Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Natural farming in Yogyakarta

Published: Feb 19, 2020
A new movement connects with nature and tradition to foster independent, environmentally aware farmers

Dimas Dwi Laksmana, Wardha Andriyuni & Fuad Langgara

‘We need to counter the image of farming as an unattractive occupation with bleak prospects for young people. If not us, then there is no future for Indonesian agriculture,’ declares Gus Qomar, co-founder of Sekolah Tani Muda (Young Farmers School), or Sekti Muda for short.

We were a group of 28 young people (17 men and 11 women), aged in our mid-twenties when we joined as participants in the eighth cohort of Sekti Muda in 2018. Regardless of the different motivations and backgrounds that drove us to join, we shared a common concern about the future of agriculture in Indonesia. As an agrarian country, in 2017 the agricultural sector contributed 13 per cent of national GDP and supported the livelihoods of about 32 per cent of the population. However, the number of people wanting to work as farmers has been constantly declining for the last few years – which will have a major impact on national food security in the not-too-distant future. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS), between 2003 and 2013 the number of farming households decreased by approximately 5 million, with these farmers switching to occupations outside of agriculture.

The idea of Sekti Muda

In 2014 a group of young women and men in Yogyakarta came together to create an environmental organisation initially focused on waste management but which later shifted to environmental issues related to agriculture. Sekti Muda was inaugurated in Yogyakarta in 2014 as an informal ‘school’ to educate farmers and non-farmers alike on alternative and more sustainable farming methods.

Sekti Muda fosters a spirit of cooperation with a focus on knowledge sharing. It has expanded its network and now collaborates with several research and religious institutions including PUSTEK UGM (Centre for Population Economics of Universitas Gadjah Mada), the Mubyarto Institute, Pondok Pesantren Mursyidul Hadi (an Islamic boarding school) and SPI (the Indonesian Farmers Union), as well as pertanian alami (natural farming) practitioners in surrounding Yogyakarta and beyond. These practitioners identify pertanian alami as a way of farming that uses only natural ingredients – plants, animals and microorganisms – and strictly prohibits petroleum-based agricultural inputs.

As the name of the organisation infers, Sekti Muda targets young people, seeking to encourage them to take an active role as agents of change for a better future for Indonesian agriculture, with a particular emphasis on the Yogyakarta region, where agriculture is no longer in tune with nature.

Natural farming

A principle underpinning Sekti Muda’s mission is that conventional agriculture with its dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilisers threatens the survival of diverse ecosystems. Under the current system, access to information about these agricultural products, and about high yielding seed varieties, is somewhat controlled and farmers are not always fully aware of what they are using. One of Sekti Muda’s main goals is to bridge this gap by facilitating knowledge sharing among natural farming practitioners, private sector operators, government, and academic institutions.

Sekti Muda’s founders were influenced by the writings of Masanobu Fukuoka in his book The One Straw Revolution in which he details a philosophy of ‘natural farming’ or ‘do nothing farming’. According to Fukuoka’s teaching, harmonious relationships in nature, of which humans are a part, can be fulfilled if we observe and respect natural cycles. This method, known in Indonesia as pertanian alami, is now practiced by some farmers in Yogyakarta and is taught to Sekti Muda participants.

Sekti Muda’s founders undertook training in pertanian alami with Dr Cho Han-Kyu, an expert in natural farming from South Korea. Through this training, the founders came realise the benefits and advantages of natural farming over conventional farming. In conjunction with Serikat Petani Indonesia (Indonesian Farmers Union) Sekti Muda also adopted the concept of agroecology, which supports the convergence of environmental and socio-economic elements in agriculture. Agroecological practices aim to provide economic, social and environmental benefits that are rooted in farming traditions. Sekti Muda based its teaching module on the (overlapping) philosophies of natural farming and agroecology.

Caption: Pak Udik demonstrates intercropping between shallots (the small green shoots) and aloe vera. In pertanian alami, monoculture is avoided as much as possible and intercropping between plants is encouraged. (Image: Oktavianus Kurniadi Prasetyo)

Natural farming in practice

The principles of natural farming include freedom from chemicals and the promotion of environmentally sustainable agriculture. The implementation of the first principle can support self-sufficiency for farmers when they can produce natural fertilisers and pesticides in accordance with their particular environmental conditions. This relieves their dependence on agribusinesses for other inputs, either chemical or organic.

For example, in our class we learned how to make nutrisi hayati (natural nutrition) by extracting essential macronutrients required by plants, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium, using locally available ingredients. This input has similar functions to organic fertiliser. The ingredients we commonly use are cow bones, brotowali (Tinospora crispa), catfish and roasted eggshells. These are fermented with palm sugar before being applied to plants. In the preparation of nutrisi hayati, fermentation by microorganisms is very important. If the mentioned materials are not available they can be replaced with other ingredients as long as they contain the same four macronutrients. This helps to make the natural farming method more adaptable and lower in cost than conventional agriculture.

