Consumers think twice about organic produce

by Agnes Winarti on 2013-04-09

A greater level of awareness is still required for farmers and consumers to understand the health benefits of organically farmed produce to make the higher-priced organic vegetables and fruit acceptable in mainstream markets.

“As of today, organic produce still serves as the last resort for most of my customers. Only less than 20 percent of my customers opt for pure organic produce from the beginning, the rest still prefer to purchase the regular-priced produce that has been grown with the aid of chemicals such as pesticides,” organic farmer I Gede Santiarsa told Bali Daily on Monday.

Santiarsa, who started organic farming in 2003 out of a personal endeavor to live a healthier life, acknowledged that marketing organic farming produce had not been easy. Of his major customers, which are 14 star-rated hotels and a couple of restaurants, only two consciously opt to purchase purely organic produce. Financial consideration beat health benefits, he underlined.

“Customers abroad readily accept that organic produce could cost three times the price of produce exposed to chemicals. However, here, a 20 to 25 percent higher price is enough to drive customers away,” said Santiarsa, recalling back in 2011 his business had almost collapsed because he attempted to sell only organic produce.

He also pointed out the term “organic” or “back-to-nature farming” was usually followed with the misconception that it was an easier method of farming. In reality, commitment to organic farming proves to be an arduous task, because the farmers usually harvest smaller quantities and smaller sized produce, while having to wait longer for the harvest compared to produce grown with the support of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

He cited, for example, when planting baby romaine, a type of lettuce, he could harvest as much as 80 kilograms within three weeks if he used chemicals. While the non-chemical farming of baby romaine only produced 30 to 50 kg within a period that was about 15 to 30 days longer. “Organic farming also requires more workers, because the plants need to be constantly monitored. If a worm is found on a vegetable leaf, it should be manually removed without any chemicals being used,” said Santiarsa, who employs 23 workers paid monthly and 6 daily workers on his 1.4-hectare organic farm.

Even many farmers who dubbed themselves organic farmers could still be erroneous about the meaning of organic farming, he added. “Some farmers say that they grow organic vegetables, while still using chicken dung for their compost. They are not aware that 80 percent of our factory chickens are raised with steroid injections. How organic is that?”

Santiarsa regretted that despite the government’s claim of support, in reality the various types of assistance, including affordable fertilizers, were difficult to obtain for independent organic farmers due to the many requirements, including that farmers must be registered in one of the farmers’ groups receiving the assistance.

 He also questioned the effectiveness of certification for organic produce, as he believed the certification could be bought for a sum of money, regardless of how the vegetables and fruits had been grown.

Ni Luh Kartini, founder of the BOA (Bali Organic Organization) and a lecturer in agriculture at Udayana University recently expressed hopes that the administration would seriously shorten the distribution chain for organic produce.

“Organic produce still faces a hard time entering the market. When it does, only wealthier consumers can purchase it. These organic products should be distributed more, in both modern minimarkets, as well as in fresh markets like Pasar Kaget, where everyday consumers can even interact directly with the farmers.”

Bali Agriculture Agency head Ida Bagus Wisnuardana said that organic produce had actually been marketed in various modern supermarkets, like Tiara Dewata, Carrefour, Moena Fresh and Lotte. “But in traditional markets, organic produce is not yet available as the production quantity is still limited.”

Nonetheless, Wisnuardana said that in 13 horticulture and fruit production centers across Bali, including Bangli, Besakih and Bedugul, the administration had established a Sub-Terminal Agribusiness (STA) to assist some 10-15-farmers’ groups in each STA to market their harvests and directly reach their consumers, which included hotels, restaurants and supermarkets, and even export companies. “With the STA mechanism, the organic farmers can sell shallots, let’s say, for Rp 10,000 to 15,000 [US$1.02-$1.53] per kg to the consumers, instead of only getting a price of Rp 5,000 per kg from the wholesalers,” said Wisnuardana.

In 2014, the provincial administration also plans to establish a Rp 10 billion Organic Trade Center on a 8-hectare plot of land in Canggu, where an open-air organic market would be erected, complete with other facilities like organic restaurants, organic farms and an organic spa center.

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