On a hot, muggy afternoon, the sprawling, verdant greens of the Bangi Golf Resort offer the sort of manicured, picture-perfect vistas that are par for the course (pun intended) at most golf courses across the country and beyond.
The views are expected. But what is less expected – downright rare even – is the sight of stubby little durian trees dotted across the golf course.
“That’s the durian pelangi (rainbow durian) tree,” says Tan Ban Keat, pointing excitedly at a pencil thin plant that looks no different from any other on the land, but will at some point yield tri-coloured durian fruits.
Tan is a former corporate guy who developed an active interest in durians when his pregnant wife developed an insatiable craving for it. He scoured Raub looking for the best fruits and soon found himself regularly visiting durian farms to find out more.
His interest might have remained just that if not for his friend Soh Chung Ky, executive director of Bangi Golf Resort.
“We have been friends for many, many years. And one fine day, he said he wanted to retire and go into planting and I said, ‘Why not do it together?’ We can develop something on the golf course that is not about golf.’ Because he has a natural passion for it and I’m a sucker for people with passion,” says Soh.
So Soh offered Tan a few acres of land on the golf course to grow and develop different varietals of durians, the idea being that the farm would eventually be a durian arboretum of sorts, hosting various types of durians and more importantly, preserving rarer durian varietals in danger of being phased out.
“In the golf course, we have a lot of unused land and whether we plant durian trees or palm trees doesn’t make a difference to golfers anyway, so it makes sense to do this,” says Tan.
Eventually, the farm will serve as both a museum and a homestay experience, so people can come and see all the different durian trees, learn more about them and even stay near the farm, if they want.
“One of the main reasons we are doing this farm focusing primarily on durians is so that when the trees eventually grow, people can come down here and see these durian trees and really understand the heritage and preservation efforts behind it,” says Soh, adding that they will even develop a rooftop area for people to savour the durians.
A novel project
In many ways, Tan and Soh’s joint effort marks one of the few more public ventures to preserve the wide-ranging durian gene pool in Malaysia.
Although estimates indicate that there are over 200 varieties of durian in Malaysia (including the unregistered ones), most Malaysians are only familiar with the most commercially successful varietals like the Musang King, D24, Tekka and udang merah.
And this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. The durian export market to China has grown in leaps and bounds in just the past two years, with the agriculture ministry indicating that export value hit RM7.4 million in the first eight months of 2018, more than double the value in the same period in 2017.
This has led an increasing number of farmers opting to grow cash cow varietals like Musang King, which can command up to RM60 per kilo. According to an article in The Guardian, Musang King is expected to become one of the country’s biggest exports, with a 50% jump in exports hoped for by 2030.
This naturally means that lesser-known durians are going to fall by the wayside, with some being wiped out completely. Which is why Tan and Chung felt the need to take action in the first place.
Challenges of starting out
Since they started their project last year, Tan has travelled all over Malaysia looking for durian clones to grow. But this was no easy feat for the newbie farmer, as local durian farmers were very reluctant to share information with him.
“Durian farmers are not very generous with knowledge. Everybody has a trade secret and nobody wants to share it with you. In fact, I had to go to Thailand to learn a lot of things.
“I spent a week in the growing regions of Chanthaburi in Thailand – there, they will show you what fertiliser they use, what trees they are planting, they will show you everything – there are no secrets,” he says.
Eventually, Soh and Tan realised they had to do something bigger to get their project off the ground, so they launched the inaugural Bangi Golf Resort Durian Festival & Awards last year, to great acclaim.
“Suddenly the idea of a durian festival came about and we thought that would be a great platform to get everyone together. Then, I wouldn’t have to search half of Malaysia for different trees. The trees and the growers would automatically all come here, and that’s how we started,” says Tan.
From the festival, Tan met many other farmers and collaborators including Pahang farmer Vasanthan Valasalan, who will be growing 300 durian trees on a 10-acre plot of land that Tan and Soh have offered him on the golf course.
The resort has also signed an MOU with Mardi, which has a durian gene bank in Kuala Kangsar and will be collaborating with them on rarer durian species that are more difficult to procure.
“Obviously, I try to do everything but we are also inviting other people to come in and take land and grow durians. And when these people come in, we have a very good ecosystem of collaboration,” says Tan.
Planting the trees
Having learnt from Thai durian farmers, Tan now employs the same growing methods that he observed there, including planting the trees on mounds, rather than digging holes in the ground, which is the more common method in Malaysia.
“The Thais believe that durians can grow in any soil condition. They don’t dig a hole, they do a hill or a mound, so to them, it doesn’t matter what kind of soil there is, because they mount the soil with the right ingredients for good growth. So that’s what we did,” says Tan.
Because he has the space, Tan has also experimented with different methods of planting the trees, including high-density planting, which basically entails planting two or three trees in one plot, to save space.
This goes against the grain of conventional Malaysian durian farming, where a one-acre farm will see perhaps about 30 widely-spaced durian trees. If Tan opts to fully incorporate this method, he will be able to have 120 trees in a one-acre space!
Tan also employs organic methods to grow the durians including enriching the soil with black soldier fly dung (derived from the hotel’s food waste) and goat dung sourced from a local farm. For each durian varietal, he plants at least two trees and hopes to God they stay alive.
“I usually plant two, or I will plant one and have another one in the nursery on standby because every tree has its own temperament, so I really don’t know what one tree is going to do compared to the next one.
“So the only thing I can do is treat them all the same – I plant them and if they die on me or don’t grow so healthily, I just replace them and keep trying until the trees live. And the reason I can do that is because it’s not a production farm,” he says.
Although it isn’t common to grow so many kinds of durians on the same land (most commercial durian farms specialise in three to five kinds), Tan says as he and Soh are not in it for the money, they can diversify and grow as many durians as they want.
“Durian farmers will think of the durian varieties that make the most money, so they focus on certain clones. But we can do this because we are not planning to sell durians; we are planning to show durians,” says Tan.
To date, Tan has successfully planted 52 varieties of durians on the golf course, including the rare durian pelangi (from Indonesia) as well as varietals like Black Thorn, Monthong, Jantung Gold (touted to be the next Musang King) and the ubiquitous Musang King itself.
But expanding from these 52 durian types is going to be Tan’s next big challenge, as he has discovered that some durian varietals are increasingly impossible to find.
“I find it very, very hard to expand on that 52 because a lot of the trees are no longer in existence. Like I had a very, very hard time finding the D169 (Tok Litok). It’s very famous in Kelantan, but people just don’t grow it anymore.
“The price is low and they say Musang King will give them a better price, so what do they do? They chop down the trees and graft Musang King on it,” he says, wearily.
Still, Tan remains undeterred and is continuing to talk to farmers and hunt down rare durian species, with a goal of equalising the durian varietal count of a Malaysian private durian collector, who has successfully grown nearly 140 durian species.
“I am travelling and speaking to farmers, and sometimes people come here and drop off trees, so it’s an ongoing process. We just continue carrying on, we have the durian festival this year, so we’ll probably get a few more trees from that.
“But more importantly, what we have is a space for legacy and continuity. And if I do end up planting more than 100 species, there is still plenty of space for all those trees here, because the golf course is huge,” says Tan, laughing.
Ultimately, although it will be years before the trees bear fruit, Tan and Soh agree that their main satisfaction will come in the future when people are able to come and appreciate these full-grown durian trees for themselves.
“It seeds from the idea that people can come to a centralised location, see the durians and appreciate the history and story with each durian,” says Soh.