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Organic rice from the land of volcanoes

Visiting Emily Sutanto and “her” organic farmers on Java

by Anne Welsing

Organic rice from the land of volcanoes all photos: Anne Welsing

Emily Sutanto sells a top-quality organic product from Java all over the world. This at last brings the small farmers more income, and growing traditional varieties using the effective SRI method protects biodiversity and the climate. 

Emily Sutanto would never have thought that she herself would one day support poor farmers, healthy food and environmental protection. The 35-year-old native of Indonesia grew up abroad, studied communications and international marketing in Los Angeles, and lived in Australia and Singapore, where she worked as a model and fashion designer.

Top-quality organic products need marketing opportunities too

In 2008 a good friend of the family told her about the farmers in Tasikmalaya, who grew traditional organic rice there in export quality, but had no sales outlets. Emily also heard that, like all the rest who had not changed to organic, the organic farmers still had to sell their rice at poor prices to Tengkulaks, greedy distributors, with no prospect of ever breaking out of the vicious circle of poverty. The organic farmers had joined forces to form a cooperative called Simpatik two years earlier (Sistem Pangan Organik Tasikmalaya or OrganicSystem), but this didn’t help. Hearing all this made Emily rather sad. She was curious to know more and set out from the mega-capital Jakarta on the west coast of Java travelling eastwards, past volcanoes to Tasikmalaya, Java’s most important rice-growing region for centuries.

Rice Farmer Hendra Kribo demonstrates conventional and SRI rice: SRI rice plants are larger, have strong roots and develop more rice grains
She was initially sceptical, because until now she had only come across fake organic products in Indonesia – so a simple marketing trick? But she was really surprised: The farmers had not only completely eliminated the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals for years, but also practised a particularly sustainable, environment-friendly and effective growing method: SRI – System of Rice Intensification.

The SRI method was developed by the French Father Henri de Laulanié in the 80s together with rice farmers in Madagascar. By introducing amazingly simple but revolutionary changes to traditional rice growing, they substantially increased the yield per hectare and this with much lower input: fewer seeds, less water and no (or very little) chemicals. The basic principle: Rice seedlings only some 10 days old – instead of up to four weeks – of mostly traditional varieties are planted in the unflooded paddy field with an area of some 25 x 25cm per seedling instead of the otherwise three to six closely spaced seedlings. In this way, each young rice plant has lots of space and ample nutrients available for rapidly forming many strong new shoots that become much larger than with the old method. Because the fields are not flooded, lots of oxygen passes into the soil where microorganisms and worms survive, which means less methane emission than in conventional cultivation. The SRI method is meanwhile practised successfully in more than 45 countries.

During Emily’s first visit in 2008, Saepul Bahri, rice farmer and chairman of SIMPATIK ever since, told her they had changed gradually to SRI and organic around 1999 – with the support of the Indonesian government. As a marketing expert, Emily soon realized: “This is a method the world supports, and precisely such a sustainable product is certainly appreciated abroad. But the farmers were so isolated. I see myself as a bridge between them and the world.” In the eyes of the farmers she was a foreigner who didn’t fit into their world at all – and on top of this a woman. “The first time the farmers saw me they were really friendly, but they had no idea that I was serious about it.” This soon changed, however, because from then on Emily invested all her know-how, energy and ambition in the new project – in her new life.


Organic and fair – a good way for the small farmers to make a living

It was clear that export was not possible without international certification, but common standards were lacking; every village had its own criteria for organic growing. Emily set up her company Bloom Agro and organized innumerable courses and training programmes. These were followed by inspections to get the farmers into shape for the international standard – with success. They were awarded the “Fair for Life” label by the Swiss Institute for Marketecology IMO in 2009. This label is more than just organic certification and – similar to the Fairtrade label – guarantees certain social standards. For example, child labour is taboo, and a bonus is paid to the cooperative in addition to the market price.

IMO labels on bags of rice (Cooperative Appoli, Boyolali)
Simpatik was the first and until recently the only rice-growing cooperative in the whole of Indonesia with an internationally recognized organic and fair certificate – a pioneering and showpiece project. Some 500 rice farmers and their families make their living from this project, can send their children to school and even save a little. Above all, they have a long-term purchasing guarantee.

Valuable asset – organic rice from Java

Getting the export licence was not so easy, however, because exporting rice has always been and still is officially banned. The reason is that although Indonesia is the world’s third largest rice producer after India and China, it must still import rice to cover its own needs. An exception was granted for Emily’s project, because it concerns a top-quality product that achieves good prices abroad.

Bloom Agro exported the first sacks of organic rice to the USA in mid 2009. In the meantime Emily also delivers to Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Europe. Since the end of 2011, three rice varieties under the “Sunria” brand (“Sun Joy”) have also been exported from Tasikmalaya to Europe – including a black rice variety. Stefan Fak, risolier (rice expert) and founder of Lotao, imports it. This top-quality rice can be purchased from Denn’s Bio organic supermarket chain and selected delicatessen shops, for example. These are traditional rice varieties that thrive in West Java’s volcanic soil and have been adapted to the climatic conditions there for generations. The farmers therefore help to preserve the natural diversity of rice varieties. This is important, because only a few of the thousands of traditional domestic varieties in Indonesia are still left and these are preserved in seed banks. Half the total area used for growing rice in Indonesia is now used by only two high-performance varieties.

Saepul Bahri on the rice field: A dozen shoots have been developed from a single small seedling in 15 days.
Last August, German trader Stefan Fak visited the cooperative in Tasikmalaya and balanced on the narrow clay walls between the rice terraces behind Saepul Bahri. Saepeul is proud: “We used to harvest four to five tons of rice per hectare with the conventional method and today up to seven tons with SRI – and this using our own compost and completely without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.”
Simpatik meanwhile has its own modern mill for processing paddy (unpolished rice) and the exclusive sales packages of jute and batik are sewn in Tasikmalaya and also provided with labels from domestic production.

More information on SRI and links: http://sri.ciifad.cornell.edu


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