From Seed to Plate

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This week’s episode is the first part in a two part special.

Our correspondent Harbir Gill, a self confessed foodie, is intrigued by the increasing choice of fruits, vegetables and meats at supermarkets. So he heads off on a journey in search of the farmers that produce some of this food. Stay tuned as he shares stories of some fascinating individuals and discovers the changing landscape of agriculture in Malaysia.

Produced by Handy Jobs (Hear & Now in Malaysia) in collaboration with the Economic Transformation Programme and brought to you by BFM.

*Tune in to BFM 89.9 every Wednesday at 7:30pm for the latest Hear & Now episodes! (Repeats on Sundays at 6pm)

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Transcript

Kam Raslan: BFM 89.9, I’m Kam Raslan and this is Hear and Now in Malaysia. On this week’s episode our correspondent Harbir Gill meets some modern farmers as he investigates agribusiness. Is it possible to transform agriculture into a successful business? Harbir Gill…

Harbir Gill: I must admit, one of my favourite rituals is the weekly visit to our local supermarket. I am a self confessed foodie, so I am always on the look out for new foods that are appearing on our shelves.

Over the years, you might have noticed, we seen to have an ever-increasing choice of foods available to us.  And I think that’s great

Obviously, this extra variety has been market driven, as our tastes and desires change, the market reacts to it accordingly. The abundance of new supermarkets and specialty food shops has also helped push standards in the quality and higher value produce we now enjoy. Fresh, European style herbs are now readily available, organic foods are gaining popularity.

But as I go around the supermarket isles every week, I can’t help but wonder, how much of our new found tastes are reliant on imports? I started doing some research. And I found that the Economic Transformation Programme outlined the need for the Agriculture sector to move from producing for low market-value segments to premium markets and participate as a regional player in the food value chain.

I wanted to know if this was already happening on the ground. And if the local food producers were moving up the value chain.  My journey took me from the highlands of Genting in Pahang to the grasslands of Kluang in Johor. I met with three food producers, with three very different stories to tell.

First off I met Julian Roe, a horticulturalist from Genting Gardens. That’s just a fancy name for somebody who grows vegetables.

Harbir Gill: You came to Malaysia, would you say it was by accident it all happened? You arrived here and saw the opportunity and you took it and you remained here.

Julian Roe: Yeah, I came in 1990, and it was a consequence of Gulf War 1. And I had two farms in Kuwait. When Saddam Hussein invaded, we lost all our business and a couple of my managers were taken as human shield hostages. At that time I was negotiating with Mardi and came further east. For an Englishman, Malaysia was far more hospitable, the mix of culture, cuisine, lifestyle. We had more of a life here than we did in Kuwait. It was an easy choice to be made.

Julian Roe: The opportunity to grow salads was not the main purpose for coming here. I just happen to see it while I was here. I was already doing salads previously in other countries in Forklands, UK and middle east. Whilst I was here I used to eat salads and herbs then go to the supermarkets. Most of it was from Australia or Holland and the price was pretty expensive so I wondered why it wasn’t grown in Malaysia. It seemed that the local growers weren’t salad eaters themselves and didn’t fully understand what they were growing for. They didn’t understand the customer. Which was normally a five star hotel and a western chef, I was able to communicate at that level and understand what they want. I looked for a place to grow and that’s where I approached UPM.

Harbir Gill: Mr Wong, of DQ  Clean Chicken, who raises what he calls “better than organic” chickens and grows various organic fruits on his small plot of land in Bukit Tinggi.

Wong Hock Seng : I am a farmer, no big deal, a simple old farmer.

Harbir Gill : Have you always been a farmer?

Wong Hock Seng : No, I have been quite active earlier on. I have been on the boards of some public companies. It’s a life changing decision and many reasons for it. I don’t think we have time to go in all the reasons. One of the main reasons is I am personally against corporate farming. I wanted to come up with an alternative model to corporate farming.

Harbir Gill: And last but not least we met Mr Goh, the animated owner of UK Farms, who stumbled upon goat farming 15 years ago.

Goh Un Keng* : In 1997 I bought an area for growing palm trees. I had three acres of land. And behind the plantation there was an area with overgrown grass. So asked had this worker, his name was Ah Chong, to go cut the grass instead of sitting there all day doing nothing and gaining weight.

That man Ah Chong, he’s probably still alive. He said, “hey boss, that grass you’re telling me to cut, you know goats like to eat it right?” That mad me really mad. So I said, “Fine, here is RM 2000, go buy me some goats!” I’m also quite stubborn. So yes, I said, “Go get some goats.” And so he bought three goats. And then we had six goats as they started to breed.  I saw the kids and thought they were very beautiful.

