Over the last two years we have been developing our organic fruit and vegetable farm with the objective of producing a significant percentage of the food required for the animals ourselves. As a conservation organisation we are obviously not in the business of converting the rainforest to farmland, so we purchased a plot outside the national park which had already been used for agriculture and we set about growing fruit and veg organically. This shift towards a more self sufficient future is hugely labor intensive at every level and there have been hurdles to overcome. As first-time farmers we’ve done this through research, and also trial and error about what works and what doesn’t work in the climate we are working in.
One of the biggest problems we are faced with when growing fruit and vegetables organically is the quality of the soil we are working with. Like the majority of local plots, the land we are using close to Matang was originally cleared using a slash and burn technique. This is a very damaging process whereby the trees are cut and the remaining vegetation is burned to make way for fields for agriculture. Slash and burn usually goes hand in hand with shifting cultivation whereby the farmer will use the land for a few years and then abandon the plot to repeat the process elsewhere.
Contrary to what you might expect, most rainforests do not exist on very fertile soil. Due to the high level of rainfall most of the nutrients are carried away or leached from the topsoil. However, a large proportion of the rainforest’s nutrients are released slowly into the soil and are then rapidly reabsorbed by the roots of the trees and recycled. A lot of the nutrients enter the soil via the vast amounts of leaf and twig litter which decay on the forest floor; thus by cutting down the trees a major source of nutrients for the soil is eliminated. Crops are not able to store and recycle nutrients or water in the same way a rainforest does, which means that a lot of the water runs straight off, taking the small amount of remaining soil nutrients with it. Therefore, after a few years the land is virtually unworkable, hence shifting cultivation following slash and burn.
All and all it’s not easy to grow crops organically in such conditions, and we knew it wouldn’t be, but its not impossible either! What we need to do is show the poor overworked soil some TLC so that it can help us produce delicious fruit and veg spoils for the animals for years to come.
How does one make the soil happy? By making worm farms and harvesting bear poo of course! Behold our compost and worm mansion endeavours…
As it goes we have all the makings for great compost right at our doorstep. Fruit and vegetable scraps are collected from all houses on site as well as being extracted from the animal night dens in the morning during husbandry. Cardboard is collected from Monkeebar in the form of beer boxes and ripped into tiny pieces. Leaf litter and vines are also harvest and chopped finely. And last but not least… the secret ingredient of our awesome compost… SUN BEAR POO! Hence each morning volunteers now scoop the poop and place it in bins which are then taken to the composting station.
At the compost station we layer the aforementioned “ingredients” so that the bins strive towards the magic C:N ration of 30:1 which is optimum for hot composting. This C:N, or carbon to nitrogen ratio, is achieved by mixing roughly two parts of nitrogen rich “green” material such as fruit and veg scraps, bear poo and freshly cut vines to one part carbon rich “brown” material such as the cardboard dried leaves. We then put the lid on the bins and leave them to their own devices for a while and then intermittently stir the contents, adding more until beautiful compost is achieved. This usually takes about 4 weeks.
Obviously our long-term goal is to produce enough compost to keep our two farms healthy. To do this our composting enterprise will need to expand significantly and in the coming months we plan to work closely with the people in the villages local to Matang so that we can also collect their fruit and vegetable scraps each day. We have recently employed a lady from the local village who has been integral in assisting with the development of the compost and the farm.
The kitchen at Tash and Leo’s house has been converted into Worm Bin Mansion Station where some of the most doted-on worms in the world reside. We’ve begun to dabble in worm composting because red worms in particular thrive on organic material such as food waste and by simply going about their wormy business they produce worm “castings” (fancy term for worm poo) which contains five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus and eleven times more potassium than garden soil making it a super-fertiliser.
As well as providing a means for the centre to be more self-sustaining, our organic farming will also introduce recycling initiatives to the communities local to Matang. The more waste the better for the compost bins, and as there is not a reliable rubbish collection in the more rural areas we are also helping to reduce the amount of rubbish entering the environment – this helps the communities themselves, and of course helps the farm and therefore the animals at Matang. It is set to be a very positive cycle of organic food growth, sustainable food supplies and waste utilisation (from both humans and animals). Ideally we will grow enough food to also be able to sell surplus at market, which means the farm will eventually cover the set up costs (land purchase and some materials) and hopefully will be able to meet the salaries of one or two local workers to maintain it. It’s a lovely plan indeed, and well on its way to being realised, which is very exciting.
We have also purchased a plot of land close to the Ketapang orangutan centre and are developing a similar project there.
We couldn’t have started or maintained the farm or started our composting endeavors without the 100’s of hours of hard work invested into this project by our volunteers! Often the farm and composting work is difficult, hot, smelly and dirty but we are lucky enough to attract people who are willing to do the jobs required because they know that everything we do is to benefit the animals. The farm represents a long term project whereby the true impact may not be felt for some years. However, everything is a stepping stone towards being more self sufficient so we would like to thank everyone for their hard work, especially when it comes to projects like this where the individual volunteer may not see any immediate product of their labor. And as a reminder of who its all for… the orangs, monkeys gibbons and bears say thanks!