Sunday, May 18, 2008

Go organic

Tuesday April 22, 2008

Go organic


A former real estate agent took up organic farming because it was the right thing to do.

THIS is the soil after 10 years of cultivation. You can throw any seed on it and the seed will grow,” declares Loh Siew Fook proudly. Every handful of soil he picks up bears wriggling earthworms, a barometer of healthy soil, hence healthy plants.

Next, he points to the plot where long beans are grown. “Look at the grasses. They co-exist harmoniously with the beans. With leafy vegetables, untrained eyes can’t tell the vegetables apart from the weeds,” he notes, comparing it to conventional farms that rely on chemicals to keep weeds at bay. Loh and his workers do weed the plots but as this takes time, the farm has an unkempt look.

Loh, 46, is convinced that agro-chemicals are harmful to the environment and well-being of humans that consume plants grown with this toxic input. That realisation prompted him to take up organic farming upon returning from Australia 10 years ago.

Loh Siew Fook: ‘You can throw any seed on it and the seed will grow.’

Although he had dabbled in “backyard farming” with friends over there, starting his own venture on a 3.2ha land in Semenyih, 40km from Kuala Lumpur was no plain sailing.

“It was a bad piece of land to start with. Half of the farm consisted of very poor soil. I had to treat the soil before I could start any serious farming. Plants just couldn't seem to grow. Tonnes of compost had to be brought into the farm,” he says, recalling the early years of rehabilitating the former rubber plantation and orchard.

“Many a time I wanted to give up,” confesses the former real estate agent.

After three years, he began to reap the fruits of perseverance. Athough the farm produced just enough for his family’s consumption and a bit extra for the market, he knew he had built up the ecosystem of a healthy farm. From then on, the output slowly increased to the present average of two tonnes per month. In 2000, he expanded his operation to another piece of similar-sized land leased from a friend.

Marketing, however, was a huge challenge back then. “The irregular sizes of the vegetables made them unattractive and shops were reluctant to sell them. We had to beg people to buy them. And then there was a shop that simply folded the business and the owner disappeared without paying us,” adds Loh.

Assisted by his wife Chen Hoong Meng, the couple initially sold their produce to organic shops on consignment basis. They gradually moved away from such retail outlets as these places demanded for varieties which Loh could not supply on a regular basis.

Loh’s produce is now carried in three organic shops and 11 Giant supermarkets in the Klang Valley. The supermarkets allocate a fixed space and Loh fills it up with whatever he could produce. Vegetables are usually on the shelf for four days before they’re replaced with fresh harvests. Unsold packages are donated to disabled homes and orphanages. These days, the return rates are negligible, a sign of consumers’ growing preference for organic vegetables.

Chen says packaging for the Giant supermarket are based on fixed prices but not fixed weight. The amount varies depending on harvests as the yield is reliant on the weather.

Having seen the downside of the organic movement in Australia where profit-driven entrepreneurs just cashed in on the growing demand for organic produce, Loh is determined to get his operation certified. He sees the same process taking place in Malaysia with the mushrooming of outlets selling organic vegetables from questionable sources.

His is one of two farms in Malaysia currently certified by the National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA), the other being Titi Eco Farm in Negri Sembilan. Since 2005, Loh’s produce is packed into plastic bags bearing the certification logo and the tagline “Be Sure & Be Safe With LOVG” (Loh’s Organic Veg Garden).

Certification means farm are subjected to annual inspection and review by the certifier; an additional cost that some farmers could ill-afford. But Loh believes that certification is needed to give an assurance to consumers who generally pay a premium for such products.

“If more farms take up certification, the cost could be lowered as the expenses to bring in the certifier could be shared among us,” he says.

Loh’s two farms produce the optimum monthly, two tonnes each for three months in a year. For a substantial period of the year, the output is just sufficient to cover operational costs.

“The good months make up for the poor months. Organic farming is not quick money if you do it properly. We do it because it is the right thing to do,” says Loh.

