Across from DINARI Foundation’s office, there is a large concrete lot with two long warehouses lining the perimeter. In the middle of the lot, blue tarps covered three mounds that were perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. In the morning, workers removed the tarps, revealing piles of what looked like sand as high as the men’s waists. Two of the men wheeled out mechanized plows and bulldozed the piles, gradually spreading the material across the concrete in messy spirals. A third worker appeared with a bandanna covering his nose and mouth, looking like a bandit. He and the others used large curved rakes to spread the sand in a thin even layer across the ground.
The men then disappeared into one of the warehouses. They returned with rectangular mops and swept the sand back into piles. The entire process would repeat throughout the day, interrupted by breaks when the workers squatted in the shade, arms draped over their knees. Sometimes trucks came and unloaded more material. Once a customer entered the lot and left with a big white sack strapped to her bicycle and another balanced on her head. At four o’clock in the afternoon, the men placed the tarps back on the piles, and activity ceased until the following morning.
When Rai came, he explained that the mounds were rice, not sand. The lot was part of a rice mill, and the men were drying the rice in the sun, which helped remove the husks. Farmers like Rai brought their crops there. In exchange for ten percent of the farmers’ supply, the mill processed the rice and the farmers could then sell it for twice the price of “rough rice.” In a one-hectare plot (about two and a half acres), most farmers could harvest five to six tons of rice during a four-month season. Rai’s record was 15.3 tons in 85 days.
He began farming ten years ago when he was twenty-seven years old, renting a small plot surrounded by buildings in Bali’s capital of Denpasar. At the time, he owned an art gallery in Kuta, the touristic heart of Bali. He sold his own paintings and ceramics, and he also designed jewelry and landscapes.
His family came from Blimbingsari, a rural Christian village in western Bali, and his father worked in Bali’s national park.
“Every day, I learn about nature,” Rai told me. He had wavy black hair that flowed down to his khaki shorts and dark stubble that reached up to his prominent nose and cheekbones. My first impression was of a Native American shaman, but his tan New Balances and ankle-high socks befitted a country club staff member.
His grandfather was a rice farmer, and Rai would watch him farm in the traditional way, burning the old stalks and flooding the paddies.
“As a child, I see this, and I think this is wrong.”
Rai studied economics and cinematography in college and never received formal agricultural training. But he read on his own about plant ecology, oxygenation and organic farming. He was concerned that traditional farming in Bali polluted the environment and strained its natural resources. He learned that burning the spent rice fields killed microorganisms necessary to aerate the soil. He began testing farming methods from Thailand and Madagascar, incorporating techniques that worked and disregarding those that didn’t.
“I have no rule,” he told me.
Most farmers filled their paddies with twenty centimeters of water. Rai speculated that with less water, the new stalks would receive more sunlight and oxygen. He irrigated his field with just one centimeter of water, and the stalks produced twice as many shoots. Less water also allowed the soil organisms to flourish and enrich the soil.
Ardi, one of the staff at DINARI, also grew up in Blimbingsari. He told me he would help his father plant rice. At the start of each season, he would follow behind his father, dropping five seeds in every hole. The method required 40 kilos of rice seed per hectare, at a cost of Rp. 2 million (approximately $200). Rai found that the rice grew better if he planted just one seed at each point, and he needed just 12 kilos of seed.
Rai began composting his discarded rice stalks instead of burning them. He cut up the stalks and mixed them with sawdust, cow dung, and rice husks. He added microorganisms he had collected from various trees, grasses, and bamboo bark. He then covered the mixture with a tarp for two weeks. The chemical processes released so much energy that the compost would measure 70° Celsius, so he had to open up the tarp after the first week to let everything cool down.
Rai understood that burning the rice fields wasn’t sustainable and required additional fertilizer to make up the nutrient deficit. A kilo of fertilizer cost about Rp. 3,000. At first, farmers might only require a ton of fertilizer per hectare, but every year they would have to buy more as they depleted the natural soil.
Burning also released pesticides that had been sprayed on the crops. Mothers often carried their babies with them when they worked in the field, and many infants died as a result from a bleeding disorder. Rather than applying chemical pesticides, Rai protected his rice with lemongrass, watered-down pineapple juice and leaves from the neem plant. I had seen neem extract bottled in a swanky natural foods store, claiming to treat diarrhea and inflammation.
