From Bali to Balducci’s: How America is eating up Indonesian salt
Before coal and palm oil became Indonesia’s main commodities, salt was king in the world’s largest archipelago -- Indonesia.
The sea crystals, known in French as "fleur de sel" (flower of salt), were harvested by hand. Some of the skilled producers occupied positions in royal courts, and traders sold the briny seasoning for a premium.
In 2005 sea salt saw a return to its heyday, as demand for gourmet, natural salt pushed U.S. sales to an all-time high.
“Consumers were willing to pay whatever it took to get the history and tradition behind the harvesting of the salt,” says Benjamin Ripple, co-founder of Big Tree Farms, an organic farming company in Bali that got its start when the trend for epicurean sea salt was on the rise.
Since then the salt wave has flattened, but demand remains strong among a small group of consumers who believe in buying natural, sustainable products to support small farmers, like those in Bali.
It’s here, on a remote, black-sand beach, that sparkling sea salt gets harvested, handcrafted and placed in recycled packaging before being shipped around the world to land on the shelves of high-end U.S. markets, such as Williams-Sonoma, Whole Foods, Dean & Deluca and Balducci's.
Supporting a salt revival
From 15 farmers in 2003, when Big Tree first started with salt, the company now employs roughly 200 producers, or artisans, who handcraft the crystals into tiny, hollow pyramids that sell for up to US$5 a box.
Volumes are fairly low, around two tons a month, and competition from fleur de sel producers in France and Portugal make Bali’s version a tough global sell.
But the salt’s scarcity is perfectly suited to specialty markets, says Ripple, and, more importantly, Big Tree’s support has helped transform a dying industry.
The introduction of cheap, processed salt to meet demand, and a modern economy that does not value traditional means of trading and producing has reshaped salt production in Indonesia into a low-class industry.
Materially salt farmers are at the bottom of the agricultural food chain compared to cashew, cacao and coconut palm producers, says Big Tree sales manager Darmawan.
Educating farmers how to create better produce and demand a reasonable market price is largely what motivated Ripple, which has gone from a small organic farm to more of a “feeder” business, helping bring food directly to gourmet markets.
“I used to think the market economy was the source of all evil,” Ripple says. “But now I see it as the source of all opportunity.”
Teaching small-scale farmers how to tap the market to their advantage can be hugely beneficial, he says.
Turning salt into something greater
In Kusamba, on Bali’s east coast, Big Tree buys from local producers. The highest quality salt here is Kusamba gold, a light, fluffy crystal with a delicious crunch.
Wayan Putri and Putu Mini are part of a team of salt producers that spends up to 10 hours each day harvesting the snowflake crystals by skimming them off the surface of bamboo drying troughs.
Producers start around 7 a.m. by gathering seawater in canvas bags strung from bamboo poles, called tukul. They carry their heavy loads over sand dunes and shake the water onto the ground.
By late afternoon, a brittle crust has formed over the sun-baked sand, which workers rake into baskets before dumping into giant wooden sieves. They add seawater over several days to leech the salt from the sand. The resulting brine is put in troughs so the sun can evaporate the water.
The work is taxing, and it shows. Wayan, 70 and Putu, 42, are bent over and hunched.
“We get the salt from the sand and sift it all by hand,” says Putu. “It’s a natural process, done by native Bali people. If there is not enough sun, we cannot collect the salt. If the sun is good, we get a lot.”
Indeed, the farmers are subject to the whims of nature, and they say this has been a particularly difficult season because of heavy rainfall. When yields are low, so are incomes, which typically vary between US$2 and US$5 a day.
The salt producers who work with Ripple make double that, since Big Tree strips out the middlemen and works to connect them directly to the market.
Sometimes that means helping farmers access sales points or hosting business development meetings. Indonesia does not have a history of farming cooperatives, so Ripple sees a need to empower them and give them the tools to run their trade.
So far, it seems to be working.
Big Tree Farms; www.bigtreefarms.com