There is a common misconception throughout the developing world that if a farmer is to switch to organic he will no longer sell on the market and will return to a self-sufficient lifestyle. This may be true for some, but for many, producing an organic product and selling it on the market can be economically beneficial. Mr. Fung Chee Siang of Hatiku Agrikultur lives a very easy lifestyle and openly claims to be a lazy farmer. He is exceedingly humble and I laugh as he tells me, “I know nothing about farming. I rent my land and I am terribly lazy. I am given the opportunity to do organic farming and that is a huge blessing.” I have never stumbled across a farmer like this one. He avoids all detailed questions and will never admit to his own accomplishments or intelligence. Still, Mr. Fung is undeniably proving that organic farming can be successful. I tried to question him on the economics of his farm and he replied, “I have an easy lifestyle. I don’t control my workers, I can’t tell you how much I made, or how much I harvested, how much I paid for manure. All I know is there is no doubt my product is organic and in the end I live comfortable.”
When I asked why he grows organic, his eyes raised and he curtly responded, “Why wouldn’t I”. So I clarified my question, explaining I was searching for his inspiration or motivation for farming organic. “It is because I don’t think. When you think too much you worry about expense and profit. We damage mother earth enough why should I contribute to that?” At first, I wasn’t sure if he was being difficult. Yet, I soon realized that this was simply the way he was. Mr. Fung was too humble and honest. This was the way he looked at life. He believed he wasn’t operating an intellectual farming system that should stand out. Rather, he was just a normal, lucky person who had an organic farm, a perspective that’s rare both in the West and in Malaysia where Fung’s farm is located.
Hatiku Agrikultur lies in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. It is a mountainous region dominated by farms and constant rain. The mountains are covered with ring houses or hoop houses, which protect the produce from copious rain. It is estimated that there are around 3000 farms in Cameron Highlands, with only around 20 producing without chemicals. Mr. Fung is one of the few that decided to farm differently and many here view his farming style as irrational. “When people classify me as foolish for being an organic farmer, I thank them, for that means I am not put in the same category as them,” says Mr. Fung. It amazed me how this farmer could be so complicated and simple at the same time. The reason 99.99% of the regions farmers used chemicals is because they follow the formulas fed to them. They may increase yield and profit at first, but their land is quickly degraded, which leads to more and more chemical use while soil quality is decreased. This process cannot go on forever, and in Southeast Asia, it is all too common for once bountiful farm land to be left abandoned because it is no longer fertile. Farming ecologically ensures a quality product year after year, generating income throughout generations. However, to farm without chemicals requires many intricate systems, like composting, companion planting, the use of legumes, integrated pest management and even crop rotations.
Through touring Mr. Fung’s farm before it rained, I was able to explore his intricate system that incorporated all the fundamentals of farming without chemicals. He grew an abundance of crops: tomatoes, lettuce, mustard greens, various herbs, carrots, ginger, tapioca, spinach, bok choy, chili, various fruits and much more. It seemed he planted on every inch that was available. I climbed the hills, slipping and falling only to discover more and more beds. The steep hills were protected by natures root sytems, as he never left the soil bare. Where he didn’t plant, nature co-existed providing what some would view as weeds but others as the perfect form of erosion control. This natural landscape provided habitat for a myriad of insects, birds, and wildlife.
Mr. Fung rotates his crops after every harvest with no set formula or pattern; he said he can create a plan, but his workers may have a different schedule. For some areas, he utilizes companion planting or intercropping while in others are planted single species in rows. He explains that heavy feeder crops should be placed with legumes. The legumes will naturally provide nitrogen through their root modules for heavy feeders like corn, broccoli, cabbage, kale or cauliflower. Some of the legumes abundant on the farm are long bean, french bean, soya, four angle bean and snow peas. The more legumes planted and established in the soil, the more the rhizome population is increased as well. This is important for inoculating the legumes and maximizing nitrogen fixation.
Another companion cropping theory was to plant short season crops with longer season plants. For instance, cabbage and broccoli, which take longer to cultivate, require ample space in between plantings to stretch out and to produce an unstressed or crowded product. However, according to Mr. Fung’s philosophy, this empty space should never be left unused. So Mr. Fung planted crops like bok choy in between the broccoli. This would ensure that, by the time he harvested bok choy, the broccoli was ready to take over and expand. Thus, not only is Mr. Fung maximizing his space, but he is also controlling weeds, preventing erosion and keeping the soil from being bare.
