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Published: Thursday February 7, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday April 20, 2013 MYT 3:42:13 PM

Strawberries are among the cream of cash crops in Cameron Highlands

THE local introduction of the red berry that goes so well with ice cream and melted chocolate, can be traced back to colonial days when homesick British army officers brought back strawberry cuttings to be planted at their hill station bungalows.

As the story goes, sometime in the 1950s, Kasimani Palliah, a southern Indian came to Malaya with a British unit. When the troops left, Kasimani stayed on, eking a living as a carpenter with Merlin Hotel (now Cameron Highlands Resort). To earn extra, he cultivated a vegetable plot of less than half a football field next to the building grounds after hours. Under his green thumb, the single plot expanded to three and with that, Kasimani supported his family of seven children.

In the 1970s however, the market price of vegetables began to lose its steady footing and at wits’ end, he confided his worries to a friend, a gardener who happened to work for a wealthy European whose grounds, as you guessed it, were filled with strawberry plants.

Why not try your hand at growing strawberries, suggested this friend.

Soon cuttings were exchanged and that was how Kasimanis Strawberry Farm in Tanah Rata began, with a small plot, no bigger than the size of a table top. Kasimanis Strawberry, minus the apostraphe, would eventually come to be known for having the sweetest strawberries in the area.

Kasimani’s son Kodimani, who was just a teen when his father propagated the cuttings, has taken over from his late father.

“At that time, planting was easy, unlike now where over-cultivation has given rise to problems like diseases and pests. Our first harvest was about 3kg and we sold it by the roadside at the night market. The overwhelming response encouraged us,” says Kodimani, who bought over his late father’s plot from the Pahang government in 1992 and is now a recognised pioneer within strawberry circles.

The popularity of strawberry parks sees spots like Raaju’s Hill (the extra ‘a’ was encouraged by a Chinese friend for business luck) receiving up to 1,000 visitors a day. The 16-year-old farm is owned by Raju Selvaraj Veerapen, 55, who with his wife and sons, occupy some four acres of hillslope in Kea Farm. Starting with 2,000 plants, they now have some 80,000.

The biggest challenge in his career was in 2011, when it rained non-stop for 40 days. Raju lost some 80% of his harvest, some 3,000kg worth RM90,000.

“I couldn’t sleep then,” recalls Raju.

One lesson he has taken away from this experience was to be mindful of waste.

“It is a fact that out of every 10kg from the farmers’ toil, 3kg is wasted. Multiply that by the total number of tonnes the agricultural sector produces and you’d be shocked at the amount of good food being thrown away.

“You see it all the time at buffets when people leave uneaten food on their plates,” says Raju.

Strawberry prices at Raaju’s Hill is at RM30 per kilo, unchanged for the last 16 years, come rain or shine. As a popular tourist spot, he reckons fluctuating prices will drive away customers. Many return to his café which offers typical strawberry yummies like jams, juices, cakes and ice-cream. He also supplies double A grade strawberries to hotels for RM35 per kilo.

Having spent 25 years researching strawberries, Datuk Syed Abdul Rahman, 64, a former station manager at Mardi, reckons there is great potential for growth.

Agro Malaysia stated the production of fresh strawberries was worth RM70mil a year. However, supply fulfillment is only 30% of the requirement. The rest has to be imported from Egypt, South Korea and Australia and it is not uncommon for farmers who have run out of fruits to stock up on imported ones and resell them to visitors!

At the Al-Mashoor Agro Park in Kampung Taman Sedia, where Syed Abdul Rahman is managing director, some three tonnes of fresh strawberries are produced annually using the fertigation system, a planting method that sees an “A” frame with four tiers, lessening the strain of having to squat for long hours and saving farmers from sore backs while maximising production within limited space.

No surprise it has become the most popular method employed by strawberry growers, though initial start-up may cost a farmer RM100,000 per acre with maintenance expenses amounting to RM50,000 every three years.

Helping to cover costs is agro-tourism — a driving factor in the success of strawberry cultivation. During the recent Awal Muharram weekend, Syed Abdul Rahman sold over a tonne of fresh fruits in just three days.

“Twenty years ago, there were less than 10ha used for strawberry cultivation. Today we have 30ha. This is because the number of tourists has increased, from 300,000 to 900,000 a year, due to the opening of the Gua Musang-Simpang Pulai and Sungai Lipis highways eight years ago.

“Because strawberries are unique to Cameron Highlands, people tend to want to take it home as souvenir,” says Syed Abdul Rahman.

Though he has yet to venture into the export market, Syed Abdul Rahman supplies supermarkets like Mydin, Giant and Tesco. He confessed he can only supply between half a tonne to one tonne per week, which is only 30% of their demand.

The rising popularity has inadvertently urged Syed Abdul Rahman’s neighbours to embrace this luscious red orb into their lives. In Kampung Taman Sedia, there are no less than eight strawberry gardens drawing visitors with gimmicks like the self-pluck experience, which costs more as hedge against damage by over-zealous pickers.

Azizah Itam, 70, a retired school administrator, transformed her half acre garden into a strawberry stop called Opah’s Strawberry and Jams.

“I was bored and my late husband was just recovering from a stroke. My son-in-law thought, since he liked gardening, why not start a little enterprise that would be therapeutic as well?” explains Azizah of her venture.

With a work place just a few steps from home, Azizah can easily run the household, while her grand daughter, Munirah, 24, helps greet customers. On normal days, her cash register can record up to RM500 in daily sales.

And let’s not forget the by-products of the strawberry.

Most strawberry farms have workshops to turn unsold products into jams, pickles, cordials and syrups. Under the Al-Mashoor brand, revenue from this sector alone can generate some RM50,000 a month.

The only thing holding the strawberry back is land as the areas suitable for strawberry farming is limited to Tanah Rata, Brinchang, Kea Farm and up to Tringkap, where temperatures are between 25°C and 12°C.

“Cameron Highlands is the only place in the world that can generate an annual agricultural income of RM500mil with just 6,000ha of land. Plus revenue from tourism, the figure can easily reach RM1bil,” says Syed Abdul Rahman.

The question is how to address the massive traffic jams during peak season and policies on leases for temporary occupation land.

“Allowing farmers long term leases of 15 to 30 years will enable them to approach the banks for loans under the Fund for Food scheme.

“At the moment, though the grants can be passed down from father to son, they have to be renewed yearly.

“Though there are usually no problems with approvals, the banks will still consider it a risk because of the short term period,” says Syed Abdul Rahman.

Tags / Keywords: Community, News, Business, Strawberries, Cameron Highlands, Cash Crop

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