Rai’s methods required time and careful planning, and the results were not immediate. But over the span of a few seasons, yields increased from 60% to 200%. Initially, the costs were similar to traditional farming, but by sparing traditional fertilizers and pesticides, Rai could eventually save millions of rupiahs for every hectare planted. His rice also grew faster, so he could plant four harvests each year instead of three. And because the rice was organic, he could sell it for twice the price of the conventional variety.
“Your story is bullsh*t,” one farmer announced when Rai tried to explain his approach.
Most farmers believed that organic farming produced smaller yields, and few believed him. Some people got angry at his seemingly outrageous claims. Rai once ran away after a man brandished a knife at him. Rai decided to set up demonstrations, renting small farming plots in the villages and growing his own rice.
“My crops are like this,” he said, raising his hand level with his chest. He then dropped his hand below his waist. “And theirs’ are this. Then they listen.” His laugh was somehow both guttural and giggly.
Maybe only one farmer out a hundred would adopt his method at first, but gradually he won more and more converts. Farmers began visiting Rai to seek advice, often staying until the early morning hours. His wife ran out of coffee. Exasperated, she brought out a kettle of hot water one night, announced she was going to bed, and told Rai to get his own coffee.
Sometimes he was so busy he forgot to eat. His wife packed lunchboxes and implored him to drink more water. He recently spent three days in the hospital after contracting typhus.
“Perhaps I work too hard,” he admitted.
He wanted to “open minds”, to fundamentally change how Balinese people viewed farming and farmers. Most Balinese people looked down on farmers as dirty, poor, and stupid. Because the traditional way of farming was simplistic and shortsighted, Rai believed it instilled a mindset in farmers that served to justify the stereotype.
Rai once received a call from one of his daughter’s teachers, who suspected his child had played a prank. His children attended good schools with expensive tuition, and most of the students came from affluent families. The children had been asked to write down their parents’ occupations, and the teacher did not believe Rai’s daughter when she wrote that her father was a farmer. Rai happily confirmed that his daughter was telling the truth. Later, when his daughter brought her schoolwork home, he saw that the teacher had crossed out “farmer” and written “businessman.”
Few young people chose farming as a career, instead seeking better wages in Bali’s cities and tourist areas. Often they would earn only Rp. 750,000, or $75, in a month.
“It’s crazy,” he said, smiling in disbelief. “Go to the city be a crime.”
He lamented that Bali had squandered its position as a rice producer and now had to import rice from the island of Java. He thought Bali’s shift from agriculture to tourism had been disastrous, as evidenced by the economic collapse following the 2002 bombings.
Rai’s own finances imploded after the terrorist acts. Vendors who previously bought his ceramics stopped ordering and began importing from Vietnam. Rai was forced to close his art gallery in which he had invested Rp. 500 million of his own money.
He couldn’t earn enough to feed his family, and it was not yet time to harvest his crops. He ate only one meal a day but didn’t tell his wife for fear she would get upset. He pleaded with his mother to send milk for his daughter. He tried giving her tea in the nighttime, but she told him she could taste the difference.
“It is sweet, but it is not milk.” As Rai recounted the story, his eyes moistened.
Even though he didn’t have any money, he arranged for a local television station to auction ten of his paintings for the families of the bombing victims. He raised Rp. 300 million.
Gradually, as he harvested his crops and the economy recovered, Rai rebuilt his life. He began dedicating most of his time to farming. He worked every day, three for his own livelihood and four to help the farming communities. After farmers implemented his approach, he would expand to new areas, renting farmland all over Bali in places like Klunkung, Karangasem, Tabanan, Singaraja, and Nagara. He spent half his money providing for his family and the other half for social work. He bought a car and a motorbike and sent his children to good schools, but he had no savings left over.
His friends told him he was crazy to spend so much money on his social work. He asked them how they kept good conscience while their neighbors lived in poverty.
“How come (can) you eat? How come (can) you loving?”
While growing up in Blimbingsari, Rai went to school with several children from the local orphanage. Sometimes a dozen would come to his home to study. When his mother came home, she demanded to know why all the food was gone. Rai recalled how, when he explained to his mother where his friends lived, “she not angry anymore.”
The Balinese rice association, however, was still angry at him. The market price for conventional rice was Rp. 7,000 per kilo, and the price for organic rice was twice that. But Rai sold his rice for Rp. 3,000.
“When I can grow so much rice, it is enough.”
I wanted to make sure I understood him correctly, that he voluntarily sold his rice for a fraction of what it was worth.
“That is why my friends say I’m crazy.” He laughed, scrunching his cheeks so that his eyes squinted.
