Saturday, October 17, 2009

Home Patch

Monday, 27 July 2009
Written by Elaine Lau

Growing your own vegetables can turn out to be a truly rewarding experience, but as any seasoned gardener will tell you, it takes a lot of effort and patience to see it through. Elaine Lau speaks to two organic farmers, Fung Chee Siang and Yahqappu Adaikkalam, as well as the organic farming project coordinator for the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia (Cetdem) Tan Siew Luang, on how to start an organic veggie patch in your garden or in pots or boxes placed on a balcony for those living in high-rise buildings.

In organic farming, while skills and the know-how are important to have, what’s most crucial is having the right mindset. Think of what you can do to nurture the soil instead of only thinking about what you can get from the plot of land. Have a sense of respect for the earth — view your farming endeavour as a time of communion with Mother Earth. Be committed to see things through, and be ready to put in a lot of effort.

Here’s how you can get started with your own veggie patch at home. You’ll find out what works best for you as you go along. As the saying goes, experience is the best teacher.

• Prep your soil. Section off a portion of your garden and mix in compost with the soil (see article on next page on how to make your own compost). How much of it depends on how healthy your soil is. For those who are using pots, mix about half with soil and half with compost.

• Get good quality seeds. You can contact Cetdem to purchase. For absolute beginners, Tan says the easiest vegetable to grow is kangkung. Other easy-to-grow veggies are New Zealand spinach, bayam, mint, ginger, leek and sweet potato. If you have a sizeable plot to work with, both Yahqappu and Fung say it’s best to grow a variety of vegetables, to aim for biodiversity.

• Germinate your seeds. Do this in a shaded area until they grow into seedlings before transferring them to the ground or pot to grow in full, says Yahqappu. Don’t worry too much about pests or diseases when you first start out. All three farmers say that as you take care and nurture your soil, pests and diseases will not be much of a problem. Things will balance and work itself out as time goes by.

• Water your plants. The general rule to watering is once a day, either in the morning before 11am or in the evening after 3pm, says Tan. How much is needed depends on the type of vegetable and your soil quality. Again, this can only be learnt through trial and error.

• Nurture your soil. It is important to fix the nitrogen in your soil after a veggie has been planted and harvested. Planting any legumes will do the trick, and Tan suggests mung beans. Just before the plant flowers, cut it down and plough it back into the soil. Let it decompose for a while before planting again. Organic fertiliser can be added, but it should be used sparingly as a supplement only.

• Keep an eye on your veggies. Organic farming needs a lot of observation. Watch the progress of your plants, how they grow and how they react to fertiliser should you choose to use it.

• Be with like-minded folks. Tan advises that you join a group to exchange information, learn from others, and get support and encouragement.

• Persevere! As Tan says, “Have patience, be persistent and don’t give up easily.” Happy farming!

For more information and resources on starting your own vegetable patch, contact Cetdem at (03) 7875 7767.

This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 765, July 27-Aug 2, 2009.

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A Matter Of Trust

Monday, 27 July 2009
Written by Jacqueline Toyad & Elaine Lau

From just looking at it, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between organically and conventionally grown produce. As a consumer, you trust that the organic produce that you’re paying a premium for is grown without the use of agrochemicals. But is that really the case? The Options team led by Jacqueline Toyad and Elaine Lau investigates.

The Options team, together with Wild Asia, a social enterprise that supports the conservation of natural areas and promotes sustainable practices, set about finding out how pure our local organic produce is. We purchased three types of organic produce — chillies, lettuce and tomatoes — of a number of brands from different retailers and also conventionally grown ones to provide a point of comparison (for more details, see box). We were looking to see the amount of surface pesticide residue on the produce with the help of a pesticide sensor called Agri Stick. Developed by Japanese company AR Brown Co Ltd, the kit is brought in here by BioNet International Sdn Bhd, which specialises in biotechnology with an emphasis on biosensors.

The Agri Stick tests for surface organophosphate and carbamate pesticide residues, the two most common ones found on fruits and vegetables. However, the results from this test are to be used as a guideline only. This is because the Agri Stick does not give the exact levels of pesticide residue but an estimate on whether there are traces or high amounts, or none at all. The kit does not test for any pesticides that may have penetrated the produce.

