Seaweed, egg shells, cow manure, coffee grounds and fish guts: to you and me, it probably doesn’t sound that tasty. Turns out though that fig trees love it – at least, when it’s broken down into a 100 percent organic fertiliser.
This is the magic recipe that is driving success at Kebun Kaki Bukit, an organic farm in near Bentong in Pahang, about 70 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur. The name means “farm at the foot of the hills” in Malay, and the cool highland air is perfect for growing fruit and vegetables, say Kebun Kaki Bukit owners Susan Soh and David Mak.
“We began in Jugra Hills, and later moved around till we ended up in Janda Baik,” says Soh, 44. “Our new site here [in Bentong] gives us the space and opportunity to experiment with different planting methods and live a sustainable lifestyle.”
Figs are one of the main income sources for Kebun Kaki Bukit. Soh says they have 1,000 trees and space to expand up to 10,000. The trees fruit year round and do not need much water, but the tasty fruit need protection from the local fauna.
“The figs are given special shelter,” she says. “Monkeys, squirrels and even wild boars find them enticing.”
The long path to organic farming
Soh freely admits that she came to organic farming in a roundabout way, after working more than two decades in the corporate world, including with Digi Telecommunications.
A love of growing food and eating locally sourced vegetables prompted Soh to start a Facebook page, My Edible Garden, in which she encouraged city dwellers to grow their own produce.
“I have always enjoyed growing my own food and learning how to live bit more sustainably, such as learning about things like solar panels and composting,” she says.
She left full-time work to indulge her hobby and began “farm-hopping” around Malaysia. This was how she met Mak, 47.
Although he too had a corporate background, having trained in law and worked in the insurance sector, Mak had been involved with organic farms since 2007. Much of the time he had been managing distressed or abandoned farms with the help of volunteers.
Mak had always enjoyed being outdoors. But he thanks his late uncle for sparking an interest in organic farming by introducing him to microbes, which help break down waste and turn it into valuable fertiliser and soil matter that plants love.
“He was telling me how to convert waste into compost fast and grow edibles, so I tested it and found that it was good,” he says.
Mak began investigating microbes in more depth and also delved into the research and development of various farming techniques, such as aquaponics. After experiencing health problems, he was also keen to understand food sources. By eating healthy, he lost weight, and his fatty liver disappeared and bad cholesterol levels dropped.
“It led me to say I needed to start a farm, be in a farm and be hands on [in growing organic food].”
Investment, time and passion
While permaculture is a popular approach in urban farms, Mak feels this type of farming is hard to turn into a commercially viable venture, because it requires significantly more time and money to implement.
“First you need to stay on the land without doing anything for three years to study the weather, the rainfall,” he says, after which the farm can be designed.
This study period could cost farmers at least RM500,000 (SG$170,000) and not many new growers have access to such large amounts of cash, he adds.
Instead, Kebun Kaki Bukit employs a host of farming techniques to ensure it has a closed loop system that minimises costs.
Mak says it was important that the farm also used locally sourced materials as much as possible.
“I want to practice methods where everything is done in the farm, like the compost and fertiliser,” he says. “Everything is manufactured here [at Kebun Kaki Bukit] so I don’t want to depend on [the] outside where I need to buy from fertiliser companies where they make the money, and we don’t make the money.”
Mak and Soh also come up with creative ways to keep their overheads low, such as tapping into skilled volunteers through the Workaway and Woofing platforms. Our conversation was interrupted by the sound of heavy tools cutting metal, as volunteers built a trellis for passionfruit and other climbing edible plants. They’ve also helped to build other essential structures, including a rainwater harvesting system.
The quest to make Kebun Kaki Bukit financially sustainable has also seen them open the space for events and farm tours. Tours are open to groups of at least 15 people, who pay RM50 (SG$17) a person to explore the farm for two hours. At the end they receive box of figs as a souvenir. Soh says they are also considering using the farm for other activities, like corporate team-building exercises.
Marketing organic food
Malaysia is still heavily reliant on imports to feed its population; in 2015, its food import bill was more than RM45 billion (SG$15 billion), while exports earned only RM27 billion (SG$9 billion).
Soh points to this when explaining why Kebun Kaki Bukit wants to encourage more people to grow their own food.
“Why do we import so much food when we have abundant resources here? We can do it ourselves,” she says.
But like in any enterprise, they face challenges – chiefly, informing customers about the benefits of organic farming and why the higher prices typically charged for organic produce are justified.
Kebun Kaki Bukit sells its figs for RM80 (SG$27) per kilogram, which is more expensive than imported figs bought from city supermarkets.
“We don’t think imported figs are cheap but what’s important is we don’t know how the fruit has been handled when transported and whether we can trust the source,” she says.
Kebun Kaki Bukit has also received complaints from people unhappy that its farm tours are not free.
“I think there is still a thinking that organic farms like this one are easy to run or run on little resources.”
She hopes that with greater awareness people will understand and appreciate the materials, time and labour that go into a farm like Kebun Kaki Bukit.
For now, what’s vital is for the fig farm to be certified as organic and to make sure produce is of a high quality that meets customers’ expectations.
So it’s all hands on deck at Kebun Kaki Bukit, as Soh and Mak’s industrious, entrepreneurial spirit helps to create a successful farm from the ground up.