Harbir Gill : One day, he asked the Indonesian workers on his palm oil estate, what they thought of his goats. The answer he got, surprised him.

Goh Un Keng : So I was talking to one of my Indonesian workers, he collects fruits and cut the grass on my plantation, about how big my goat, Panjang, was.  He said, “Boss, your goat is very big but his name is too long. We have bigger goats in Indonesia.” I was surprised, so I said. “Don’t mess around, I might just go buy some!” Six months later, after he visited his village, he brought me back some pictures to prove it. I was shocked, “Indonesia has such big goats?” I asked him how many kilos it was. He said it was more than 100kg!

So then I decided to go to the Jabatan Haiwan to inquire about this. So I went to the Chief Director and asked him, “What kind of goat should I buy?” He replied, “Oh you need to buy Boer goats from Australia.” So I asked “What are Boers used for?” He said, “They are good for their meat.” So I asked him how much they cost. He told me they cost RM1,500 per head for a female and RM2,500 for a male. I did some calculations and you could never make a profit with such expensive goats! This is because the imported goats 40 kilo from Australia is RM300. The goats I reared its infancy only cost RM400.

Harbir Gill: You’re listening to Hear and Now Malaysia. Coming up, we learned how these 3 farmers grabber opportunities they saw in the sector.

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Harbir Gill: Roe, Mr Wong and MR Goh, three very different backgrounds, yet in their own way, they all run successful businesses, so I wanted to discover if they shared anything in common. Is it an understanding of the market, distribution, the methods they employ, or is it subsidies?

I started off by finding out more about the processes they employ on their farms.

Mr Roe at Genting Gardens grows his produce on a combination of water and compost. It has been argued that hydroponics is a sustainable method of production and doesn’t require large plots of land.

Julian Roe: Yes, we sow the seeds on the compost, so, the first three weeks of their life they are in a propagation house. After that, we will plant them into the hydroponic verge
for the final 3 to 4 weeks

Harbir Gill : Is it to help them grow?

Julian Roe : Well, the hydroponics have got a fixed density, so we don’t need to be too widely spaced early on. By growing at a much higher density, like 100 plants per square meter in the propagation, we can then go to 25 plants per square meter for the planting out stage. We utilize space more efficiently.

Harbir Gill: Genting Garden’s  maximises its space to get maximum yield and profits. DQ Chicken ‘s philosophy on the other hand is on the opposite end of the spectrum where space is concerned.

Wong Hock Seng : For example, every chicken must have 50 square feet of land. Your average broiler is given 0.75 square feet of land. Chickens cannot digest grass as efficiently as goats or cows. So, they have to spend a certain amount of time in the fields to absorb the nutrients.

Harbir Gill: Mr Wong’s chickens are fed fresh grass and roam freely on his farm a practice he says means his chickens have high levels of Omega 3, a nutrient that is essential for everything from our immune system to our memory functions.  Commercialism is not high on the agenda for Mr Wong, but quality is.

Wong Hock Seng : Through experimentation and lab tests, I have arrived to a modal whereby the chickens that are led out to the fields are never permitted back to the house. This involves a fair bit of land, manpower, and care. For example, as the chickens are out in the field at night, there might be pythons, cobras, black crates, monitor lizards and wild boars. There has to be someone always watching over the livestock. Thus, this cannot be truly commercialized. All of this is for one simple reason, to get that omega 3 into the chickens. If I wasn’t concerned for the omega 3, the chickens would be put back in the house.

Harbir Gill: Mr Goh, breeds goats for both dairy and meat purposes.

Harbir Gill: How many goats do you have?

Goh Un Keng: 4,800 sheep and over 1,000 goats.  At my other farm, I have over 1000 diary goats. So over 6000 heads of sheep and goats.  I started diary goats in 1997, its been in operation for 15 years. This farm, for meat goats, it has been running for 3 years.

Harbir Gill : So this farm is purely for lamb meat and mutton meat?

Goh Un Keng: Yes.

Harbir Gill: Although all three farms are driven by different priorities and motivations, it was great to see that they all value and practice sustainable methods of farming.

Goh Un Keng : I planted passion fruits trees, and used the goats poop as fertiliser. Its really good for them and the trees bear a lot of fruit! So I make juice, jams and concentrate from the passion fruits. Then I feed the skins of the fruit to the goats – it has high fibre and protein – they are given only natural food. I also compost. You know the leaves of the passion fruit tree, even that the goats can eat. Even people can eat the skin of passion fruit! Three different uses, three times the profit!

