Just above the ground, Samsir cuts the patchouli plant, which he will later process into valuable raw oil in his distillation system after it has dried. The 47-year-old is one of 500,000 farmers growing the fragrant plant in Indonesia.
Using a small pair of garden shears, Samsir cuts the patchouli plant a few centimeters above the dry earth. The sun burns hot on the hilly field deep in the jungle, far from any villages in the southern Kolaka region of Indonesia. The field can only be accessed by steep, bumpy roads, making an all-terrain vehicle essential. The 47-year-old, who cultivates three hectares of patchouli, lays the snipped plants out onto dry on tarps. A short while later, he cuts the plants he cultivated a few days earlier into 10-centimeter pieces using a long knife that he fashioned out of a sharpened piece of metal taken from a car. This process is important, as more of the valuable oil remains inside the plants if they’re cut after they’ve had a chance to dry.
The farmer then carries the tightly stuffed sacks to a crude field distillation unit located on the pothole-littered road some 200 meters away. An employee has lit the fire under the large boiler and the water is already boiling. “Once it begins to steam, we fill the still with dried patchouli herbage,” says Samsir, explaining the process. Within seconds, the air is filled with the intense fragrance of the perfume oil, carried by the steam. It then has a chance to cool slowly inside a pipe, the oil separating from the water and flowing into a pail. The farmer can extract around 0.6 kilograms from 30 kilograms of dried herbage.
Samsir is one of more than, probably, 500,000 farmers who cultivate patchouli alongside corn, soy, cocoa, cashews and coconuts. The plant is an important part of their livelihood. Even if many of them generate no more than 4 or 5 liters of the precious oil per week, it accounts for a large part of their income due to its high value.
»The project has given us a great deal of hope that we’ll be able to continue cultivating patchouli in the future.«Ibu Hasni
Promoting sustainable farming
Rajnish Awasthi plays an important role in the project. The agricultural expert from India knows every plant and fruit growing on the many trees and shrubs along the path through the village. What he doesn’t know he finds out by asking the locals. His knowledge and interest are ideal for his work as an agronomist. Awasthi’s task was clear: He needed to figure out why after a few years it was no longer possible to cultivate patchouli in the same place and how the farmers could cultivate the crop sustainably and cost-effectively, while generating the best quality possible.
Working with his team of eight, the specialist quite literally carried out field research in the area surrounding Toari village for a year and a half. “We analyzed the method of cultivation and conditions, and we developed innovations in many areas that will highly benefit both the farmers and the environment.” It all began by experimenting with different varieties of patchouli. The aim was to find a variety that could survive in certain conditions such as extreme dryness and is resistant to as many diseases as possible. He now grows suitable seedlings in very simple but functional greenhouses and then gives them to the farmers by the hundreds of thousands free of charge. These greenhouses are made from bamboo stalks stuck into each other and covered with simple nets and tarps. “We always use as many materials as possible from the local environment in order to provide village communities with affordable variations so they can cultivate on their own in the future,” explains Awasthi.
One of the key points for ensuring sustainable cultivation is protecting the most important resource: the soil. “Patchouli depletes the soil,” says Awasthi. He came up with a multitude of ideas for addressing this problem and presented them on a demonstration field that the farmers had given up on. “The fields have very low pH values and lack zinc, manganese and boron. They also have too few microorganisms and too many negative bacteria and fungal diseases. In other words, the soil was no longer suitable for planting patchouli.”