Hakito Agrikultur has virtually no pest issues. When asked how Mr. Fung controls his pests, he replied, “These friends you hear there are plenty of them”. He was talking about the wildlife and birds. There are several birds throughout the farm, many of them nest on the ceiling of his barn. I couldn’t believe how many bird nests lined the ceiling, which are actually the floor boards of Mr. Fung’s apartment. He told me that in one day a single bird can eat up to 1000 bugs. The symbiotic relationship Mr. Fung has with these birds provides a balance in nature. They not only have an abundant feed source throughout his farm but also a safe nesting habitat. In return they grant him with pest free veggies and every morning, Mr. Fung scrapes the floor of the barn to collect their droppings for compost. It is this type of balance that Mr. Fung not only relishes, but also promotes. At first, he tried to plant deterrent plants to prevent insects. He even planted some plants to attract pests, which is a technique called bait planting. Although these techniques worked well, they are no longer needed. “When nature is balanced, you have the good and the bad, the yin and the yang. This is nature’s harmony. You don’t need education or research, but a decency to respect nature.”
Mr. Fung improves his soil using many integrative techniques. One practice he uses is vermiculture or worm cast, though his system is far from traditional. Most vermiculture operations are enclosed to keep the worms in. If the worms aren’t fed sufficient amounts, they will want to leave and migrate towards a better food source. This is either a sign that the compost is finished or that one needs to add more feed (manure or vegetable matter) to the compost. Mr. Fung has decided to let the worms decide whether they want to stay or explore other food options. He affirms that he feeds them well and they hardly ever leave, but if they decide to go, so be it. When the compost is finished, he stops adding amendments to the finished side of the compost pile and builds up the opposite side. This way, the worms migrate to where their food is and he can remove the finished product and start again. This also saves time and labor, as Mr. Fung would otherwise have to comb through the pile removing the worms or skin the worm cast off of the top layer (the most common practice used in vermiculture operations).
Compost is also made and prepared on site for building soil. He doesn’t throw away any by-product or weeds from his farm. If they are not burnt for bokashi (fermented compost), they are composted. Even when trees die or fall, he collects them and burns them into ash for his bokashi and compost. In his compost, he uses worm cast, rock dust, ash, soil, EM, and organic chicken dung. He also makes compost tea, which is called enzyme in Malaysia since the enzyme is basically fermented plant juice. Mr. Fung also has anaerobic bins, which he fills with vegetable matter, EM, molasses, and water. These are aged (fermented) and then used to fertilize his soil. He always saves a little from each batch to initiate the following batches.
Because the climate is so wet and the dry season doesn’t last long, there is an abundance of water. Mr. Fung’s farm, which rests on the top of a mountain, has access to two streams that he treats with EM once a week. These streams provide all of the water for his farm. He uses it to irrigate his plants, to bathe, and to drink. The hoop houses help control the watering of his plants, which vary by species and season. They also provide a much appreciated canopy for the workers during the frequent rain.
Initially, the biggest challenge for Mr. Fung was finding his market. Now, after twelve years, that concern is hardly an issue. With cancer rates rising, Mr. Fung acknowledges that the majority of people consuming his products are sick and have no choice but to try to eat well. There are two reasons why people make the conscience decision to eat organic food for environmental reasons or for health reasons. Mr. Fung says, here in Southeast Asia, health reasons motivate most to consume organic products. To deliver to his clientele, Mr. Fung does not use a middle-man. He sells directly to organic produce shops throughout the region through a process he calls carpooling. Because Cameron highlands have so many farms, several large trucks bring produce every day throughout Malaysia and Singapore. As a result, Mr. Fung will piggyback on to the back of them and have his produce delivered. He admits that ideally he would prefer not to ship so far away, but realizes that the trucks are leaving whether his produce is on them or not and that the local market for organics isn’t strong. “I am straight forward with my customers, and they know my product is as good as I claim. When you are an organic shop, you want to find organic growers that you can trust; when you do you want to keep them.” Mr. Fung concedes to one issue he has. Many farmers throughout Malaysia say they are organic but they really aren’t. They undercut organic prices and the true organic farmers cannot compete with them. As conventional cabbage fetches around $0.33 a kilo, organic cabbage can wholesale at around $1.75 a kilo.
Mr. Fung is very grateful for the opportunity to work as an organic farmer and his zeal for his work is contagious. “Many people have passions and hobbies, but few get to live them, so I am living it up and forever grateful. Twelve years ago I wanted to cultivate this land, so I started an organic farm. Now I realize that this land has been cultivating me.” Mr. Fung credits Mother Nature for his success. His farm supports a family of seven, composed of three generations that help out and reside at the farm. He constantly reminds me that he does not work hard or think too much. “A farmer is not to toil his whole life away. He is a special breed and should enjoy Mother Nature. It is a privilege to be a farmer so enjoy it!” In this respect, Mr. Fung is an avid believer in earth’s natural processes and strongly encourages farmers’ collaboration with nature, feeling that if you work against her you will ultimately fail. “If you leave nature alone, it takes care of you. I am a lazy farmer, so I like being taken care of.”
Essay by Loren Cardeli