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Friar applies faith in organic farming

3:26 PM, March 10, 2019

Indonesia:Franciscan monk educates farmers on how to profit, reap 'spiritual energy' by focusing on local seeds, ditching pesticides.

Fransiscan Brother Kristoforus Pudiharjo develops agricultural technology for farmers in Ciloto, West Java. (Photo by Siktus Harson/ucanews.com)

Wearing a sweater and boots in the morning drizzle, Franciscan Brother Kristoforus Pudiharjo explains how he makes organic fertilizer, develops seeds, engages in hydroponic farming and treats vegetables and coffee beans to help local farmers become independent producers.

In fact, the 61-year-old spends most days developing his so-called "agricultural technology" on this three-hectare garden owned by his congregation in Ciloto, West Java province.

"This is part of how I realize my vocation as a Franciscan," he told ucanews.com from the garden, just a short ride from his convent.

Such activities have become part of his daily routine over the last dozen years.

Brother Pudiharjo's interest in organic farming began when he was working as a headmaster in Flores in 1997.

He recalls how a nun called him one night from a local hospital about a woman who was hemorrhaging. The lab results showed her blood contained an abnormally high level of urea, a waste product excreted by the kidneys, but no one was sure why.

The friar learned later that she lived near a market and was consuming vegetables contaminated with chemical fertilizers on a daily basis. He put two and two together.

"I'm inspired by finding ways to farm that don't involve harming nature or damaging people's health," he said, adding that his passion really took root when he was assigned to work in Java.

'Going native'

To support his work, Brother Pudiharjo joined a network of agricultural experts at the highly respected Bogor Agricultural Institute in West Java.

"We meet regularly to talk about the best ways to develop organic fertilizer," he said, adding that he has been focusing lately on cultivating local garlic to challenge the monopoly that imported garlic has on the market.

"Our indigenous garlic is of a higher quality than the stuff we widely import from China," he said, pointing to a niche in the market he wants to help Javanese farmers exploit so they can earn more revenue.

This involves him using bacteria from nature to produce better-quality seeds. For example, he uses bamboo shoots to stimulate the growth of bacteria that will help the seeds to grow, soaking them together in a humid container before the seeds are sown.

Brother Pudiharjo said he encourages farmers to "befriend" rather than rush to exterminate insects and animals, as their presence on the land is a positive sign.

"If you see a lot of grasshoppers on your vegetable garden, it means the acidity level of your soil is high," he said. "You don't have to kill them, just sow some lime to neutralize the acidity level."

He said agriculturalists should view all living creatures as their "brothers" as they toil away.

"If a farmer adopts this perspective, they will reap a lot of positive energy, or what I call spiritual energy," he said, thus increasing their chances of a bumper harvest.

He also tells farmers to keep their soil free of toxic pesticides harmful to micro-organisms that help fertilize the soil.

Reaching out to mosques

Almost every week, dozens of people from various regions and backgrounds visit the garden to learn from Brother Pudiharjo.

He is also invited to lecture at church communities, mosques, Islamic boarding schools, and army bases in West Java to introduce them to organic farming.

The soldiers take what they have learned and share this knowledge with local farmers wherever they are stationed across the country, creating a healthy domino effect while spreading his organic message.

Since 2015, he has also been training city slickers, including parishioners in Jakarta, about the benefits of urban farming, especially vegetables grown using hydroponics — a technique adopted by the nine "food heroes" Oxfam Indonesia named in 2016 in recognition of their efforts to maintain food security in the country.

"They are directly involved in maintaining agricultural land, using local varieties that are more adaptable to local climate and cultivating hydroponic techniques to overcome the narrowness of the land," Dini Widiastuti, Oxfam’s director of its economic justice program, said in October of that year.

Brother Pudiharjo's latest project has him working with alumni from a Catholic school in Jakarta to cultivate a 100-hectare plot of land in West Java. They are planting seeds like sorghum, a daily staple that can replace rice.

Fransiskus Xaverius Djati, who works with Pudiharjo, said demand for organic crops is growing. "And we can sell them for higher prices than non-organic products," he said.

Apart from selling directly to customers on demand, there are marketplaces dedicated to organic products in two parishes in Jakarta.

Father Alsis Goa Wonga, director of the Franciscan Commission of Justice Peace, and Integrity of Creation, said organic farming has been part of the Franciscan program for the last few years.

"On Flores [Island] we have an eco-pastoral center that concentrates on organic farming, and Brother Pudiharjo is one of the key figures behind this pastoral work," he said.

"In the context of the situation in West Java, this is our way of maintaining a positive presence in a Muslim-majority society," Father Wonga added.

Despite the advantages of going organic, it isn't easy to persuade people to gamble on migrating over.

"So many people have studied at my garden, but very few put what they learn into practice when they go home," Brother Pudiharjo said.

"However, the most important thing is that there's a transfer of knowledge, and a growing awareness of how important it is to treat nature well."

Source: UCAN

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