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Indonesian Street Kids Find Rescue in Organic Farming

Susanto, a 17-year-old former street kid weeds the fields of The Learning Farm in the hills of Puncak, Indonesia

Susanto, a 17-year-old former street kid weeds the fields of The Learning Farm in the hills of Puncak, Indonesia

Every year in Indonesia, thousands of rural poor migrate to big cities in hope of finding a better life. But for many of them, the dream never comes true. A private charity, the Learning Farm, is taking the opposite path: teaching former street kids how to grow green, it gives them a chance to succeed in rural communities.

Sulkhan treads carefully past shacks where goats are busy digesting the next batch of eco-friendly fertilizer. A group of around 40 young men is gathered down the path, at the entrance of a greenhouse. They wear muddy rubber boots, which clash somewhat with their tattoos, long silver chains and body piercings.

Sulkhan asks them to sing the Learning Farm's welcome song, in honor of their guests.

The boys, aged 15 to 22, are attending a five-month program at the Learning Farm to become organic farmers. But Jiway Tung, the group's director, explains the program goes beyond learning a new trade. He says his school is a school of life.

A former street kid works in the fields at The Learning Farm

A former street kid works in the fields at The Learning Farm

"For a lot of these youths, in their lives, there's been very little in the way of expectations and accountability," he said. "So the discipline that we insist on is a way of saying that we value your potential, just as Nature holds us all accountable. If you don't apply good farming methods, if we don't apply good techniques, and we don't follow up on a daily basis, the crops tell the story to the youths".

Susanto, a gruff and bulky 17-year-old, has had a lot to learn. At 14, he says he could no longer tolerate his parents' beatings, so he fled and joined a group of street kids in the city of Jogjakarta. He says he did everything people do when they live on the streets - stole, used drugs. Susanto says he liked street life, where no one could tell him what to do.

But Susanto discovered that life held many dangers. After a two-month stint in jail, he took the advice of a graduate from the Learning Farm and decided to join the program.

It is not easy to coax young men into going to the countryside. Even though Indonesia remains very much a rural country, city dwellers sneer at the ways of rural residents. Jiway Tung, however, insists that Indonesians are not really cut off from their rural roots.

"When we go to farms, you can see plants that have very specific uses but have been forgotten or neglected by more recent generations," he said. "But these plants, whether green manure or natural pesticides, where planted there with a logic, with a purpose, by older farmers. So, again, we're reconnecting. It's not bringing in something foreign; it's re-discovering and re-envisioning"

Arief Syaffudin, a 17-year-old, carefully scratches at the roots of a broccoli plant. He says that chemical farming is not really stupid, but it is a very selfish method. He prefers a more wholesome approach, a type of farming where you have to listen to the plants, and fulfill their needs to also fulfill your own.

Organic produce sells at a higher price than conventionally farmed vegetables. And Jiway says, since organic farming does not require costly fertilizers or pesticides, it can generate a better income for farmers. Although the Indonesian market for organic produce is still small, there are opportunities; the Learning Farm is talking with a large supermarket chain about selling its produce.

This type of project motivates the students, like Sofian.

He says that he did not stand a chance to improve his life in the city: he lacked the money and the education to make it in Jakarta. He says here at the farm he feels at home and he can grab the chance to live a better life. Now, he could become a businessman farmer.

It is lunchtime. The boys tidy up their tools, dust off their hands and knees, and head toward the kitchen, petting the goats as they walk by. Many have no family, and only vague dreams about a modest future. But walking along the green slopes of Java's volcanoes, they have a chance to build new lives.