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Opportunities, challenges of going organic - Jakarta Post
Last modified: 2010-11-15 18:55:24

As prices of fuels and chemical fertilizers soar, the idea of "going organic" becomes more attractive to rice farmers in rural Java.

The recent global hike in the cost of rice has been buffered in the country and rice farmers have to cope with the stagnant price of their commodity remaining behind the rise in the prices of essentials that they must procure in the market.

Chemical fertilizers are subsidized by the government, but it is the fertilizers' producers who profit from these subsidies.

Whatever costs the farmers save by buying subsidized chemical fertilizers are immediately canceled off by the policy of keeping the price of rice as low as possible.

Growing and selling organic rice offers an escape from this predicament but conversion to organic farming is not easy.

Soil that has been pumped with chemical fertilizers cannot become an organic field overnight. It takes at least several years of tender loving care to bring life back into soil that has been suffocated by chemicals.

What is a small farmer of sharecropper to do? Not being able to afford a reduction in the income from a harvest, the idea of stopping the use of chemical fertilizers sounds like financial suicide to many rice farmers.

Pak Sunar Kampret is a sharecropper in Sekaralas, a village in Ngawi, East Java.

When the people whose fields he was working decided to go organic he decided to find somebody else's fields to work, someone who would support his use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

"My wife won't let me sharecrop a field if I'm not allowed to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. I know that in the long term, using organic fertilizers and pesticides is much better, but I need to survive in the short term too."

When a farmer must face a definite drop in production due to conversion to organic methods, often it becomes simply unaffordable.

Especially considering that the cost to begin planting organically is often considerably more than using chemicals to raise a crop.

If you don't have enough compost ready you will need to purchase it and then you will spend more time and labor spreading the fertilizer compared to if you were using chemicals.

The practicality and ease of using granulated chemical fertilizer has become a business opportunity for some.

Pak Cipto is an organic fertilizer distributor in the sub-district of Walikukun. He sells granulated compost and finds that his customers prefer it to bulk compost because the granules make the compost feel and look like chemical fertilizers.

He has managed to convince a number of farmers in his area to change to organic farming.

"People are used to spreading granules of fertilizer so my product gives them that satisfaction of doing something you are used to. But the best thing about using organic fertilizer is that as the quality of your soil increases you will need less and less fertilizer. This is the exact opposite to using chemical fertilizers that compact the soil," he said.

Most farmers realize that in the long run, going organic is the better option. The problem is that most farmers do not have the security to plan too far ahead. In a hand-to-mouth existence, the three month wait from the beginning of planting rice to the harvest is more than enough to bear.

Realizing this problem some farmers in the Sekaralas village have got together to pool their cows to amass a decent amount of organic fertilizer to make conversion to organic agriculture easier.

Pak Sugeng is the leader of the cow-pool.

"We have a dozen cows here now and in the future we plan to seek assistance to obtain more so that we can produce enough compost to sell as well.

"We would like to build a bio-gas installation but for now the cost is still beyond our means. We would like to get the Ngawi Regent to help us with more cows and a digester to produce gas. When people see that it is profitable, I think more people will join in the organic movement."

After a year of operating, the Sekaralas cow-pool is not yet producing enough manure to sell. But after a few years the fields now being enriched will need less and less organic fertilizers and the cow-pool will have a surplus of manure.

If Pak Sugeng and his colleagues manage to get their bio-gas installation set up for their domestic fuel needs, perhaps the idea will spread and more people will be interested in converting to organic farming and producing fuel from their organic waste.

Currently, very many people in Sekaralas use the fields, the irrigation ditches and the rivers as open toilets.

When the dry season arrives, human waste lies open and disease related to poor hygiene such as typhus, dysentery, hepatitis and various other illnesses spread across the population.

When there is an outbreak of disease, patients outnumber the beds, and in small hospitals such as the one in the town of Ngrambe, the sick often are seen being treated on the floor in the lobby because the wards are too full.

A better personal hygiene culture is desperately needed and perhaps the prospect of getting bio-gas and organic fertilizer out of properly managed and designed toilets would be the incentive that is needed to spark people's interest.

Although going organic is hard work and expensive, with cooperation and the right preparation it is relatively cheap, and comes with attractive side products as well.

Agriculture should not be industrialized if it is believed that the farmers need to be able to be masters of their own means of production.

Organizing organic farming from village level would open possibilities for farmers and with proper guidance and assistance, a section of the world market for agricultural products could be ours.

Farmers like the Sekaralas cow-pool members are only one part of the effort needed. The government also needs to support organic agriculture and stop subsidies for chemical fertilizers that degrade the soil for short term profit.

Jakarta Post 11/07/2008

Keywords: Opportunities, challenges of going organic, Jakarta Post, challenges, organic, organik, rural, Java, chemical fertilizers, pestisida kimia
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