Caption: The mixture of chopped brotowoli (Tinospora crispa) with water and coconut sugar is then covered with paper or cotton cloth to undergo a fermentation process for approximately seven days. Brotowali is rich in potassium, so the resulting liquid is used as a fertiliser and can be sprayed on plants to stimulate the growth of their roots. (Image: Dimas Dwi Laksmana)

After the Green Revolution

Natural farming revives local traditions that were in use by Indonesian farmers prior to the adoption of modern farming practices, which were encouraged by the government in the 1970s and 1980s in what is known as the Green Revolution. This agricultural policy led to the industrialisation of agriculture across Indonesia and the region more broadly, in turn making farmers heavily reliant on petroleum-based fertilisers and pesticides. Whilst yields may improve, costs of these products are significant, and increasing amounts are required to maintain constant levels of crop productivity. In addition, excessive use of artificial inputs damages soils and causes soil compaction, or ‘bantat’ in Javanese. Forty years on, the use of artificial pesticides promoted during the Green Revolution has resulted in serious ecological damage and disturbance, such as the decline in agrobiodiversity, pest outbreaks and soil and water pollution. These are the result of pesticides that kill organisms indiscriminately, including the natural enemies of pests, such as spiders, dragonflies, frogs and birds.

In contrast, natural farming can achieve environmental sustainability by restoring natural balance and maintaining the natural cycle of nature. What is consumed by plants is in turn consumed by animals and humans, and then the nutrients are returned to nature. The principle of care in natural farming also teaches us to live in harmony with nature without exploiting it. Pak Udik, a natural farming practitioner and our teacher, told us: ‘Plants are like humans. They need different nutrients during different stages of growth. A pregnant woman craves sour food. Ripening fruits, similarly, require sour nutrients which can be derived from unripe fruits’. By practicing natural farming we, as human beings, can live up to our duty to be nature’s stewards.

Pak Udik and his family moved to Yogyakarta from Jakarta more than 10 years ago. After attending training with Dr Cho he was inspired to share his new knowledge of pertanian alami with other farmers to help restore soils that had been ‘poisoned’ by conventional agriculture. As he often told us, ‘The motto in pertanian alami is “nature is life, nature is teacher, nature is everything”.’

Caption: Pak Udik leads a session on the preparation of nutrisi hayati. The plastic container in the middle contains live catfish which will be fermented with palm sugar and water. Catfish is rich in nitrogen so it is suitable as liquid fertilizer (Image: Dimas Dwi Laksmana)

Sekti Muda in action

Sekti Muda provides the opportunity to learn both the practice and theory of natural farming. The teaching module includes hands-on activities for making nutrisi hayati, organic compost preparation, soil preparation, and planting.

Students regularly go out on field excursions to visit the practitioners of natural farming around Yogyakarta. On one occasion we visited Pak Cahaya who was once nominated for a Kalpataru, an Indonesian environmental award conferred in each province, for his effort in promoting natural farming in his neighbourhood and throughout the country. Pak Cahaya learnt his natural farming training methods directly from Dr Cho a few years ago in Bantul. He shared with us remedial applications of local wild plants, such as kitolod (Hippobroma longiflora) for curing a toothache. ‘My knowledge,’ he said, ‘is derived from the knowledge of our ancestors’. Pak Cahaya’s consistent efforts to share his knowledge and to encourage farmers to live in harmony with nature through the practice of natural farming has given him a national profile, leading him to a television appearance on national broadcaster TVRI in 2018.

Caption: Ploughing and preparation for a raised bed that will be used for growing string beans, chillies, green mustards and other local staple vegetables. This class, like many, is being held in the backyard of one of Sekti Muda’s patrons. (Image: Oktavianus Kurniadi Prasetyo)

While Pak Cahaya is active as a natural farming trainer, Pak Sigit, on the other hand, spends the majority of his time in his backyard producing kascing (vermicompost). When we visited his house he showed us his kascing composting set-up, using food waste and worms to produce fertiliser. He has sold kascing to other farmers in Yogyakarta and is passionate about sharing his knowledge with anybody who wants to learn.

In addition to hands-on experiences, our training included discussions around social, economic and cultural aspects of agriculture more broadly. One discussion was on the significant role played by female farmers, especially in traditional Javanese agriculture, in seed preparation and in the intergenerational transfer of agricultural knowledge through garden plots. We also learned about some similarities between small-holder farmers in India and Indonesia: for example, both groups include many resilient subsistence farmers, many of whom often supplement their income with non-farming activities.

Sekti Muda’s founders hope that by combining gardening practice, visits to practitioners and class discussions, the participants will be inspired and motivated, not only to practice natural farming themselves, but also to spread their newly acquired knowledge and foster a new generation of independent and environmentally aware farmers.

Dimas Dwi Laksmana (dimas.laksmana17@gmail.com) is a PhD candidate in the Chair of Comparative Development and Cultural Studies at the University of Passau. Wardha Andriyuni (kazebara20@gmail.com) is a masters candidate in Biology at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM). Fuad Langgara (fuadlanggara123@gmail.com) is a bachelor candidate in Law at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University Yogyakarta (UIN Sunan Kalijaga).

Inside Indonesia 139: Jan-Mar 2020

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