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Food Forest Farm: Permaculture in Commercial Farming

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For Khoo Peng Keat, the name “Food Forest Farm” is a reminder that the farm should function like a forest.

It also reflects Khoo and Food Forest Farm co-founder Billie Tan’s backgrounds in permaculture and interest in sustainable living. Permaculture is when “every little thing, every plant works together and is productive,” says Khoo.

The combination of two words, “permanent” and “agriculture”, the practice was sought as a solution to the unsustainability of conventional annual agriculture. A design based on observations in the natural world, permaculture roots itself in creating environments simulating the resilience of nature – a self-sustaining ecosystem.

Before turning to Malaysia to grow their plans, the couple lived in the United Kingdom and Singapore, where they had undergone training on permaculture and even run workshops on it.

“We had seeds and started growing them in our garden. We also ran workshops, met other permaculturists, building mandala gardens and herb spirals,” recalls Tan.

But while working in the Republic around a decade ago, they decided that they needed space to put their permaculture ambitions into action.

Heading to the highlands

Through a family business, they got the chance to acquire land in Lojing Kelantan, about 260 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur. They worked with the indigenous community, the Temiar, to clear and rejuvenate the former logging spot and create Food Forest Farm.

They began planting fruit trees and other trees that thrived in the cool climate of the Lojing Highlands, where the elevation ranges from 600 to 1,500 metres above sea level.

Lodges built for workers were soon drawing urbanites from Malaysia and Singapore seeking to escape the stresses of city life and heat of the lowlands. The accommodation evolved into a separate but related entity, a farmstay named Moonriver Lodge, which is close to the Lojing Forest Reserve, home to the endangered Rafflesia flower.

“We also started to explore activities like trekking – we’re fortunate enough to be located next to a protected forest,” says Tan.

Initially, Food Forest Farm was just providing fresh, pesticide-free vegetables to feed guests from the three lodges. But the couple, who are both in their 40s, soon realised that there was potential to commercialise their farming venture.

They now supply 70 or 80 products to premium supermarkets in Malaysia and Singapore, including Atlas Gourmet Market in Four Seasons Place, Isetan and Ben’s Independent Grocer, which are all in Kuala Lumpur.

Food Forest Farm employs not only permaculture but also nutrition farming approaches pioneered by Graeme Sait. His technique emphasises soil health improvements, plant health, human health and eventually planetary health.

The pair also employs a hydroponic system called autopot for certain crops. Autopot is a watering and feeding system that uses a patented smart-valve application and can support a wide range of plants. The closed loop system does not leach out waste onto the land and uses less power than conventional hydroponic systems.

Tan says they have been happy to see wildlife returning to the area, which has been logged three times. They’ve spotted everything from butterflies to the Malayan horned frog and a community of gibbons that visits at least once a year.

Photo by Food Forest Farm. Juicy beefsteak tomatoes from the farm

Meeting growing demand

A combination of technology, sustainable approaches and low-energy farming techniques have allowed Food Forest Farm to diversify its offerings.

With over 40 crop varieties, the pair are proud of how far they have come. Having only taken some four years to grow enough food to supply supermarkets, Khoo admits that meeting the demand is a continuous challenge.

In terms of marketing, they are not keen to subscribe to typical labels, such as organic or pesticide-free. While they don’t use chemicals, pesticides or “nasties”, they don’t necessarily focus on these aspects. Instead, they insist that their mission is simply to provide consumers with safe, good food, Tan says.

“All good food must be safe. That’s why we came up with the slogan. If the food is not safe, then it’s not good,” she says.

From plants in hydroponic systems to those grown in the soil, Khoo says it is vital to keep the soil healthy through regular tests and growing responsibly. This cycle is what sustainable farming is about.

While working hard to keep up with the demand for their vegetables, the pair are also beginning to publicise their story.

“In the market [consumers tend to ask], are you organic or not organic? They [may not] necessarily believe you are doing the right thing … So we are trying to establish ourselves and we really want to tell their story.”

Judging from the fresh and plump tomatoes, customers should be confident that Food Forest Farm’s safe, pesticide-free vegetables align with its brand values of safe, good food.

Aside from supplying to supermarkets and gourmet food stores, Food Forest Farm offers a weekly Farm Direct Fresh Harvest Box for residents in Ipoh, and Life Hampers filled with fresh fruit and vegetables that can be given as gifts.

A box costs RM55 (S$18) and has over 10 types of vegetables, while the hamper ranges from RM80 to RM130 (S$26 to S$42).

The farm produces french beans, zucchini and organically grown Komatsuna – a type of Japanese green. They also grow purple cabbage, red broccolini and kale.

Herbs such as mint and thyme are grown too. The list is endless with an abundance of custard apples and soursop as a regular supply for their guests and customers.

Tan says they want to create more awareness about how food is grown, and for customers to appreciate seasonality. The most important message they want to convey though is that Food Forest Farm is not a factory.

“No matter how high-tech our greenhouses are, the farms are highly reliant on the weather. During the wet season, tomatoes don’t ripen because there is no sun,” she says.

The pair said more work is needed to create an understanding and appreciation of sustainable living for a better connection between human and planet.

Find out more about Food Forest Farm and their farmstay activities at Moonriver Lodge here.

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