the land and the processes meet BIOCert standards, then of course, people can be sure it is organic, whatever the product," he said smiling.

Since 2005, people have begun to realize the importance of organic produce for human health.

"Now, the obstacles come from the farmers themselves. The market has improved and opened up, but the product has not kept up with market developments. Farmers have been lulled into being practical and wanting instant results."

Factory fertilizers bring quick results while with compost fertilizers the yield will not necessarily be so good, he added.

"To change the attitudes of farmers who want practical and instant results to be loyal to the process... well, this has not been an easy task," said a concerned Muharjo.

However, his own loyalty to organic agriculture has not waned. Muharjo has always been ready, at any time, if invited, to give information about organic agriculture, providing classes and raising awareness about saving the earth, maintaining human health, respecting others, and making farmers independent.

Muharjo is sure that whoever controls the seeds has authority in life. This message, which he always repeats to organic farmers, is designed to empower farmers so they can become more independent and stronger.

To help others, a group of organic farmers in Bantul regency has established the Bantul Organic Barn (LOB) as a way to serve all members and the community so they can get organic rice for their mutual prosperity.

"Now, with that organization, I am going to arrange for it to be licensed so it can be more flexible and empower its members," he said with determination and certainty.

Simon Sudarman , Contributor , Yogyakarta | Thu, 02/18/2010 1:37 PM | People - The Jakarta Post

Keywords: Muharjo: organic, health, organik, workers benefit, Lembang Lestarai, justice, agriculture, rice
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