Young farmer on a mission to assist the disabled through organic farming

Thursday May 15, 2008

Story and photos by TAN JU-ENG

He spoke fast and excitedly about the concept for his venture called Bandar Harapan. Ho knows the name does not indicate farming or planting vegetables but according to him, the name is self-explanatory.

“I started Bandar Harapan with the main aim of generating income and hope for the disabled,” said Ho, who employs them to work at the farm.

“So, you see, I am not really selling you my produce”.

A rather radical statement from a businessman.

As Ho’s story about how he had started the project unfolded it sounded like a theme for Yasmin Ahmad’s public service commercials for Petronas during festive seasons.

Good alternative: Organic farming is a solution for those living in apartments.

“I am the eldest and the only son in a family with four children. My father worked as a building contractor who lost everything during the recession when I was 12. We had to move from our home in SS2 in Petaling Jaya to his only property, a five-acre piece of uncultivated land in Kota Damansara.

“We had to live among the hardcore poor in the squatter area. It was a time before Kota Damansara was developed. Even then, we were considered the richest there because we had an old Nissan Sunny car.

“My family of seven, including my grandfather, had to survive by growing vegetables and rearing fish on the land. After five years we had someone to help us work on the land. He was our neighbour P. Saktivelu, who lost an arm in a work-related accident.

“We worked hard and I remember having to trek out of the jungle everyday to go to school,” said Ho, 33, who works full-time now as a herbalist, acupuncturist and a practitioner of traditional medicine. He also has a local degree in agriculture.

His early experiences in traditional healing were with his grandfather, who taught him to treat injured animals that he picked up from the jungle on his way back from school.

Five years later, when their land was taken over to build a golf course in Kota Damansara, Ho and Saktivelu who were 17 and 19 respectively then, went around looking for another piece of land to cultivate. They looked everywhere until they found an old man living on a one-acre piece of land in Ara Damansara.

“He saw that we were young and eager to do planting so he allowed us to cultivate on his land. A few years later we decided to apply to the Forestry Department for land to be used for farming to generate income for the disabled,” said Ivan adding that 30 acres were approved for them.

As part of his big plans, Ho rented out small plots of land of about 21 sq metre to schools and individual groups to learn how to grow and manage an organic patch over six months.

Ivan and his partner strongly believed the land would provide for the poor if people were willing to work on it.

“I want to sell the idea of teaching people to live off the land no matter how small it is. I want to teach young people to take care of the land and how to grow organic vegetables without destroying the environment with chemicals and poison.

“I have learnt about the usefulness of the land because I had to live off it. I am convinced of this and I want to pass the experience on to young people,” said Ho.

Natural medicine: Ho with dried herbs for various ailments.

He has since travelled to countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, and China to learn more about environmental friendly ways to cultivate the land. Ho cultivates enzymes by fermenting fruit and vegetable wastes to be used as fertilizers and to rehabilitate soil.

In India, Ho picked up the idea of using porous clay pots to slowly disseminate moisture into the soil by filling up the pots with water and leaving them on the vegetable beds on hot days.

“When turned over they create natural habitat for insects that will leave its droppings there to fertilise the soil,” Ho added.

In January, Ho started another company called Hati Harapan, which is the retail outlet for the farm produce. It's a place for the disabled to sell farm produce as well as compost, enzymes and others to generate income. This outlet is located at 8, Jalan 12/15 , Petaling Jaya.

He has also started a system to encourage consumers to grow their own vegetables and cultivate enzymes.

“You can grow your own organic vegetables easily anywhere. It is no excuse to say that you can’t do it because you live in an apartment. You can always find containers and boxers.”

Consumers could take a tight lid plastic bin, that had been inoculated with bacteria to start fermentation, from the farm or the retail outlet by putting a deposit of RM15. Fill it up with vegetable and fruit waste before returning it to the outlet in exhange for 500g of vegetables and another empty bin.

“After three months we will be able to use the cultivated enzymes from the bin on the farm. The consumer can choose to keep the enzymes but that would be too much to use and meanwhile more vegetable waste will be produced,” said Ho who is keen on keeping this chain of activities going.

