After attending ASRI's sustainable agriculture trainings, the farmers who would form the organic farming cooperative HarapanBaru ("New Hope") were skeptical. Even if it were better for the environment, how could farmers possibly get good yields without expensive chemical fertilizers? They decided to do an experiment: they would plant a rice paddy using ASRI's organic techniques, and compare it with a conventionally farmed plot.
Their results were astonishing:
The organic plot produced twice as much as the conventional plot on the first harvest. Despite the large amount of chemical fertilizer applied, the soil was tired and depleted, and yields had decreased every year. The organic plot, on the other hand, only continued to improve: the next two harvests were both larger than the last - and needed less than half as much fertilizer!
The amount of fertilizer matters in an area where a person's average annual income is $528 (5-year Community Impact Survey). The amount of chemical fertilizers needed for a productive plot can cost a farmer over $300 - over half of what they make in a year. Even just halving the amount of fertilizer needed would create large savings for the farmers, but the organic fertilizer (made locally by another organic cooperative) is also dramatically cheaper. At only $3 per 100 kg, the farmers spent only $15 to fertilize their first organic plot. The team is producing more rice with less fertilizer as the soil is getting healthier and healthier, while saving dramatic amounts of money.
This has important implications for the rainforest of Gunung Palung National Park. When the start-up costs of becoming a farmer no longer include buying chemical fertilizers, it's much easier to for illegal loggers to switch to farming. (Which in turn benefits the farmers: the forest purifies and regulates the water flows, ensuring a regular supply to the crops.) The improved soil quality means that farmers can continue to work the same plot of land, instead of clearing a patch of forest for a new field when the old land could no longer support crops.
Their team name captures what ASRI's sustainable agriculture trainings represent to the people of the Gunung Palung watershed: a new hope. Hope for better soils, better yields, and better futures. Hope that together we can create a more sustainable future.
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Note: We updated this blog when it was brought to our attention that some of the chemical fertilizer-yield ratios originally quoted appeared unusually high. We apologize if this was misleading: the numbers were self-reported by the farmers, and we are working to verify them now.