A handful of chillis are rinsed and shaken in a bag filled with bottled water for 10 minutes. Representatives from BioNet International guided us through the process, which was surprisingly easy and relatively quick. A portion of each produce was put in separate bags and filled one-third of the way with drinking water, then shaken vigorously to dislodge any pesticide residue. This water was then put in individual testing tubes and shaken again to dissolve white reagents inside the tubes, and after a two-minute interval, a test stick was inserted. The sticks were left to incubate for 10 minutes before being inserted into a separate tube filled with colour reaction liquid that was also shaken. After being immersed for five minutes, the colour reaction portions took on greenish or bluish hues, or remained white. The colours were then read using a chart to determine the amount of pesticide residue.

The results served up a number of surprises. In the chillies, what was most unusual was that a conventionally grown brand registered no surface pesticide residue, whereas the three organically grown ones had traces of residue on them. One aeroponically grown brand of lettuce had no residue, and two out of the four organic lettuce had trace amounts. What made it even more shocking was that one even certified organic! With tomatoes, again, one conventionally grown brand (from Cameron Highlands, no less!) turned up negative for residues, but only one out of the four organic varieties fared just as well.

The results from the organic veggies were disappointing, to say the least. How is it possible that organic produce could turn out to be contaminated? With our faith in the purity of produce sold at organic shops a little shaken, we sought out two of the largest specialised organic retailers in the Klang Valley — Justlife and Country Farm Organics (CFO), to answer our nagging questions.

Both retailers tell us they personally visited the organic farms, talked to the farmers and looked at their farming practices to ensure that they were genuinely organic before agreeing to carry their produce in the stores. Justlife and CFO also make it a point to visit the farms at least once a year. Callie Tai, CEO of Justlife, and Selina Gan, founder and managing director of CFO, both describe their relationship with the organic farmers as based on trust.

Says Tai, “I trust our farmers. We choose our farmers in our own way. They may not be the best farmers in the sense the veggie may not be the best looking, and they may not have the best mix, but we choose our farmers based on their integrity and passion, why they want to go organic in the first place.”

Gan takes an upfront approach with the farmers she sources from. “We are very frank with them… what we want is genuine. I don’t expect them to cheat us. Our relationship has to be based on trust, otherwise it’s very difficult,” she says.

While testing the chillies, we found some that were labelled organic tested positive for pesticide residues. These were from Justlife as well as CFO. We contacted Justlife, which was quick to respond, arranging for us to meet Tai and Yahqappu Adaikkalam, the farmer who supplied the particular chillies to Justlife.

When we finally met up, Yahqappu explained that his farm, The Lord’s Garden Organic Farm, is located next to a jasmine farm that uses a lot of industrial-grade pesticides. A road separates the two farms and Yahqappu has also planted a buffer zone of banana trees. He thought that was sufficient to prevent pesticide sprays from spilling over into his chilli plot, which is situated nearest to the jasmine plantation.
“There are days I can smell when they are spraying from the house where I’m staying… But I never thought it could have an effect on the chillies,” he says.

Unfortunately, Yahqappu is not the only case. The situation is such that many organic farms in Malaysia are situated next to conventional farms. Currently, conventional farms far outnumber organic ones in our country, and organic farmers have to deal with contaminated soil (particularly conversion farms, that is, land newly converted to organic farming from conventional and which might have higher traces of contamination), air and sometimes even water. Organic farming is still in a nascent stage in this country and therefore, is still experiencing growing pains. Every care may be taken to ensure that farming methods are organic, but sometimes there are external factors that come into play that are beyond the control of farmers.

Instead of being so wrapped up in whether the produce is pure or not, Tai says we should focus on the effort the farmer has taken to farm organically. Organic farming is not an easy thing to venture into — it takes a lot of dedication, hard work and perseverance. As Gan says, “Those who choose to do organic farming do it because of their belief, their love and passion for organic [earth]. These efforts need to be supported and encouraged… organic farming is so much better for the environment. Sustainable organic farming is the way of the future.”

