In Yogya, Betting the Farm on Natural Living
Returning to nature isn’t as hard as you would think. Going back to a time before grocery stores and restaurants, a time when people grew what they ate, is as simple as a day trip from Yogyakarta. Located near the royal graves of the Javanese Mataram dynasty in the hills of Imogiri, southeast of Yogyakarta, is a unique farm run by Iskandar and Darmila Waworuntu, their children and friends.
The farm is dedicated to an all-natural, self-sustainable lifestyle and sharing its practices and ideas with the community. The Waworuntus grow their own rice and vegetables, make their own butter and cheese from the milk of their own cows and goats, and also produce some of their own biofuel. The 3.5-hectare property is located on a limestone hill in Imogiri that has very shallow top soil, but Iskandar and his team of like-minded people dug a deep well to find water that transformed the barren hill into a present-day Eden.
While giving me a tour of the farm recently, Iskandar explained the ideas, goals and motivations that inspired their self-reliant lifestyle. “I feel that there is an urgency now to change our lifestyles and live sustainably and in harmony with nature,” he said. “Everything is already so contaminated, so saturated with pettiness and greed, that change is inevitable. I’ve named this place Bumi Langit [Earth Sky], and I want it to be a place where people and small groups can come and learn about natural living.
“Here we grow our own food and make traditional processed foods too, like tempeh and tofu, kefir [a fermented milk drink] and butter and cheese.” Iskandar began the tour of the property with a short hike up a path to the top of the hill. From the top of the property, you look down and see the southern districts of Yogyakarta. On a clear day, off on the horizon, you can see the white breakers of the South Sea and the Elo River snaking through the flatlands toward it, watering the green fields as it flows on. The place is tranquil, the skies are clean and the vegetation is flush in all shades of green.
“Permaculture all boils down to ethics, or I prefer the Islamic word adab [civility],” Iskansar said. “What is the most civilized way to live? How civilized is our relationship with others? With ourselves, with our food? Are we part of nature or the conquerors of nature?” Right now it is the peak of the rainy season, so the whole area is green. This is the best time to harvest leafy vegetables. The dry season is better for vegetables like chilies and eggplants and tomatoes, Iskandar said.
Surveying the view to the south of Yogyakarta toward the ocean, he explained how during the dry season water was drawn from the deep well up to a big tank on top of the hill, which is then used by the homestead. “All the used water is processed using natural methods, and then reused again and again,” he explained. A line of rosewood trees acts as a windbreak and there is a water retainer on the top terrace of the property, where the Waworuntus plant dry land rice, sweet corn and ground nuts.
The terraces below are used to grow elephant grass, which will be used as feed for the cows. Other terraces are growing different kinds of fruits and vegetables.
At the bottom of the hill, a pond is home to large catfish and gourami fish. The fish are grown as food and share their living space with several dozen ducks that appear wet and happy. The water flows down to the pond through a series of vats built in steps, with pebbles and water hyacinth plants straining the water that flows through them.
“That is the natural way to process household wastewater,” Iskandar said, pointing to the vats. By the cattle sheds, we meet Mesias, a young artist from Solo who is learning how to keep dairy cows. He is learning how to milk them, and make butter, cheese, yogurt and kefir. He showed me how to milk a cow and explained that at the Bumi Langit homestead, all the cow manure is processed in tanks to extract the methane to use for cooking in the busy kitchen. The resulting slurry waste is used to fertilize the garden, which is bursting with a large variety of fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, chilies, eggplants, mulberries, bananas, papaya and mangostene.
Large rabbits are kept in hutches and their droppings are used to feed earthworms that produce worm casings, the tiny twirls of soil that worms excrete, that are then used as a incredibly effective fertilizer for the shrubs and trees on the farm. As an agricultural practice, Iskandar’s permaculture goes against modern farming methods that depend on technology, chemistry and profit. And although the Bumi Langit’s methods are deeply rooted in traditional farming techniques, the farm is regarded as something foreign or novel.
Believing that his model of farming will be the only way to guarantee food safety and supply for Java in the future, Iskandar said that educating people and promoting his methods was absolutely necessary for the long run. He added that village children, the sons and daughters of people who till the land, were the future of country’s food production and the bastion of our food security.
“We are establishing relationships with local primary schools so that the students will then be able to teach other schoolchildren around this area about the principles of this farm and about healthy food in general,” Iskandar said. “This is food that has been produced with as little injustice as possible.”
Iskandar uses the Islamic word dzalim, instead of “injustice.”
“Dzalim has a deeper, a wider meaning. It covers injustice, negativity, anything that is not good and anything that inconveniences other beings by infringing on the others’ rights. That is dzalim,” he said. “Most of the food that is consumed in society is full of dzalim, beginning from the way it is produced, to the way it is distributed and even to the way it is consumed. People have lost the knowledge of living within nature.”
The tour concludes with lunch, an amazing example of the homestead’s healthy and self-sustainable motto. A long table is laden with fresh and healthy foods. The centerpiece is a large leafy salad with a homemade coconut-based dressing, whole grain organic rice, homemade tempeh, a string bean stir-fry, papaya flowers with shallots and a hearty sambal made from durian.
The taste of the salad dressing is exceptional. Made of fresh, creamy coconut milk, garlic and a splash of vinegar, it gives the salad a pleasant and undoubtedly local taste. Dudy Anggawi, a poet from Bremen, Germany, joins us for lunch. He is arranging an international poetry festival in Yogyakarta this April and wants to book a lunch and educational tour of Bumi Langit for the 25 foreign guests he plans to bring to the event. I asked him why he chose Bumi Langit?
“Because I want my guests to experience this way of living, where we are mindful of what we eat, how it is produced and how it tastes,” he said.