Reaping the bounty of agar trees

Photos By StoryPhotos Grace Chen

The Gaharu Tea Valley in Gopeng took a total of RM40mil to set up and has a current workforce of 100. On weekends, 2,000 visitors contribute to a rough estimate of RM100,000 in daily sales of tea, biscuits, instant noodles, miracle beauty powders, incense, perfume and oils — all harvested from the surrounding agar trees, standing some 200,000 strong in the 121ha (330 acres) plantation that needs about half a million ringgit a month to run.

It took managing director, David Ho, 21 years to build up the business, starting in1992 when he received the first 200 mother trees from a Japanese botanist from Niigata. It took another 15 years of Ho’s personal care before he could get the seeds for replanting, sustaining himself and family on his full-time job as the owner of a heavy machinery business.

“When I bought the land for RM10,000 per acre in 1991, my first thought was to plant palm trees. From rough estimates, I would have been able to bring home a clean profit of RM200,000 after five years. That was my initial plan,” said Ho, now 59.

The 300 acre plantation has a count of 200,000 agar trees propagated from 200 seedlings in 1992.
Special crop: The plantation has some 200,000 agar trees propagated from 200 seedlings in 1992.

A visit from a Japanese secondhand heavy machinery dealer in 1992 changed his mind.

“The Japanese dealer and I, we are old friends. During his visit, he introduced a Japanese botanist who revealed he had spent his life cultivating a special crop of agar trees, each containing the genes of a superior lineage from 12 trees.

“This botanist wanted someone to propagate his work and he thought I might be a suitable candidate.

“But I had to be able to sustain the venture for the first 15 years without income,” recalled Ho.

David Ho (l) holds a sapling with wife, Khor Lye Keen. Each costs RM 38.
Solid team: Ho (left) and his wife, Khor Lye Keen with a sapling.

The offer struck a chord with the former student of SM Jelapang, whose favourite subject was Chinese history. The meeting had immediately reminded him of his History teacher, Pan Tau Siew, who had once mentioned the agar tree in one of his lessons.

As Ho remembers it, Pan had said it was regarded as divine by emperors as the agar tree was believed to promote longevity. Because it was the norm for emperors to have no less than a few thousand wives, the essence of the agar tree was also sought for its aphrodisiac qualities.

“So, I said yes,” Ho said.

The 15-year wait not withstanding, Ho had his personal reasons. “Everyone then was either doing palm oil or rubber. I wanted to be different. Call it my shot at achieving immortality,” he ruminated.

Stressing it was not his intention to live forever, Ho instead expressed hope to be remembered as the proponent of the agar wood industry one day, just like Henry Ridley was synonymous with the rubber industry in the Malay peninsula.

The deal was not without conditions.

“I was not to plant any palm or rubber trees on the land because to do so would contaminate the land with pesticides and fertiliser. The botanist was insistent that the agar trees must grow in a fully organic environment as the produce was to be used in medicine,” says Ho, who now holds a 70% share in Gaharu Tea Valley with the rest going to the Japanese.

A sample of how infected agar wood looks like. Harvesting the resin (ref to cylinder at top) for incense and resin
Good stuff: A sample of what fungusinfected agar wood looks like.

So, he sat behind the steering controls of his backhoe to do the terracing, draining and to fashion a dam to catch the cascading waters from the mountains.

He spent some RM5mil to do the concrete works and played the role of a single parent to the 200 seedlings that later grew into 200,000 trees, giving an estimate yield of some 100,000 seeds a year.

The second condition was everything had to be sold back to Japan. The Japanese had big plans for the produce.

It is a known fact that agar wood will be worth more when they are infected by a fungus which will trigger the defence secretion of the much sought-after black resin used in perfumes and incense. To do this, workers have to manually drill holes into the bark, following a diamond-shaped pattern.

A clean room worker shows off a tray of dried tea leaves at the RM 10 million factory in the plantation.
Clean room: A worker checks on a tray of dried tea leaves at the RM10mil factory in the plantation.

Wooden chopsticks, dipped into a special enzyme made according to a secret recipe provided by his Japanese partner, are then hammered into the holes.

Some 15 workers are required for every acre to perform this procedure and provide pre- and post-drilling care.

Plans were also made to tap the full commercial potential of the agar tree. Its leaves will be used for tea and herbal soup formulations, plus a miracle beauty powder. Its wood will be for crafts and furniture. The original plan was to realise all this in Japan where a factory had already been set up.

Then, disaster struck.

In 2011, Japan was hit by what was recorded as the fifth most powerful earthquake in world history. In the ensuing chaos, the factory designated to receive the fruits of Ho’s labour was reportedly swallowed by the earth.

To induce the tree to produce the much sought after agar resin for perfumes, holes are manually drilled into the bark.
Drilling down: Holes are drilled into the bark to introduce the fungus infection that increases resin production.

“It was devastating news,” said Ho, who added that the Japanese botanist was unhurt.

Immediately, it was decided that operations should move to Gopeng, Perak, where a RM10mil factory with 30 staff was set up. The recipes to harvest the bounty of the agar wood trees were also entrusted to Ho. Today, the primary product of the factory is agar tree leaf tea which is exported to China, Hong Kong, the US, Canada, the Middle East and Indonesia. A rough estimate of 20 tonnes of tea has been exported to these countries.

“Currently, the usage rate of the agar trees in the plantation is only 0.1% as the majority of utilisation is focused on only the leaves. Daily, about 1,000kg of agar tree leaves are harvested. After drying, the factory is left with only 300kg for processing. These are then included in formulas for biscuits, soup sachets and even instant noodles, which sees sales of 100 packets per day at RM3.50 per unit,” says Ho.

But what of the black resin, which is regarded as black gold to perfumers?

“The current price for this black resin is RM2,000 per kilogramme but I will have to wait five or six years to obtain a good yield from the treated trees. Of course, the longer the wait, the better,” said Ho, who has a 21-year-old infected tree in the plantation, a must-hug feature for visitors.

While he waits to harvest the black gold, Ho’s focus is to concentrate on promoting the goodness of the agar tree.

One active way is in educating visitors of its huge potential. There is a lookout point where they can catch a breathtaking view of the entire plantation of agar trees and rest stops for hikers where passion fruit plants provide shade as they watch workers go about marking boundaries to indicate the kind of follow-up care required.

At present, the visitors’ centre is the main sales arm for agar tree products and Ho has become a celebrity of sorts. Taking position as right hand man in this long-term venture is his son, Nicklaus, 34, a University Nottingham graduate who promotes his father’s dream at agricultural expositions.

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Business , Agar trees


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