I asked whether he could have a greater impact if he sold his rice at the market price, since he would have more funds for his social work. Poor people subsisted on rice, he told me, and he thought his first priority should be to help them, rather than just help farmers increase their production and hope this would lower the price of rice. But he struggled with the decision.
“It keeps me up at night,” he said.
A few months ago, Rai borrowed Rp. 9 million from DINARI Foundation when he ran out of funds. He wanted to rent a plot of farmland in the nearby town of Sempidi, hoping to convert more farmers to his sustainable agricultural practices.
He told me that banks also looked down on farmers and would not lend to them. Farmers were forced to borrow from “bloodsuckers” who charged 10% interest rates, often leaving the farmers with little or no profit at harvest time. Rai hoped that by lowering farmers’ costs, he could cut out the bloodsuckers.
Rai invited me to join him the following afternoon to watch him instruct several Sempidi farmers how to make compost. I saw this as evidence that his DINARI-financed project had proven successful. I agreed and gave him my energy bar before he left, worrying whether he would have time to eat.
The next day, as I followed him on my motorbike, he pointed out a driveway full of sand-colored rice, drying in the afternoon sun. His hair was tied up in a samurai’s bun that peaked out from beneath his helmet, and his unbuckled chinstrap flapped in the wind.
We pulled into the farmer’s house and parked in a grass lawn beneath a tree. There was a small dirt yard in back, and we sat a bamboo bench and one of the farmers’ wives brought us donuts and sweetened coffee. The farmer’s rice paddy lay beyond.
There was a pile of dried rice stalks on the ground, and two farmers began chopping them up on small wooden cutting boards. At times, the knives synchronized into a percussive duet. There were two sacks and a red plastic bag next to the pile, and Rai opened them to show me the compost ingredients: wood chips from a carpenter’s shop, coconut fibers, and rice husks. A pile of cow manure lay behind the rice stalks.
As the farmers continued the prep work, Rai and I walked along the edge of the rice paddy. He knelt by one of the shallow pools and pointed out resting tadpoles. Frogs lived in the water now that the farmers had stopped using conventional pesticides. He showed me a neem tree growing behind a farmer’s house, its leaves fanning out in a modest circle. A number of farmers had learned of Rai’s techniques and begun poaching branches.
He explained that the paddy would be re-terraced to improve the irrigation system, and the farmers would work together to improve each other’s land.
“Hundred years ago, farmers work together. Now, they work together again.”
We checked back on Rai’s students, and Rai retrieved a plastic liter-size bottle filled with brown liquid. The bottle housed Rai’s microorganisms and would be sufficient for two hectares. Rai poured the brew into a bucket and mixed in sugar and water. The farmers could buy soil bacteria, but it was very expensive, so Rai would show them how to make it themselves.
After the farmers had combined the dry composting ingredients, the microorganism concoction was funneled into a canister and sprayed on top. The farmers took hoes and spent the next fifteen minutes vigorously mixing everything together. An old farmer, wearing a hat but no shirt, earnestly raked the pile until the veins on his sinewy arms swelled. Rai swept in the scattered remains, and finally a blue tarp was placed over the pile and weighted down with rocks.
The farmers listened for a while as Rai smoked a cigarette and discussed his methods, and then gradually they left. Other men from the village began arriving with roosters, children, or both. They sat on the grass lawn, and I watched as the men decided which cocks would fight one another. The two owners then fluffed up roosters’ feathery manes. The men took turns holding each bird’s neck out for the other cock to peck, and the fight commenced when the roosters were worked into a sufficient frenzy. Sometimes the birds went at each others’ heads, and other times they launched into flying kicks.
It was past six o’clock, and the sun had dropped below the distant trees. Between rounds, I looked over at Rai. He was sitting on the bamboo bench with his back to the action, smoking another cigarette and speaking with the last man and woman who remained with him. If not for me, he might have stayed long into the night.
Rai transporting microorganisms
While I always welcome your comments, I would also like to ask for your assistance this time. I have offered to help Rai find organizations involved in sustainable farming that might be interested in supporting his efforts. My knowledge of agricultural organizations is minimal, so I would be grateful for any suggestions you might have. You can leave a comment on this blog or on Rai’s profile on Kiva:
Please expect a new post from me in about two weeks. I encourage you to watch for new loans from the DINARI Foundation here: http://www.kiva.org/app.php?page=businesses&partner_id=82&status=fundRaising&sortBy=New+to+Old&_tpg=fb/>