Pining for pineapples

Lots to do: Workers selecting the suckers (plantlets) at the farm for the next planting cycle.

THE origins of pineapples can be traced to Brazil and Paraguay in the Amazon basin where the fruit was first domesticated.

The natives of South America reffered to the pineapple as “fragrant excellent fruit” in their language,which became the basis for its scientific name Ananas.

By 1500, worldwide cultivation began when pineapple was propagated in Europe and other countries in the world.

The Malaysian Pineapple Industry Board (MPIB) says on its website that the pineapple industry in this region was first started in 1888 by an European in Singapore.

It was then brought to Malaya, and particularly Johor because of its geographical proximity. Later on, the cultivation spread to Selangor and Perak.

The varieties planted in Malaysia include the Moris, (Mauritius), Moris Gajah, Sarawak, Gandul, Yankee, N36, Josapine, Maspine and MD2.

The Moris, Sarawak and Josapine varieties are grown for direct consumption and Gandul for processing into canned pineapples and fruit juice while the N36 and Maspine are cultivated for both.

“In the 1960s to early 1970s, Malaysia was one of the three main producers of pineapple in the world with Johor as the top producer in the country,”said Kulim (M) Bhd vice-president (food and intrapreneur ventures) Nasharuddin Shukor in an interview with MetroBiz.

However, the areas used to plant pineapple in Johor have dwindled in the last three decades, giving way to oil palm and rubber trees which brought in better incomes for growers.

Nasharuddin said, although pineapple cultivation in Johor is not new, it has been forgotten now.

“We want to revive the glory of pineapple cultivation in Johor and we believe that there is also money to be made from the fruit in the export market,” he said.

“Unlike other countries, where fruits can only be grown during certain seasons, pineapples are planted in Malaysia all year round.

Kulim Pineapple Farm, a unit under Kulim (M) Bhd, was set up in 2009 to cultivate the fruit at its Ulu Tiram Estate in Johor.

Kulim is one of Johor Corp’s prized assets, as it owns a 57.5% stake in QSR Brands Bhd which, in turn, owns a 50.6% in KFC Holdings (M) Bhd.

Kulim also owns 50% of the London-listed plantation company, New Britain Palm Oil Ltd, and has a 38,000ha oil palm plantation in Johor.

“Our farm is one of two in Johor that plants the MD2 pineapple. The suckers, the little plantlets that grow between the leaves of a mature pineapple, are imported from the Philippines,”said Nasharuddin.

Asked why the company decided on the MD2 pineapple instead of the other varieties grown in the country, he said this was due to commercial reasons.

Nasharuddin said the MD2 variety fetches a premium price overseas. The Philippines, the top pineapple producer in the world, also produces MD2 pineapples.

He said the fruit could withstand long journeys, making it an ideal choice for export.

MPIB is now focusing on producing fresh pineapples for export instead of canned pineapple products as demand for fresh pineapple is on the rise.

Before 2000, the export of pineapples comprised 70% canned pineapple and 30% fresh fruits. MPIB wants to reverse this ratio to 30:70 as fresh pineapples are now fetching premium prices in the export market.

“Sometimes in business you have to emulate the success stories of others by offering similar products, like what the low-cost carriers are doing for air travellers,” said Nasharuddin.

The Kulim Pinapple Farm grows pineapples on 152ha of its 237ha of land with and plans to expand the area to 1,000ha within the next three years.

The company exports 80% of its MD2 fresh pineapples to Singapore, Hong Kong, Pakistan, the Middle East, Turkey and reserves 20% for the domestic market.

The pineapples produced for the export market are branded as Golden Juanita for marketing purposes while they are simply referred to as MD2s locally

“Our next target includes China, Japan and South Korea as pineapples cannot be grown in these countries except in China’s Hainan island, which shares a climate like ours,”he said.

Nasharuddin said, to be able to penetrate the Japanese market, a country with strict quarantine regulations on imported agricultural products, would be like getting a passport to go global.

Meanwhile, acting operations manager Frin Ibnaihi said the company’s venture into pineapple cultivation has been good and offers a different experience to its workers.

“My knowledge on pineapple cultivation was non-existent in the beginning, so it was a period of trial and error for me. Now, three years down the road, I’m pleased to say that I like my work.”

Frin said he educated himself about the fruit with numerous books, online research on related topics and went on a field trip to a large pineapple farm in the Philippines.

He said the company’s pineapple farm was different as the plants are planted in mineralised soil unlike others in Johor which are cultivated in peat soil.

“We have managed to increase the planting of suckers from 53,000 per hectare in 2011 to 72,000 suckers per hectare this year and we want to achieve a mortality rate of 1% from 5% now,” said Frin.

He said pineapple cultivation us labour-dependent, from planting, applying fertiliser, manuring, weeding, harvesting to selecting new suckers for the next planting cycle.

Frin said, on average, each pineapple plant produces between three and five suckers suitable for planting purposes and workers have to handpick them.

“A good drainage system is important as stagnant water can rot the roots and affect the suckers too,” added Frin.

He said Malaysia has an advantage in terms of distance when it comes to exporting fresh pineapple to countries in the Middle East compared with the Philippines.

Frin said it takes between 10 and 12 days for a freight ship transporting pineapples to sail from a Malaysian port to the Middle East whereas it takes about 21 days to reach the Philippines.

“It means we can harvest our pineapples much later for export, hence our pineapples will ripen and stay fresh longer when they reach their destinations,” he said.

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