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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Article: Natural way

Tuesday August 4, 2009


Farmers are learning ways to cultivate without relying on chemicals.

INDIAN rice farmers might be uncommon in Malaysia but if all goes well, 300 of them in Sekincang, Selangor, will be pioneers in producing organic rice commercially.

Toiling in the Tanjung Karang granary (one of the country's eight granaries) since Independence, these farmers from Kampung Baru Sekincang and Kampung Parit Empat in the Kuala Selangor district have been attending workshops on vermi-composting and are eager to produce pesticides from natural ingredients.

Spoilt lands: Two farmers of Kampung Baru Sekincang in Selangor showing soil that has been degraded by long-term use of agrochemicals.

Under the guidance of trainers from the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), they are learning ways to farm without chemicals and plan to apply the methods on their 440ha of rice land.

Sustainable agriculture has been alien to these farmers who have used agrochemicals for as long as they could remember.

S. Paranthaman, 45, a second generation rice farmer from Kampung Baru Sekincang, says he and his friends are primarily attracted to the promise of cheaper alternatives.

"Last year, due to the increase in oil prices, agrochemical prices shot up. Even with the government subsidy, we felt the pinch. We spend RM240 on pesticide, fungicide, herbicide and synthetic fertiliser for every tonne of rice while the subsidy is only RM230 for 1.2ha of land that yields an average of nine tonnes. This means we've to top up an additional RM1,930," says Paranthaman, the community leader for 50 farmers in his village.

Farmers in Sekincang follow a biannual rice planting programme that includes a 120-day growing season and a fallow period of 60 days. Besides rice, Paranthaman and his neighbours grow vegetables which they sell to the Selayang wholesale market.

Usage of agrochemicals in vegetable plots are intensive given the shorter growth period. For example, a chilli plant is sprayed five times at 10-day intervals throughout its growth period of 50 days.

Guidance: K. Sanmargam demonstrating to rice and vegetable farmers in Sekincang the making of an organic growth promoter called panchakavya that is both a fertiliser as well as an insect repellent.

Despite an average input of RM5,000 on agrochemicals for one cycle of planting, Paranthaman says yield has decreased by 30% since farming of long beans, string beans, cucumber, egg plant and chilli started in Sekincang 20 years ago.

"There are all sorts of chemicals that we have to apply. On top of the chemicals that the Government provides, we have to buy more from shops to protect the plants from insects and fungi attacks. Those that we buy are of better quality as they can really kill the problems," he says.

When asked if farmers have encountered health problem associated with the use of agrochemicals, Paranthaman appears not to know much aside from complaints of skin diseases and occasional discomfort.

At a recent workshop conducted by two farmers who are supporting the CAP initiative to promote sustainable farming nationwide, 25 farmers from Sekincang were shown how to produce an organic growth promoter called panchakavya.

The trainers, T. Kaniappan from Kulai, Johor, and K. Sanmargam from Lunas, Kedah, had switched to organic farming six years ago after learning the methods from CAP.

Kaniappan shared his story of turning around his ailing lime orchard: "I was struggling to produce 500kg of fruits but after I applied vermi-compost and pancakavya, my yield increased to two tonnes and the trees constantly fruit now."

After his success story became the talk of the town, Kaniappan no longer needed to sell his limes at 80sen per kg to Singapore through a middleman.

Chemical-free fertiliser: Hulu Yam Fresh Sdn Bhd managing director Choo Kok Hing collecting an organic liquid fertiliser made by fermenting a mixture of fish- and plant-based material for a month.

"Now, I'm selling them for RM3 to RM3.80 per kg in Kulai where there is demand. I'm also happy that I'm able to produce good, non-toxic fruits for the local population," he says proudly.

Sanmargam and Kaniappan have their hands full these days trying to meet the demands for their vermi-compost and pancakavya from kitchen gardeners and both small-time and commercial farmers.

A cursory calculation shows that farmers can produce their own fertiliser, insect repellent and growth promoter at a mere 10% of what they are paying now for agrochemicals.

While economic reasons drove the Sekincang farmers to embrace chemical-free external inputs for their farms, a group of vegetable farmers in Hulu Selangor are conscious of the environmental costs of agrochemicals.

The 12 farmers got together to form Hulu Yam Fresh Sdn Bhd to implement organic methods of growing vegetables. They have adapted the effective micro-organism technology from South Korea by using indigenous microbes.

Managing director Choo Kok Hing, who runs a 2.9ha plot, says the group has mastered the method of producing an organic liquid fertiliser by fermenting a mixture of fish- and plant-based material for a month. The use of this home-made fertiliser has reduced their costs of fertiliser by half.

"The farm lands in Hulu Yam began to show nutrient deficiency after five years of heavy chemical applications. Awareness about sustainability is growing and consumers are demanding for safer products. The measure of a successful farmer now, if you ask me, is one who takes care of the health of his soil," says Choo who realised the magnitude of the problem 10 years ago and began to look for alternatives.

But Choo points out that his group cannot claim to be producing 100% organic vegetables yet as they are only gradually replacing chemical fertiliser with the organic one.

"We can only say that we're moving towards sustainable agriculture practices. But we're strict about following guidelines on dosage and observe the maximum residue limit," he asserts.

The company began exporting its produce to Singapore this year but a month ago, a shipment was rejected for violating the maximum residue limit.

Choo takes the setback positively. "I think this is a good thing to happen. It told us that there are flaws in our system and we need to resolve them. That's our responsibility as producers," he says, adding that only 1% of the harvest goes to Singapore.

The company has a joint land size of 80ha with individual plots ranging from 1.8ha to 9.1ha and produces between 10 and 15 tonnes of vegetables each day.

Choo points out that the farmers now have the opportunity to move away from agrochemical-based farming now that they have secured land tenure. Located within the Selangor Vegetable Park scheme in Hulu Yam, the farmers – who previously faced eviction threats and harassment from enforcement authorities since many were operating illegally on state land – have been given a 30-year lease for their farms.

Choo explains that without land security, farmers will not consider changing their practices as this requires time and investments.

The Selangor Vegetable Park is one of the 12 food production centres initiated under former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Hulu Yam is designated as a leafy vegetable production centre. Sprawling over 320ha of ex-mining land, the park produces some 60 tonnes of perishable vegetables like spinach, Chinese spinach and siew pak choy each day and contributes to 45% of the vegetables supplied to the Selayang wholesale market.

The StarTwo Green Issue is published every first Tuesday of the month.

This article was taken from: The Star Online: Lifestyle: Focus 4 August 2009

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