Says Tai, “When we talk about traces, there will always be some in our soil and air, unfortunately. But if because of that we stop supporting organic farmers, that’s the end. In pursuit of perfection, we will lose this big piece of it. To us, selection is not so much on the quality. To us, the No 1 thing is passion — passionate farmers who share the same vision and who believe we can have organic earth. That is our vision. Whether it happens in our lifetime doesn’t matter, but it’s a dream worth pursuing.”

Justlife strives to be transparent with its customers. “If it’s produce from conversion land, we will sell it at conversion grade, which is half the price. So customers have a choice,” says Tai.

“Our produce, we label them ‘organically grown’ and not certified organic. There is a difference,” says Gan. “We try to educate our customers and teach them what to look for.” Organically grown means that the farming methods are organic, but does not take into account other non-controllable factors, such as spillover from neighbouring farms.

The challenge for us then is to look beyond the issue — that the local organic produce we buy may be contaminated — and instead have the larger picture in mind. At the end of the day, it is crucial to support sustainable organic farming practices. Buying and consuming local organic produce will contribute towards a healthier earth and, ultimately, a better world for future generations.

This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 765, July 27-Aug 2, 2009.

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Holistic Farming

Monday, 27 July 2009
Written by Jacqueline Toyad & Elaine Lau

The local farming scene may be ruled by synthetic fertilisers and pesticides but there are farmers who have shunned this unsustainable practice and have taken the organic path instead. Organic farming requires bigger an investment in terms of time, labour and capital and brings in a lower yield but these men are staunch believers of going natural and are dedicated to cultivating ‘safer’ vegetables and fruits. Jacqueline Toyad and Elaine Lau go into the field to learn more about this farming method.

Along the road of life, there are many choices that we have to make. Often, we try to choose what’s best for our loved ones and ourselves; on rare occasions we choose to dedicate ourselves to do something for the greater good. We met three gentlemen who made the latter choice by becoming organic farmers. They are Fung Chee Siang of Hatiku Agrikultur, Lee Ong Sing of Cameron Organic Produce and Yahqappu Adaikkalam of The Lord’s Garden Organic Farm.

While they each travelled different paths — hailing from different backgrounds — they share the same values: respect for mother Earth and all her living creatures, and keeping deadly chemicals off the land and out of the water.

We are in the age of high technology and chemicals, and as much as we don’t want to admit it, we have been conditioned to depend on them. Time seems shorter these days and quick-fix solutions always seem more appealing.

So, how is it that these men could shun synthetic fertilisers and pesticides that rule the local farming scene today? Many farmers are hesitant to go natural or organic because it requires a huge investment on their part — capital, time and labour, to name a few — all for a farming method that brings in at the most a 30% yield.

But the abovementioned three persevered through the tough times, all the while keeping their end goals in sight.

Says Lee, “I chose this because I believe this is the longer way for mankind to survive. Now our environment is terrible. If you don’t do it now, when do you start?”

Yahqappu takes a more philosophical approach: “I was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi in my schooldays, and it was then that I discovered he was inspired by Leo Tolstoy. So, that’s why I read Tolstoy who said that you must go back to the grassroots to find the meaning of life.”

Fung, on the other hand, wants only to reverberate with the vibrations of the universe. “Look around you,” he tells us as we walk his farm, “when you give nature a chance, it will work itself out beautifully. Just like in the jungle — you don’t have to take care of the jungle, right? The jungle takes care of itself. Nature, by itself, is about balance. It is beautiful. So, we are trying to learn from that.” Fung believes in interfering with nature as little as possible, letting it achieve a balance on its own.

Organic as a word is often used to define something pure, holistic. In farming, it is used in objection to the use of any processed fertilisers and pesticides. And while the movement of growing organic seems relatively new — at least locally — the notion of modern organic farming has been around since the early 20th century.

