Sunday, December 13, 2020

Millennial entrepreneurs venture into commercial regenerative agriculture in Indonesia

Every year I had travel plans to advise 4 - 5 international projects. The current pandemic restricted my travel, I could not travel out of the US during the current year. Interestingly, this crisis led to innovative ways of consulting, thanks to technology.

Earlier this year, out of blue I received a call from Meraki Farms based out of Jakarta, Indonesia expressing their interest in ecological agriculture. They were keen to transition their conventional farms into low-cost regenerative systems. Initially I had doubts about the commitment of this group to take a U turn in their current farming practices. It was not surprising for me because ‘regenerative agriculture’ is a buzzword where people have their own thoughts and ideas. Some companies who apply herbicides in their farms call their practice regenerative while others who use chemical fertilizers with organic manures proclaim their practices as regenerative. It made me to wonder how serious this group of millennials are to take up this task.

I was equally keen to know how they found my reference. They told me that they learned about my work in Bhutan online and were interested to change their current practices and set an example in Indonesia. Some of the common questions that popped up during the conversation were, could they manage the farm commercially without using synthetic agro-chemicals, would the production reduce, how to manage the pests and diseases. I told them that there will be some hard work and unlearning process initially, however regenerative systems are commercially viable compared to the conventional systems. I also shared my experiences working in different countries designing low-cost techniques using local resources that convinced them to firm up their decision for adopting regenerative systems in their farms. The discussions that followed through convinced me that these nerds are committed to change the current food systems through a solid business plan. 

Meraki farms is a subsidiary of Pt Meraki Agro Indonesia founded by 3 young entrepreneurs Mr.Ravi Sadarangani,Mr. Manish Nathani and Mr.Mohit Pursani. The founders had a purpose to produce nutritious and quality food for the growing population of Indonesia and rest of the world. Meraki flourished through its successful business model producing quality fruits and vegetables locally through the distribution network of a chain of major supermarkets and exported through global food distributors. They began adopting “all modern” systems of farming adopting conventional farming practices using external inputs like synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and a set of agro-chemicals for increasing the production and improving the visual appeal of the produce.

Commercial farming of cantaloupes and melons

It was an epiphany of sorts for the team when they came to know about a movement to revive a river in South India by Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, a yogi and an environmentalist. River Kaveri is considered as the lifeline of farmers in Karnataka and Tamilnadu states of South India. It was a massive movement calling for the communities and farmers to involve in protecting this river through agroforestry projects that could prevent the erosion of topsoil and the pollution due to agriculture activities.

Sadguru’s mission struck a chord with one of the founders and with further research and brainstorming with the team and other experts in the field, they decided to change their farming methods towards life-supportive systems. Regenerative or biodynamic agriculture caught their attention. It was a U turn from their existing farming practices to a gentler and more natural approach that used natural resources to a large extent reducing dependancy  on external inputs over time. Their purpose shifted from monocultures and input dependent approach towards creating a biodiverse and self-sustaining farm.

It was my pleasure to sow the seeds of regenerative agriculture in the minds and hearts of Meraki Agro team. My purpose was to teach them how to be self-sufficient in all farm inputs required for crop production and protection by understanding and mimicking nature. Simultaneously the focus was on transforming the farm into a commerically viable venture.

Composting in progress

Regenerative agriculture is not about substituting chemical inputs with natural or organic inputs. Its about creating systems within systems where one interacts with the other. A symbiotic interaction of biotic and abiotic factors like soil, plants, animals, water and humans is necessary for creating a self-sustaining ecosystem. Its very important that all the farm inputs are produced in the farm itself. Seeds, manures, bio-pesticides, plant growth promoters are all produced within the farm using the natural resources. Shifting monocultures to diverse polycultures. Simple techniques to attract an army of beneficial creatures like earthworms, pollinators, predators and nurturing an array of soil microorganisms are the foundation for a successful regenerative systems. It may require some additional time and efforts initially but offers solace, freedom and liberates farmers from dependance on external inputs. 

Constructing a vermicomposting shed using bamboo

The receptivity of the founders and the managers of Meraki Farms was inspiring for me to consult this project online due to travel restrictions. In my regular consulting work I visit the farm in the beginning of the project to visually have a feel of the place and technically assess various factors that contribute to the success of the enterprise. This project was my first experience to advise a farm virtually and was possible with the help of technology. I used the drone videos of the farm, topography maps, soil and water analysis reports to understand the farm and the surrounding areas. Since the owners of this company were techy savvy millennial entrepreneurs it was possible to get all the information required up to precision.  Every week we organized online meetings on crop planning, nutrient management and approaches towards low-cost regenerative systems followed by discussions. I had to schedule these meetings late night US time to suit the farm team in Indonesia. The managers of the farms were keen to unlearn the practices that they were trained in and were eager to relearn new approaches of regenerative agriculture.

Meraki Farms commercially grows papaya, avocados, vanilla, cantaloupes, watermelons, durians and bananas. Besides, they integrate agroforestry systems using teak and bamboo. In all these farms, crops are intercropped for instance, papaya are cropped with melons and avocado’s with papaya. Timber trees and bamboo are planted on the fence that serves as windbreaks and also provides biomass for soil rejuvenation.

Meraki Farms

In large scale commercial farms like Meraki, reducing the cost of production is very important for successful transition into regenerative systems. Ideally all inputs required for production like seeds, manures, growth promoters, bio pesticides has to be prepared on farm using the available natural resources.It requires some expertise in understanding local ecology and biodiversity for identifying the available resources and using them for producing different inputs for farming.Several weeds are important resources for producing plant tonics and pest managing formulations. In the first couple of years some inputs may have to be purchased but over a period the dependance on inputs needs to be curtailed. Unless a farm is transformed into a self-sustaining organic entity the cost of production will keep rising and the profitability of the farmer will dwindle. There is lot of discussions on regenerative food and agriculture,time has come to act by creating successful examples in differnt ago-climatic regions. I am confident that millennials will be the beacons to clear the mess what the elders have created in the past 5 decades of ‘degenerative systems of agriculture’


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