Big Tree Farms

Written by Christina Ng, Be Movement issue 2 – BALI, published April 2013

The Game of Chance

It all started from that poker game in 1998, when the then 21-year-old Ben won some airline coupons for himself and his then-girlfriend, Blair. He used the lucky winnings to take a sabbatical from his farming duties on a farm in Western Washington. Together with Blair, who is now his wife, the two travelled to Bali, without any concrete plan except “to learn something”, Ben told us. It was on this auspicious island that a series of uncanny chance encounters was triggered off, leading the young Ben to fully exercise his creativity and ingenuity to become who he is today.

 That Chance Encounter

His lucky break on Bali came in the form of a fruitful stay with Nyoman Kari, a local of Sideman, a village in Eastern Bali. The pair had introduced themselves as farmers, and mingled well with the locals. After settling into Nyoman’s cosy little place, Nyoman woke them up one night to whisk them away on motorbikes to see a piece of personal property.

Ben recalls, “I remembered the sun was just starting to peak over the hills. The land was in a big valley. Nyoman told us that his father has woken him up last night and had asked him to bring us up here to his family land. He was to give it to us but we have to stay in Bali and start our farms.”

It wasn’t until breakfast that the couple found out Nyoman’s father had passed away for a decade already and told this to Nyoman in a dream. Most people would have freaked out, but Ben and Blair took it as a sign. The piece of land was only a quarter of an acre, but enough to realise a grand dream. Although Ben and Blair were on their way back to America, as fate would have it, the couple chanced upon the movie set of “Anna and the King” in Ipoh, Malaysia. Through their Australian acquaintances, whom they had met on the trip, they worked on the set and made enough money to return to Bali and start the farm.

The organic farming operation seeded from an idea that first germinated in Ben’s mind, who started his travelling wanting to “give back something but we haven’t done it yet.”

Now he has. That tiny piece of land gifted to him has now spanned into fields of over 10 acres in size and harbours 80 different kinds of crops. On this farm, farmers celebrate the unique attributes of their agricultural heritage without losing out in the marketplace.

This is only because the now 36-year-old Ben has courageously seized every opportunity along his path – with his affinity for risk, and a hunger to innovate.

That Lucky Piece of Land

Ben, together with Blair, moved to Indonesia in 1999 and began the relentless building of his vision through the establishment of Big Tree Farms.

Big Tree Farms officially started in 2000. Located on the verdant slopes of Bali’s second highest peak, in the shadow of the sacred Mount Agung, the farms produce gourmet artisan foods, from organic produce like cacao and tomatoes, rare spices and honey, to handcrafted Balinese sea salt, for domestic and international markets.

Since its humble beginnings with just under an eighth of an acre, Big Tree Farms has expanded by embracing a philosophy of maintaining direct relationships with small farmers throughout the Indonesian archipelago, in an honourable attempt to push the boundaries of how the food industry conducts business.

The farm operates in such a way that everyone in the food supply chain contacts its central plantation directly – the farmers sell what they produce directly to this plantation. Presently in Indonesia, farmers have to sell to a bigger player further up in the supply chain who in turn sells to another bigger player, whittling down the farmers’ share of the benefits from the enormous sales as they are at the very bottom of this chain. To achieve a balance between ecology and economy, Ben’s business model aims to help farmers keep their traditional ways of farming, and still make profits without being wiped out.

It’s All About The Farmers

It was not an easy process transforming Big Tree Farms from a tiny piece of land into a sustainable operation that benefits all in the food chain. Yet, Ben’s genuine passion guided him – he told us that “agriculture has always been very much my driving force.”

Before Ben took his big trip to Indonesia, he had enrolled in a Bachelor programme in Sustainable Food Production at the Evergreen State College in Washington. Apart from a fervent interest in agriculture, his creative force also springs from an angst within him that desires change.

Back home in America, Ben had participated in the World Trade Organisation riots in Seattle in 1999. He was part of a group of social activists who were involved in the street protests against the WTO negotiations on development and regulation rules for the developing world. The protests did not change the system of economic globalisation and instead landed him in handcuffs amidst tear gas. As he lay helpless and frustrated, he was stirred to the conviction to create a revolutionary system for farmers.