Ho would be going to China to learn healthy and green friendly methods in preserving vegetables such as preserved radish (choy po).

“I want a farm with a soul and not just to produce vegetables to sell,” Ho said.

Hard times call for revival of Green Book plan

Sunday May 18, 2008

WHEN launching the Green Book Programme (popularly known as Rancangan Buku Hijau) in 1974, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister Tun Haji Abdul Razak Hussein said it was one of the positive steps to help the public overcome problems caused by inflation.

The main objective of the programme was to increase the production of food by encouraging people to plant and grow their own food crops.

In view of the current rise in prices of food, Federation of Malaysia Consumers Associations (Fomca) secretary-general Muhammad Sha'ani Abdullah has proposed that the programme be revived to encourage the public to carry out backyard farming, hydroponics planting and organic farming.

Sha’ani, a former employee of the Agriculture Ministry, says the programme fizzled out when the Malaysian economy grew and people had more money to buy food.

“This kind of programme should be encouraged all the time. When the leaders changed, so did the priorities,” he adds.

The Federation of Malaysian Growers Association (PPSM) recently said that Malaysia produced 700,000 metric tonnes of vegetables every year – of which 170,000 tonnes are exported to Singapore.

To cover Malaysia’s needs, 500,000 tonnes of vegetables were imported. Prices of vegetables have increased recently as a result of bad weather and rising prices of fertiliser.

“We have to accept that prices are not going to come down anytime soon,” says Sha’ani, who adds that Fomca plans to distribute vegetable seeds for a nominal fee.

According to Datuk Ramini Gurusamy, Deputy President of the National Council of Women's Organisations (NCWO), schools through their consumer clubs should encourage green lifestyles by having students plant vegetables and decorative plants.

“In fact, one way to reach parents is through children,” she says.

Ramini admits that times have changed since 1974 and some strategies are not relevant now.

“Land use patterns, lifestyles and living conditions are not the same anymore. We are becoming more urbanised with more people living in high-rise buildings. People will have to make use of every space that is available,” she says. – By RASHVINJEET S.BEDI

Saturday, May 17, 2008

By Mike Lang

Soaring fuel prices affect just about everything we do, from travel to grocery bills. This year, I predict that the backyard vegetable garden will be important to even more people than in years past, in an effort to offset some of the grocery tab.

Vegetable gardening can seem like a daunting task to novices and veterans alike when confronted with terms at garden stores that are not part of most people’s everyday vocabulary. To thwart this tough part of gardening, I have compiled a list of the most frequently questioned terms I hear from year to year.

GARDENING VOCABULARY: To produce a better garden crop, gardeners should know some basic gardening terminology.

An allelopathic plant is a plant that produces a chemical during the growth cycle that disrupts the growth of other plants around it. Black walnuts are notorious for wreaking havoc on tomatoes and peppers planted too closely. Other plants that have an allelopathic nature are asparagus and fennel.

Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a naturally occurring bacterium that is used to rid the garden of some insects. It is most effective on foliar-feeding insects. However, applications of Bt are not long-lasting, so it requires repeated applications, preferably in the evening hours for the longest effect before it is degraded by sunlight.

Determinate growth is a term that is important to tomato gardeners. When a variety is listed as having this type of habit, it means that it is most likely a smaller plant that will set and mature the majority of the fruit within one window of time. The “paste” type tomato will generally fall into this growth habit, giving you a large amount of produce ready for use all at once.

Green manure is not fresh animal manure, but it can provide nitrogen to vegetable garden plants. This term refers to green plants, such as ryegrass, that are planted to protect the soil from erosion during the time when the garden is not growing vegetables. These plants are tilled into the soil before planting vegetables to provide nutrients and organic matter.

