Franciscan friar applies faith in organic farming

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

Mar 15, 2019

By Ryan Dagur
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.

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.

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.

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.

Fr 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.--ucanews.com

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