Harbir Gill : Are the fertilizers all natural from the goat?

Goh Un Keng : Yes, from the goats.

Harbir Gill : I guess you’ve got a lot of stuff to compost

Julian Roe : We’ve had a lot of waste materials that have been composted. We also mix it with cocoa – from Selangor.

Harbir Gill : Is that a good substitute?

Julian Roe : Yes, very good

Harbir Gill : I will start using that now

Wong Hock Seng : I have about 1,000 durian trees in my farm, and these are certified organic durian trees. Durian trees need a lot of nitrogen as fertilizers, which is very expensive. For instance, 1,000 trees can easily come up to over RM10,000 to RM 15,000 of nitrogen input every year. Through sustainable farming, recycling and creating nitrogen in the farm, the purchase of fertilizers is reduced to zero. All my fruit trees are very productive and not a single nitrogen input was purchased.

Harbir Gill: For Mr Wong, utilising sustainable methods of farming is more than just a means to reduce cost. The premium he can charge for his organically certified Durians and other fruits is very much part of the value to his produce.

Harbir Gill : You mentioned durians and chickens, what else do you produce on your farm?

Wong Hock Seng : The produce we are selling at the moment, the durians, which are the only certified organic durians in Malaysia. I have also recently managed to produce organic watermelon which is the only one in Malaysia. I am now trying to produce certified organic heritage vegetables, in other words, “Ulam”. These vegetables are very good for your health. This is because modern vegetables nowadays are hybridized to grow faster and taste sweeter for economic reasons. This relates to chickens, between fast growing chickens and slow growing chickens. There is fat difference between the two types of chickens.

I figured that if the chickens are different, the vegetables would be as well. My objective is to produce olden day vegetables, which is more balanced and doesn’t require high nitrogen input.

Harbir Gill: In fact all three farms we visited it became quite evident that in today’s world, just growing produce or raising livestock is not enough, especially if your products are new to the markets. Eventually, you need to go that extra mile and process, package and market and even distribute them, in other words move up the value chain as Mr. Roe explains.

Julian Roe : Over a period of time,we started with the production of salad greens, market them under own name. We build the brand up slowly and we’ve added value where we can. We have got a limit in growing space, so the only way to increase revenue was to go further up the value chain. We have to deal direct with supermarkets as well as making complete meals such as dressings and various other compliments to the salad.

Harbir Gill: Mr Goh has taken it step further and now produces a variety of spin off products including goat’s milk shampoos and lotions to passion fruit jams and juices.

Goh Un Keng : This is passion fruit jam and concentrate. If the skin is of good quality, people can eat it. If its of low quality we feed it to the goats. This skin is something that is usually thrown away but we convert it into food.

Harbir Gill:He has also packaged the entire farm experience into tours for visitors from Singapore to Taiwan under his company UK Agro Resort. During our visit we encountered  a group of tourists from China, who were busy feeding the baby kids and enjoying the fresh goats milk and other produce from his farm This direct contact he has with customers is a very important factor in his business model

Goh Un Keng : I sell directly to customers. Selling through a middle-man would cut my profits down by 30-40%. And I’ve just started with these products. I get around 8 to 10 thousand visitors per month at my Agro Resort. I can promote my products directly to these tourists. Coming soon, I will have instant goat milk coffee, goat milk cappuccino and goat milk teh tarik.

Harbir Gill: So essentially all three farmers are more than just famers. They have seen the opportunity in the market and developed their operations into a more rounded agribusinesses.

This is only half the story. We have seen why and how they started their operations, on next weeks episode I will look at the wider implications as we discuss the challenges their business face, the standards they have to keep up with, and what role, if any, they think government should play in this sector.

Wong Hock Seng : At the district level,the agricultural department have been very helpful. If your chicken has hell issue’s, they would help right away with just a phone call.

Julian Roe : We do Singapore airlines and all the major hotels there. You could consider the customers tough and fussy, but that approach brings challenge that will help us raise our game. By virtue of that, we raise our standards overall.

Goh Un Keng : The working hours for one person is at least 16 hours. Working 365 days a year for 30 years.

Kam Raslan : Join us next week on Hear and Now in Malaysia for the second part on Harbir Gill’s take on Malaysia’s agribusiness. Now please get in touch with us on our Twitter Feed @Bfmradio or our Facebook page at “Hear&Now in Malaysia”. Hear and Now in Malaysia is made in collaboration with the Economic Transformation program. I am Kam Raslan and this is BFM 89.9, and you’ve been listening to Hear and Now in Malaysia.

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