Heirloom plants are plants that have been around gardens for many years. They are open pollinated (naturally pollinated, not artificially) so that seedlings grown from the fruit will be the same type as the parent. Many gardeners got away from heirloom plants when hybrid plants were introduced for increased yields and disease resistance. Gardeners are now returning to the early varieties of heirloom plants, however, because of the sensational taste and forms many of these plants offer. ‘Brandywine’ tomato is one of the more popular heirloom plants.

Hybrid plants are those plants that are a result of pollination of one plant from another that is genetically different. These crosses often result in a vigorously growing plant that produces an abundance of fruit. Other plants have been hybridized because one parent has superior disease resistance. The seed collected from these plants will not produce the type of plant from which it came from, but rather resemble one of the parents, which may not have the ability to produce decent fruit.

Indeterminate growing plants are plants that will continue growing throughout the season, until a killing frost. Gardeners who want to prolong their tomato-picking season should choose indeterminate growing plants. But remember, since the vines continue to grow, these plants will require a little more room in the garden compared to those with a determinate growth habit.

Insecticidal soap is a safe and effective way to control aphids, whiteflies and spider mites in the garden. This insecticide can be made from household liquid soap, but those often contain perfumes and other additives that can be harmful to plants. Therefore, I prefer using an already-made product that rapidly leaves the garden after taking care of the pest.

Systemic is a term used to describe the mode of action for certain insecticides and herbicides. In both cases, the product is applied to the foliage of the plant, and the plant itself moves the product throughout the system of the plant. This is important for insecticides because if you are dealing with a stem or root-feeding pest, application to the foliage will get to those spots. For herbicides, it is important for tough perennial plants, such as dandelions, because if you only kill the top, the root will grow the plant right back.

Zinc is an important nutrient in the growth of plants. Zinc-deficient vegetable plants will be stunted. This deficiency is actually a common problem in high pH soils and those with little organic matter within them. Using compost in the garden soil can help with this problem, as can foliar feeding with a fertilizer that also includes zinc.

Don’t let the gardening glossary deter you from making a positive mark on the budget this summer. Getting past confusing words is one of the hardest parts of putting your own food on the table.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Karinda Garden encourages household composting

Ani Suswantoro, Contributor The Jakarta Post, Lebak Bulus, S. Jakarta

On a Saturday morning in early January, Sri Murniati, 63, a former Health Ministry official in East Java, spoke on compost making to a group of participants at a workshop. Her husband, Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo, 72, who was forestry minister from 1993-1998, accompanied her.

The training workshop was conducted in an open, thatched-roof hut in their nursery, where birds sang and the breeze blew. The couple's nursery, Karinda Garden, is in the Bumi Karang Indah housing complex of Lebak Bulus, South Jakarta, where they sell medicinal plants, flowers, seedlings and of course, compost.

The lush Karinda Garden, where flowers bloom year-round,
is testament to the benefits of fertilizing with compost.
In the background is the Djamaludin residence.
(JP/Ani Suswantoro)

"In big city like Jakarta, with more than 12 million inhabitants, waste management is very crucial. It is not the government's responsibility alone, but ours as well," Murniati told the participants.

"Roughly, Jakarta waste is 65 percent organic, 25 percent recyclable and 10 percent dangerous and poisonous waste. If we can take care of our organic waste, the government's burden will be lighter. The money allocated to treat waste can be used for other purposes," she said.

Murniati has heard various reasons people have given as to why they do not compost: that they are too busy,disgusting, they already pay for waste collection and that they can buy compost instead of making it.

"However, the main point is concern for the environment," she stressed.

When this theory segment was over, Djamaludin escorted the participants to inspect the phases of composting.

"Correct composting will not create a foul odor at all, but will smell like the original material (fresh soil)," he said.

"We have filled this nursery with flowers, so that it will look colorful to impress visitors and to show them that composting does not mean an ugly, disgusting job, but an easy and valuable activity," Djamaludin told this writer after the course.

The Djamaludins moved in 2000 to the Karang Tengah area of Lebak Bulus, where they were disappointed to discover that quality compost for their gardening was unavailable. There, they also observed that vegetable hawkers discarded much organic waste, and were thus prompted to try composting themselves.