He muses, “I realised that if you want to make the change, you have to do it from within and you’ve got to create something that’s better, that works. We just need to create a system that actually works and doesn’t damage others.”

He added that all of his research and focus in university turn towards a more sustainable business and development model which has become Big Tree – the model of vertical integration.

A Cause He Has Been Fighting For Since He Was 21

Ben says passionately, “You need to make the farmers’ business your business, and we realise that the only way that we mitigate risk for our sustainable supply chain is that the farmers are profitable.”

Through that, Big Tree Farms has become not only a successful “green” business, but also a successful leader in the empowerment of communities, with a philosophy that balances ecology with economy and values the power of education as the precipitator of change.

Ben adds, “Nothing continues unless it’s sustainable and sustainable is not just about social equity or transparency or ecological growth and benefit. It’s also about economics.”

Even though Big Tree has made numerous expensive mistakes, like losing $200,000 in a year when the company was trying out a new way to work with cashews, Ben is still keen on experimenting and keeping his focus on a “100 percent farmers-based supply chain.”

He explains, “We realise that farmers are just like anyone else – they are human. They are exactly the same as anyone else. They are no more difficult to control or to work with or to integrate with.”

With that in mind, he worked out a vertical integration system for Big Tree Farms which includes the farmers in the whole food supply chain, similar to a huge family-run business. That feature has made Big Tree a wholesome standout among its more commercially-inclined competitors. He says, “When we market about what we do in the American market, we are one of the very few companies that’s actually 100 percent vertically integrated from the farm all the way to end consumer goods.”

Ben continues to break new walls through his ideas about sustaining farmers’ livelihoods, which also led to the gradual involvement of a new partner, Frederick Schilling, who came to him like kismet.

A bamboo chocolate factory

A bamboo chocolate factory

A Beneficial Collaboration

In 2006, Big Tree Farms started to work with a small group of cacao farmers on Western Bali. The goal was to create more transparent market access for these farmers, by helping to add value to their cacao and selling it to the global premium chocolate market.

Then, Ben met Frederick Schilling, who founded and built Dagoba Chocolate with the aim of breaking the boundaries of the chocolate industry and coming up with what people did not know they wanted. Due to their similar ideals, Frederick eventually became a partner in Big Tree Farms after selling his company in late 2006, and participated fully in Ben’s vision of building a transparent sustainable cacao programme.

The Bamboo Chocolate Factory

Now, with the ideals and expertise of both Ben and Frederick, Big Tree Farms has developed to become the premier producer of sustainably grown produce in Indonesia.

Just last year, they added a new chocolate factory that even Willy Wonka would be proud of. The factory, which is also their headquarters, is housed inside the world’s largest commercial bamboo structure and produces “raw” chocolate.

The 15 metres tall bamboo cathedral was designed by architect Pete Celovsky, a Seattle architect who has relocated to Bali and shares the company’s eco-aspirations. Pete developed the building through numerous renditions, with considerable suggestions from Ben and Frederick, one of which is to use a material that does not destroy the land that it is grown on.

Aside from the eco-friendly properties of bamboo in terms of its lightness and low environmental impact, there are also two rainwater collection tanks for non-food production purposes and two black water treatment ponds serving bathrooms on each side of the building.

Ben is careful that he keeps the factory as an exemplar of sustainability.

Looking back now, it seems that all these magical creations started from a lucky win. One fascinating meeting after another, for an incredibly adventurous spirit who dares to take chances.

Vertical Integration – Like A Family Business

Ben’s vision of small-scale sustainable agriculture is a system where farmers can grow quality plots, make good money, and change their lives.

He explained to us that the farmers in many of the poorer developing countries, like Indonesia, face a dilemma. Conventional, high-input agriculture, with its high yields and fast crop turnovers, have been extolled by almost every government in the world, but are simply far too expensive to be maintained by small farmers in the developing world.

The only recourse has been for these farmers to follow the old ways. Traditional agriculture, however, while being an incredibly graceful balance between man and nature, is often too far removed from the realities of a market economy. The situation of the small farmer planted the seed of Big Tree Farms’ vision.

When asked if it was the various chance encounters that shaped his life, Ben simply replies, “I think it’s the same for everybody if you let it be.”







Human Check*