Monday, August 20, 2007

Rice farmer who went organic

Saturday September 23, 2006

A worker drying out the grains of padi at the farm.
KLUANG: Nestled in the foothills of the Belumut mountain forest reserve is the only organic rice eco farm in the country.
It all began when one farmer decided that he had had enough of chemically-sprayed pesticide and insecticide ridden food at his dining table.

Another contributing factor that hastened Tam Pak Suew’s decision was the withdrawal of the government subsidy for rice farmers outside the eight main granary areas in the country.
Tam, 49, said that by 2001 it simply became impossible to survive by farming rice the conventional way and compete against other subsidised rice farms as it was no longer the same level playing field.

“I was planning on switching to organic farming gradually, but the withdrawal of the subsidy forced me to completely change my farming practices,” he said at his farm recently.
Seven years later and with an annual turnover of RM1mil, Tam is a much happier man with a sustainable 109ha farm that grows organic rice, dragon fruit, and coffee.

He also breeds tilapia fish and ducks, offers an eco-homestay programme with additional plans to expand his Kahang Organic Rice Eco Farm to include a range of vegetables.
Tam alternates the planting of padi with breeding fish on different plots of land to protect the nutritional content of the land. The fish and ducks also help in controlling insect pests and weeds.
“Organic food may not look perfect or especially beautiful, but it certainly has much higher nutritional content and it does not have harmful chemicals sprayed onto it,” Tam said.

Youths having fun bamboo-rafting at the farm.He added that it was also more environmentally friendly as the land would not be subjected to the poisons and toxins from chemicals.
The awareness about organic food was still very low among Malaysians as it was hard to convince people overnight, he lamented, as the market was driven by consumers who demanded food like perfectly polished white grains of rice even though it was nutritionally inferior.

“Organic products may be more expensive, but you will be saving on medical bills as you will be much healthier,” he said claiming that he last visited a doctor six years ago.
According to Tam, many conventional farmers themselves were organic food consumers as they often had a small patch of chemically unsprayed organic food that they grew only for their own consumption.

“They realise the harmful effects of the chemicals,” he stated revealing that on a conventional rice farm, the crops would be chemically sprayed at least 12 times within the four-month season with herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and growth regulators.

Peacock looking at organic dragon fruits at the farm.Organic farms have to rely on more challenging methods of dealing with pests, with Tam resorting to trapping pests like rats with fishing nets and chasing birds with noise-making contraptions.
“The extra effort is worthwhile if it means the food is safer and the environment more protected,” he said.

Being the only organic rice farm in the country also makes it a draw for visiting foreigners like British social worker Phil Peacock, 32, who has been working on the farm for the past month in exchange for food and lodging.

Peacock believes that he has found a closer relationship with the land and the environment as well as a cheaper way of travelling and understanding cultures.
“I come without farming skills so I produce concrete posts, do some pruning, weeding and if there are a lot of guests, I even help serve food,” said Peacock who has been travelling continuously around Europe, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Tibet, China, Laos, and Thailand after leaving London three years ago.

Although Peacock will be leaving for Singapore soon, Tam is convinced that more and more people will someday realise the importance of organically produced food.
“If you are healthy, your life is enriched. That is happiness to me,” he said.

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