This science is credited to Sir Albert Howard, a pioneering botanist from the UK, who had travelled to India to teach the farmers there Western agriculture but ended up learning more from them instead. He observed that an important aspect in the methods of the Indian farmers was the connection between healthy soil and the villages’ healthy populations, livestock and crops. Howard concluded that “the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible”, and this principle soon became the basis of a refined technique blending his own knowledge and the methods he picked up from the Indian farmers.

According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, organic agriculture “relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.”


The driving force behind organic farming is biodiversity. Having visited both sprayed and organic farms in Cameron Highlands, we were able to observe that a wide range of organisms thrive in organic farms. There are birds chirping, the buzzing of insects and all manner of herbs, flowers and fruit flourishing in the organic farms. Meanwhile, within the compounds of the conventional farms we visited, all was silent save for the shushing of the sprinklers spraying a cocktail of water and chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Where organic farms exuded only fresh smells with a hint of blossoms like a carefully layered summer scent, the conventional farms reeked of manure and pungent stink of potent chemicals, much like kerosene.

“In a natural environment, everything comes into place. In a natural farm, you hear the birds, you see the insects, you find different kinds of lifeforms. When plants and humans are under such conditions, they thrive,” says Fung who lives on his farm and enjoys the “natural symphony” provided to him by the birds and bees every morning.

Fung is an accidental farmer. A refugee from the city, he stumbled upon farming when he was helping a friend manage a farm in Cameron Highlands. “I had been travelling when I was younger. When I returned to Malaysia, I didn’t like KL. I didn’t fit in,” says the farmer who has found a comfortable home in his farm at Ringlet, deep within the forest. A rented land, it measures four to five acres and was formerly a small tea plantation and then a vegetable plot.

“When I took over 11 years ago, it had already been abandoned for quite a while,” says Fung. His method is to interfere as little as possible with nature. “I try not to clean up too much of foliage so as not to destroy the natural habitats of good insects and bad insects, natural predators and pests. Since we do not use agrochemicals to control pests, we need the natural yin-yang to work.”

For fertiliser, Fung uses a traditional method of collecting old, fallen trees and burning them slowly with soil, weed and chicken feathers. “It’s a new thing for us — chicken feathers. Because it’s wasted… they throw out sacks of it so we just thought we’d try to make use of it,” says Fung. Ash from this burnt mixture becomes the potassium needed in the soil by the plants. He also uses liquid fertiliser which he makes from an organic seaweed powder (from Ireland) mixed with water, sugar, enzyme and air (so the bacteria can multiply). “Our plants, what they are given, are high quality stuff. All good stuff,” he enthuses.

Fung also adds rock dust to the fertiliser. “This rock dust from the quarry in Simpang Pulai is a good source for minerals, so you don’t just take and take from the soil. In organic farming, the most important thing is you take care of the soil, not the vegetables. The most important thing is the soil. When the soil is well taken care of, it will give you a lot in return,” he says.


Yahqappu found meaning for his life through organic farming. He was on a search for the meaning of life when he finally found his calling. Taking up farming was a vocation for Yahqappu who previously was an ordained minister with the Ministry of Christ church and after that, a restaurateur.

“It is people who give meaning to life and that is why I decided to find something to do that was at the base of the social strata. That’s why I got into the restaurant business, but that’s when I discovered it was not low enough,” he says.

Putting up the restaurant for lease after six years of operations, Yahqappu went to India for six months, spending time in the Catholic ashrams to “understand more about life and where I should be heading to”.

He found it at an ashram in Bangalore where the ashram had its own organic farm. Inspired, he returned to Malaysia and found himself a plot in Batu Arang, Selangor, a lowland plot measuring 1.5 acres. This was six years ago — and he plunged himself right into the deep end, reading books and stuff off the Internet to learn how to establish his own farm.

Right now, his biggest concern is a jasmine plantation nearby. He had initially thought that being close to a flower plantation would help him as the birds and bees it draws would contribute to the biodynamics of his farm. He was mistaken.

“I thought the neighbouring jasmine farm would help, pollination and all that. When I could smell the pesticides, I wasn’t happy at all. I never used to smell it so much but I think they’re using a more potent pesticide now,” says Yahqappu. According to him, pests are virile and can mutate and build immunity towards the chemicals, so he surmises that that’s why his neighbour has resorted to stronger formulas. “I’ve gone over to my neighbour’s to look at their pesticides. It smells awful, very pungent. I noticed that quite a few were brought in from Thailand, illegally.”

