JOHOR is the largest fruit producer in Malaysia, harvesting more than 770,000 tonnes last year.
Apart from popular fruits such as durian, pineapple and jackfruit, more farmers are venturing into growing non-local fruits.
Third-generation farmer Won Shyue Fung decided to start growing avocados about five years ago after he saw how well his relative’s avocado tree was growing.
“My family has been farming curry leaves for years and it became increasingly competitive as many farms have the same crop. I decided to look into growing other things.
“I started out by collecting different varieties of avocado and spent a couple of years learning about it as I do not have prior experience growing fruits,” he told StarMetro.
The 43-year-old settled on Indonesian and Vietnamese avocado as the United States variety could not grow well in the humid climate here.
Taking on avocado farming
After much trial and error, his trees began flowering in about two and a half years and it usually takes another three to eight months before they bear fruit.
“It has been a challenge growing avocados and I am thankful that the Agriculture Department’s Kulai office has been sharing tips.
“They taught me grafting and other fruit farming techniques that helped me plant the avocados successfully,” he said.
Grafting is a technique where two plants are joined to continue growing together.
Won added that the government should help farmers market less known fruits to reach a wider market, as this would be more beneficial than providing financial assistance.
He is helped by five workers in tending the 2,000-odd avocado trees at his farm in Kampung Baru Sengkang, where he continues growing curry leaves and lemongrass.
“My day starts at 7am when I check the trees, deliver fertiliser and ensure the equipment is in good condition.
“Recently, due to the presence of fruit flies, I have been covering each fruit with a paper bag to protect them.
“That takes up a lot of time because each tree usually has about 60 to 70 fruits.
“Besides minimising the need for pesticides, placing a cover over the fruit individually also prevents it from dropping to the ground where it might get bruised,” said Won.
He added that he had just harvested a batch of fruits at the end of November and he expected to harvest the next batch in February.
He also plans to look for higher ground to plant more avocado trees as they are sensitive to too much water, which would cause the roots to rot.
“My fruits are slightly bigger because of the varieties.
“Each avocado weighs about 500g. I sell my harvests in Kulai and Johor Baru, with small quantities going to Singapore.
“I hope that next year, my harvests will become more stable and I will have enough fruits to reach a wider market so that more people can enjoy my fruits,” added Won.
Going gaga over gac
An up-and-coming superfruit called gac has also gained interest among farmers in Johor.
In the village of Kampung Baru Kelapa Sawit, a beautician and her brother have about 1,000 of the fruits hanging from a structure they built at the back of their parents’ house.
Esther Lew, 52, and Lew Nam Kin, 54, said they started planting gac at the end of 2019 after hearing about the many benefits of the superfruit.
Esther said she managed to obtain some seeds from her friend’s wife, who is from Vietnam, where the fruit is widely grown.
“At first, I planted it at the back of my house but because it is a creeper, I did not have enough space for it to grow properly.
“I then planted it behind my parents’ house where it had space to flourish.
“In about a year, the trees began to bear fruit,” she said.
Her brother, who has experience tending to their family’s oil palm plantation, was a big help in ensuring that the fruits grew well.
“Gac is considered a new fruit in Malaysia, so there are not many people with the know-how.
“I learned everything from the Internet because farmers in Vietnam and Taiwan have been planting it for years.
“Initially, I had wanted to plant it for fun. I did not expect to grow them on such a scale.
“We had to put up reinforcements in the form of metal rods to support the structure where the gac vines creep as each fruit can weigh up to 1kg,” she said.
One of the challenges of growing the fruit, Esther said, was the need to perform hand pollination daily to allow for better fruit production.
“This means we have to manually pick male flowers and remove the petals to reveal the stamen at the centre before brushing it against the stigma of the female flower.
“This has to be done each morning and my brother and I take turns to do this as well as weeding and harvesting.
“Our father, who is in his 80s, would sometimes help out with weeding, which is a good form of exercise for him.
“The pulp of the fruit is not typically eaten due to its bland taste.
“It is usually added into soups, or stir-fried to get the best out of the fruit.
“At the moment, we harvest the fruits and turn the pulp into juice and sell it at shops in the village.
“The fruit’s red flesh is rich in beta-carotene, lycopene, which is naturally found in tomatoes, as well as antioxidants,” said Esther.
Attracting tourists to garden
The siblings, along with another villager Liew Hui Peng, have also turned the gac fruit garden into a tourist attraction.
“Kampung Baru Kelapa Sawit is a well-known Hakka village where visitors come to enjoy delicacies such as lei cha and vegetable-filled dumplings called choi ban.
“We have brought visitors from various parts of the country as well as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan to the gac garden where they can take photos and try the juice,” added Esther.
To minimise waste, 52-year-old Liew, collects the seeds of the fruits to turn into accessories.
“I give the seeds new life by making them into earrings, bracelets and decorative items so that visitors can take a piece of nature back with them.”
Liew is a seed enthusiast and has been making other types of seeds into accessories since 2012.
“Gac seeds have an interesting pattern resembling turtle shells.
“This natural design means I don’t have to do much to make them into unique accessories,” she said.
After cleaning them, the seeds are stored in a cool and dry place for between one and three years.
“If the seeds have even a tiny bit of moisture in them, they are likely to break when I drill holes to insert the strings or metal clasps, or even rot,” said Liew, who sells them at her shop in the village.
“A lot of patience is needed to ensure the accessories turn out the way I want them to.
“It is similar to the time, energy and patience shown by farmers to ensure their crops can be successfully harvested,” she added.