The couple researched information on effective and efficient composting until they stumbled across the Takakura Magic Basket, created by Japanese-born Koji Takakura.

Since then, the environmentally conscious couple have shared their experience with others, in the hope that they also would compost to care for the environment.

To date, more than 4,000 participants, ranging from kindergartners to professionals from various institutions, have participated in their biweekly composting workshop.

"I am very happy when, upon completing the workshop, people really start practicing what they have learned. I sometimes call them to check their progress," said Murniati, to which her husband Djamaludin responded by smiling and nodding in agreement.

For more information and to arrange a composting workshop with the Djamaludins, phone (021) 75909167.

Simple steps to composting


  1. Takakura composting utilizes aerobic microbes, which need water, oxygen and correct temperature; frequent mixing helps supply oxygen.
  2. Correct composting generates warmth and moisture when mixed.
  3. Microbes need carbon-rich materials -- dry, coarse, rich in fiber and are brown in color (dry leaves, dry grass, rice hull, corn husks, sawdust, straw) -- as energy source
  4. Microbes need nitrogen-rich materials -- have high water content and usually are green (vegetables, fruits, kitchen waste, egg shells, used tea leaves, coffee grinds) -- to propagate
  5. One part brown material mixed with two parts green make the best compost
  6. Correct compost smells like healthy soil

Takakura composting

  1. Prepare Takakura Magic Basket
  2. Use mature compost (6-8 kg) as compost starter
  3. Cut small pieces (2 x 2 cm) of organic waste (fruit peels, egg shells, garden and kitchen leaves, rice, vegetables); discard broth in food for composting; do not use bones, shrimp or leftover meats/animal products in compost -- they attract flies
  4. Make a well in the starter, put in waste in and mix
  5. Cover basket to warm mixture and prevent flies from laying eggs
  6. Optimum humidity is achieved when compost mixture is damp, but produces no dripping water when squeezed. Add rice hull or dry leaves if compost is watery, or sprinkle on a little water if compost is dry.
  7. Stir regularly 2-3 times a week. Do not add more waste to a full basket -- remove the mixture to a bigger composter to add waste.
  8. Compost is ripe when its temperature, appearance and smell resemble soil: in about eight weeks


  1. Get the entire family involved
  2. Put a pair of scissors on the dining table and get everyone to cut up their share of waste
  3. Place Takakura baskets in several strategic areas in/around the house; those who enter the area are responsible for mixing the compost

-- Ani Suswantoro

'Grow your own greens' takes root

KUALA LUMPUR: With food prices skyrocketing, the government is working to educate Malaysians on the economic benefits of community farming.

However, self-sustaining agriculture does not need to be confined to rural areas as growing one's own fruits and vegetables can be undertaken by city-dwellers as well, albeit on a smaller scale.

In fact, many urban and suburban Malaysians need no introduction to the idea of growing one's own food.

In Taman Dato' Harun here, resident Tengku Jaafar Tengku Mahmud has successfully grown sugar cane, potatoes and banana trees on a 3.2ha plot opposite his terrace house.

Over the past three years, the 62-year-old retiree has also been planting green vegetables such as kacang botol (goa bean/four-angled bean) and ulam in front of his house.
"Previously, there were squatter homes across the road but after the land was vacated and cleared, we decided to make use of it.

"Looking back, it was a good move as prices of goods are now shooting up."

He said residents from 30 other houses had also been growing vegetables and other plants there for their own consumption or for sale.

"When we get tired of eating the sugar cane, we will sell them for RM1.50 per stalk."

Jaafar said he used to grow cucumbers as well but gave up as they were vulnerable to worm infestation.

In Taman Semenyih Indah, Jameah Ponidin, 51, began growing vegetables in her garden as a hobby.

Nowadays, she turns to her garden for fresh produce whenever she can't find the time or energy to shop for groceries.

"I have always loved gardening. After we moved here six years ago, I started growing chillies, ladyfingers and pandan leaves."