What’s happened is the pesticides have contaminated Yahqappu’s chillis which are grown closest to the neighbour’s property. Yahqappu says he never thought their spraying would have an effect as he has grown banana trees as a buffer zone and there is a road that divides the two properties.

There are a few organic farmers in Malaysia suffering the same plight as Yahqappu. Our country has yet to impose strict integrated pest management standards on conventional farms, leaving the farmers the freedom to be trigger happy with their pesticide spraying. That’s why organic certification bodies impose strict criteria when it comes to buffer zones, especially if an organic property is in close proximity to a sprayed farm. Requirements are based on height of vegetation and predominating wind direction and spraying intensity. Width of buffer zone can range from a mere 2m, based on the requirements, to 100m. Organic farmers also have to take into account boundaries to prevent rainwater flowing from conventional fields into their fields.

“We try to do our best,” says Yahqappu. “We have our buffer zone. We don’t take water from the river which has been contaminated. I’ve dug my own well because I don’t know the source of the river but I know it runs through an oil palm plantation and there is usage of pesticides there. So, I’m trying to keep away the pesticides but if it is still like that, I will have to think up better ways to manage… maybe put up a bigger fence, plant bigger trees, things like that.”


Of the three farmers profiled here, Lee is the one who’s been farming organically the longest — 13 years in all. His story differs in that Lee is the son of a farmer and grew up on a farm, albeit a conventional one which used agrochemicals. But when he was introduced to the Shimamoto method of organic farming through a farmer’s association workshop that his father was a member of, he instinctively knew that was where the future was headed in farming.

Thus, he and six partners set about converting his father’s conventional farm into an organic farm. However, he was met with contempt, sadly, even from his own parents and friends, who could not embrace this so-called new fangled way of doing things. “Everybody looked at us, wondering if we could survive or not. Even my parents didn’t support me. It was not easy. We chose the off-road and not the highway,” says Lee.

Converting a farm that had been relying heavily on agrochemicals for 30 years is no easy task. Some experts say that taking away all the chemicals from land that has been chemically farmed is like weaning a drug addict off drugs cold turkey — it will experience trauma. So, anyone with an agrochemical farm intending to convert to organic has to invest in priming the soil first. The micro and macro minerals have to be brought into balance and the ecological system has to be reinstated. To the uninitiated, this means there should be robust insect and worm activity in the soil. Soil erosion has to be countered in various ways too.

Lee endured a stiff learning curve in the first three years but persevered even when his crop didn’t yield and his finances were slowly depleting. He offers this gem of wisdom: “To learn something good, it takes three years. To learn the bad, only three days.

We had destroyed the soil for more than 30 years, so it is our responsibility to bring it back to good condition. It only takes three years, so that’s very ‘cheap’ already.”

Lee believes in the fruits of his labour. He reveals that the other reason he persevered with organic farming is the health benefits from consuming raw organic produce. Lee relates how, when he was recuperating from an accident seven years ago, he went on a raw veggie and juice diet. His health improved and his long-time ailment — asthma — troubles him no more. Even his customers commented that he looked younger.

What continues to spur him on today is the support and encouragement that his customers give him. “Because of their support, we can survive until now,” he says.

Lee says that apart from running his farm and giving learning tours to those interested in organic farming and produce, he has also appointed himself as an evangelist of organic farming, talking to and educating conventional farmers, hoping to steer them to the organic way. He’s even managed to convince his neighbour to reduce their pesticide use by 90%. Indeed, some of his best customers are farmers themselves.

“There must be a change of mindset before embarking on organic farming. It’s not easy for a conventional farmer to change to organic. It’s not so much the habit of using agrochemicals or even income issues. Those will pass. But whether you have the willpower to continue, how determined you are, you have to persevere and endure failures, not take the easy way out,” he says.

This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 765, July 27-Aug 2, 2009

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