Juicy potential in premium produce

Ripe for picking: Damon holding a box of freshly harvested white strawberries at his farm in Cameron Highlands. They are mixed with pink strawberries, which is another variety.

There is a global demand for premium Malaysian agricultural products and this has been made apparent by the 11th Malaysia Plan (11MP) unveiled in 2015.

The plan not only highlighted that demand was rapidly increasing, but also that those in the fields of aquaculture, herbal products and edible birds nests stood to gain up to five times more in terms of revenue if they expanded in those sectors.

Additionally, agriculture was listed as one of the 12 key economic sectors that would drive the nation towards a high-income country status.

To realise the goal of doubling the national income from the agriculture sector to reach RM66.5bil by 2020, more than RM1.42bil was spent on 1,052 entry point projects just for the premium fruits and vegetables sector alone.

Of this number, 883 projects were privately funded.

In 2019, the Statistics Department revealed that contribution from the agriculture sector to the annual gross domestic product had surpassed the above-mentioned target, hitting RM101.5bil.

Entering premium sector

For one of the few growers in Cameron Highlands to successfully cultivate the white strawberry, numbers did not have anything to do with getting into the field.

Sure, the fruit can fetch as much as RM80 to RM100 per kilogramme, but Damon Wong, 31, started experimenting with white strawberry seeds from Japan at his family-owned farm in 2016 to impress his wife.

“She did not like sour strawberries, so I thought I would grow the white ones, which have a stronger fragrance, ” he said.

A year later, Damon found a market for his white strawberries at five-star hotels in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Encouraged by the response, the father of one began looking at other possibilities.

“I started working in Singapore after graduating with a business degree but my father (Wong Mang Hoo) asked me to come back, so I did.

“When I returned, one of the first things I noticed was that all the farmers were growing the usual type of vegetables, unlike Singapore, where one can easily find really unique vegetables at a premium price in the supermarkets.

Seh (in front), Mohd Sofian (standing left) and Yeo with the musk melon vines they are growing in Putrajaya.Seh (in front), Mohd Sofian (standing left) and Yeo with the musk melon vines they are growing in Putrajaya.

“That was when I saw a business opportunity and started searching on the Internet for seed suppliers, ” said Damon.

His greatest challenge, however, was not in the cultivation process or finding a market for his products.

It was in convincing his father to accept new varieties on the farm.

“Our farm sits on about roughly 4ha of land.

“But when I first started, my father was only willing to yield no more than 5% to me as a test site.

“Only when my vegetables started to grow well and his friends visited and were impressed by what they saw, did he have a change in mindset, ” Damon revealed.

Today, as marketing director of Natural Green Farm, he proudly discloses that there are some 50 types of vegetables from the European heirloom variety, such as black corn, Romanesco broccoli, purple and white capsicum as well as purple, orange and red cauliflower proliferating in the farm.

Embracing technology and marketing

Having successfully grown and sold some 200 musk melons grown from Arus seeds sourced from Japan, hydroponics and fertiliser expert Seh Cheng Siang, 40, agriculture engineer Mohd Sofian Ali, 47, as well as agrochemical and pest and disease management specialist Yeo Chen Swee, 51, made headlines earlier this year for growing the world’s most expensive melons in Putrajaya.

The question most often asked in interviews with the trio?

“People were really interested to know what kind of fertiliser we used, ” the founders of Mono Premium Melon revealed.

In truth, there was no room for guesswork.

“It is all about technical know-how. Without it, the melons would not have developed, ” said Seh.

Grown using a hydroponic autopot system, sensors attached to the main water and fertiliser dispenser enable the team to collect data needed for decision-making and the information can be viewed on their mobile phones.

“We know about everything that is happening on our farm.

“We are able to see the temperature, pH, humidity and water levels from the last one week or the last 12 hours.

“From this data, we are able to decide how much nutrition is needed for each plant.

Employees tagging an empurau fish at the at the research and training facility in Tarat.Employees tagging an empurau fish at the at the research and training facility in Tarat.

“So, if I need to feed the plant more potassium on a given day, I can adjust it through my mobile phone or computer and the system at the farm will respond accordingly, ” Seh explained.

The musk melon project is not the trio’s first attempt where agriculture technology is concerned.

Before this, they were in China, applying the same technology on a tomato farm in Yangling.

After the Covid-19 outbreak brought them back to Malaysia, they decided to put their knowledge on musk melons to good use, making it a showcase project.

In addition to technology, marketing was another area local growers needed to look into, said Yeo.

“At the moment, the majority of premium agricultural products are still largely imported from countries like Japan and Australia.

“There is still a huge vacuum to be filled by local growers.

“Does this mean that nobody can produce this kind of fruit within this quality range? Not necessarily so.

“Durians are an example of what good marketing and packaging can do, ” he highlighted.

He cited the pink guava as another example.

“Now, most of them are imported but there was a time when they were grown and sold locally.

“I am sure that if more planning and effort are put into marketing this fruit, it can be a successful venture too, ” added Yeo.

Research to move forward

An empurau research and training facility in Tarat went to great lengths to be the first hatchery in Sarawak to acquire good aquaculture practice (MyGap) certification from the state Fisheries Department in January.

Borneo Empurau Farm Sdn Bhd general manager Elsie Kong revealed that in addition to setting up a RM400,000 examination lab for university students, the company had also flown in an expert from Taiwan to study the habitat of Malaysia’s most expensive edible fish.

With an end goal to breed and eventually market empurau overseas commercially, Kong said employees were currently mapping the freshwater fish’s DNA as a way of establishing authenticity.

Not a surprising move since the fish carries a hefty price tag of between RM800 and RM1,000 each, and that is just those within the 2kg category.

“Once we can establish the fish’s DNA map, we will be able to provide solid proof of its authenticity by way of tagging and certification, ” she said.

The company embarked on the empurau project in 2015 and its original intention was quite different.

Its owner, Datuk Yong Fook Heng, wanted it to be a place where his three grandchildren could learn how food was grown.

From a few small fish ponds, the place has since grown into a resort and vegetable farm that showcases planting methods such as aquaponics.

“Our main business is in tourism and the empurau project is our corporate social responsibility initiative.

“The species was chosen for its geographical indication.

“The project is not commercial yet but we are supporting other farmers, ” said Kong.

The empurau project had not been an easy journey, she acknowledged.

“Wild empurau is not easy to breed as the fish fry has a low survival rate.

“You might have 100,000 eggs but in the end, we would be lucky to get 150 fry measuring about 5cm in length.

“It then takes another five years for the fish to grow to a size of 2kg, ” she elaborated.

In addition to research, the company is helping locals market freshly caught river fish on a profit-sharing basis as well as providing technical support to contract farmers who look after the empurau fry bred at the farm.

Last November, Agriculture and Food Industries Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ronald Kiandee announced that the development of high-value vegetable and fruit commodities for domestic and export purposes for the crop industry would be part of the 12th Malaysia Plan.

This will be supported by technology, finance and human resources to strengthen the value chain of the agrofood sector to improve the country’s self-sufficiency, especially for rice (75%) vegetables (70%) and meat (50%) by 2025.

Ronald said continuous efforts would be made to strengthen Malaysia as a major exporter of internationally competitive agrofood.

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