In Kota Damansara, a secretary who only wanted to be known as 'Zu' said her worries over the chemical content of vegetables sold in the markets drove her to plant her own greens.

"I heard people saying that some farmers use chemicals to ensure fresher vegetables and I found it quite disturbing.

"So, I decided to grow kunyit (turmeric), mint leaf, lemongrass, ladies fingers and Japanese cucumber myself.

"Besides, why should I buy a packet of turmeric or ginger if I only need a little to cook? It's a waste going all the way to the shop and paying RM1 for a packet."


Sudut Pelajar: Amalan pertanian baik tingkat produktiviti

SEHINGGA Oktober 2007, produk sawit di Malaysia telah menjana pendapatan negara sebanyak RM 32.4 bilion. Oleh yang demikian, sudah terang lagikan bersuluh, industri sawit berpotensi besar mendapat pulangan yang lumayan dan peningkatan produktiviti akan lebih menambahkan pendapatan negara.

Dalam usaha bagi meningkatkan industri sawit ini, Lembaga Minyak Sawit Malaysia (MPOB) dan Kementerian Perusahaan Perladangan dan Komoditi telah memperkenalkan Kod Amalan Industri Sawit bagi memastikan pengeluaran hasil sawit meningkat dan berjalan lancar. Kod amalan industri sawit ini merangkumi Amalan Pertanian Baik (GAP), Amalan Pengilangan Baik (GMP), Amalan Penapisan Baik (GRP) serta pengangkutan dan penyimpanan produk sawit. Bagi meningkatkan produktiviti sawit, para petani haruslah mematuhi Amalan Pertanian Baik (GAP) ini.

Baru-baru ini Menteri Perusahaan Perladangan dan Komoditi menyatakan bahawa produktiviti sawit di Malaysia masih lagi rendah iaitu di antara 17 hingga 21 tan sehektar setahun. Walhal, sasaran yang ditetapkan adalah 35 tan buah tandan sawit segar setahun. Perkara ini jelas menunjukkan industri sawit masih lagi jauh ketinggalan dalam mencapai visi 35 tan buah tandan sawit segar sehektar setahun. Justeru, bagi meningkatkan produktiviti sawit di negara ini, para petani seharusnya mengamalkan Amalan Pertanian Baik (GAP) ini yang terdiri daripada pengurusan air dan saliran, amalan pembakaran sifar, penyediaan tanah, kepadatan tanaman, bahan tanaman bermutu, kawalan penyakit dan perosak serta amalan pembajaan seimbang bagi pengeluaran hasil yang tinggi.

Amalan Pertanian Baik (GAP) sudah pasti dapat meningkatkan produktiviti sawit. Ini kerana iklim dan keadaan tanah di negara ini sesuai untuk penanaman sawit. Tanah yang sesuai digunakan untuk tanaman sawit adalah jenis laterit. Namun begitu, kawasan tanah gambut juga sesuai untuk penanaman sawit sekiranya ia ditanam secara terancang. Bagi mengekalkan kesuburan tanah, penanam sawit turut digalak mengkompos pelepah sawit. Melalui cara ini, bahan organik tanah akan bertambah dan pokok akan lebih sihat serta mampu mengeluarkan hasil yang lebih banyak.

Pengurusan air dan saliran yang baik juga salah satu elemen dalam amalan pertanian baik. Sistem perparitan yang baik di kebun sawit dapat meningkatkan produktiviti sawit kerana ia membuang air berlebihan dan mewujudkan keadaan yang sesuai untuk pertumbuhan sawit. Kesan air yang berlebihan di kebun sawit akan menjejaskan perkembangan akar dan pengambilan nutrien pokok sawit. Oleh itu, pengaliran dan parit perlu sentiasa diawasi untuk mengelakkan banjir semasa musim hujan.

Kajian MPOB mendapati, seluas lebih 14,000 hektar tanaman sawit di Selatan Perak telah terdedah kepada ancaman ulat bungkus. Masalah ini mengakibatkan penurunan produktiviti sawit.