CHUAH JIUNN HARNG
Reviving the Soil and Recreating Lives
Chuah Jiunn Harng, fondly called Jake, developed the dream of being an organic farmer while studying biotechnology at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman.
During his internship at another university, part of his job was to assist Masters students in researching genetically modified foods. These students were working on ways to increase the nutritional value of papaya by manipulating the carotenoid content of the fruit.
The research, instead of piquing Jake’s interest in genetically modified organisms, made him wonder why a large sum of money is being drained on such studies. He thought that directly planting papaya in fertile soil and reaping its benefits would be both healthier and cost-effective.
In 2015, to gain some experience in farming, Jake worked on a farm in Kedah. The research work on this farm taught him another perspective on food commodification.
“They defined food solely as a supplement, and based on this assumption, worked on ways to enhance one particular vegetable or fruit with a group of nutrients to ensure it fetches a better price in the market.
“The places that I went to gain experience served as an eye-opener as to how the food industry views food, i.e. a product to gain profit.
“What is even worse is that after causing such disruption to the natural constitution of a plant, they claim it to be organic, thereby giving the wrong notion to the consumers about the quality of the food,” revealed Jake.
“At last, to my relief, the farm at Sungai Ara, Penang managed by my mentor Lee Kok Leong, looked promising in the sense that it had all the agroecological traits that I was aspiring to learn. It convinced me of the direction I needed to follow in my pursuit as an organic farmer.
“I also had a brief introduction to biodynamic agriculture methods that propound the soulful connection between the farmer and the soil,” recounted Jake.
Currently, Jake is practising farming on his family’s 10 acres of land in Sungai Lembu, Bukit Mertajam, Penang. Jake named his farm Hillside Organics as it is located at Bukit Langkap, which offers a stunning view of the Mengkuang dam on top of the slightly hilly landscape.
The previous farmer practised monocropping where the whole 10 acres were planted with dragon fruit. The use of chemical fertilisers and the spraying of fungicides were rampant in the past.
When Jake took over the farm in 2018, with the full blessing of his family, he phased out the use of agrochemicals. “The same dragon fruit that was shiny with the application of agrochemicals had a relatively dull and shrivelled appearance when fed with natural fertiliser. Consumers were reluctant to buy, suspecting the inner fruit would turn out the same.
“I had to convince them by stressing that it was organically grown. I could not expect a middleman to do this for me. Therefore, in the initial stages of growing organically, I put up my own stall to attract customers to buy my organic produce.
Once consumers tasted the organic dragon fruit, owing to the distinct taste of the fruit, they kept coming back. So, this is how one needs to work extra to popularise genuine food among consumers,” stressed Jake.
Previously, the farm planted with dragon fruit was managed with the help of five workers. Phasing out chemicals combined with a proper work plan significantly reduced the workload. Jake could manage the whole 5 acres with one worker. This way, he could cut expenses as well.
The planting of dragon fruit was interspersed with plants such as guava, amra, banana, ciku, coconut, durian, jackfruit, lemon, lime, mango, papaya, petai and soursop. This method of intercropping proves beneficial to the soil in the long term as it prevents the complete exhaustion of particular nutrients from the soil.
Jake prepares his own growth promoters and pest repellents. He learned the preparation methods through trainings and workshops he attended and from the guidance of experts in natural farming.
As Jake had completely phased out the use of toxic chemicals, getting rid of weeds with weed killer was out of the question. “In certain areas of my farm, the fertility of the soil was brought back by letting the grass grow. In reality, grass serves as a cushion to protect the soil from heat and erosion, thereby providing a conducive environment for the proliferation of microorganisms, which eventually enhance soil fertility,” he added.
“In the areas where I wanted to grow permanent fruit trees, the weed is controlled with the help of 4 cows. Cows are an integral part if one wants to fully realise the goal of establishing an agroecological farm. The cows graze the weeds and grass and help enhance soil fertility with their dung.
“The cows are tethered in the areas where I wanted to clear the grass. This ensures the cows do not graze vegetables and plants grown for sale and consumption,” explained Jake.
These methods are vital for reviving microorganisms in the soil, which have been depleted due to the heavy application of agrochemicals. “I dug equidistant holes in the soil and filled the holes with dried cow dung. The cow dung is high in microorganisms and, when added to the soil, aids in the multiplication of the microorganisms in the soil.
“The earthworms, which had previously burrowed deeper into the soil to avoid toxic chemicals, had gleefully come back to feast on the cow dung and further replenish the soil with their castings.
“These are some of the welcoming developments in my garden,” he enthused.
In one plot, Jake had planted vegetables such as kailan, kangkong, green spinach, red spinach and sawi. This is for his own consumption, with the remainder sold in the market.
Jake had tried his hand at paddy planting as well. He bought seeds approved by the Government for the trials and experimented with each stage of growing paddy, such as seedlings, transplanting, fertilising, weeding, flowering, tilling and harvesting after plants matured.
Even though the first trial did not give the expected yield, Jake moved on to the second trial and was determined to improvise the nutrient-feeding plans in the paddy planting.
“I meet my farmer friends occasionally. Most of them have quite a long experience in farming and are eager to share valuable information on environment-friendly agricultural techniques.
“These help me grow into a more genuine farmer. I also conduct workshops on the preparation methods of growth promoters such as bokashi as a way of honing my own skills and knowledge in agroecology,” he added. One can find more information on his Facebook page, Hillside Organics.
“To me, agroecology is the core of life. Nature is waiting to divulge many of its secrets to us. We need to put in an effort to study nature and handle it in a more harmonious way. If you destroy the earth in the name of making a living, eventually the earth will revolt and we will have to bear the brunt of it,” summed up Jake.