In Praise of Living Soil
He is one of the architects behind Wild Asia’s blueprint to help oil palm farmers transition to chemical-free farming. WAGS Director Peter Chang sheds light on WAGS BIO and why soil regeneration forms the bedrock of the programme.
For as long as he remembers, Peter Chang has always been fascinated by the notion that forests can regenerate infinitely. If we let them be.
“The only time it stops (regenerating) is when man interferes and destroys the whole ecosystem,” says Peter. “The trees disappear, the topsoil disappears.”
Peter is one of the driving forces behind WAGS (Wild Asia Group Scheme) BIO programme. Launched in 2019, WAGS BIO is a production system designed to help oil palm farmers switch from ‘conventional’ agriculture to chemical-free and regenerative agriculture. Conventional oil palm farms are typically monoculture, and involve the liberal use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, leading to degraded soil and biodiversity loss.
The WAGS BIO concept rests on the centuries-old wisdom of “living soils” – that it is the life in our soils that provides all the plant’s needs. A ‘living soil’ is the community of microbes that break down organic matter which, in turn, supplies nutrients to the plants, resulting in healthier palm trees that are resistant to pests and diseases, and produce higher yields.
“I always believe that the soil is alive. It’s the life in the soil that’s the most critical part of the equation,” explains Peter.
Intrinsically, WAGS BIO methods are designed to restore healthy soil using organic matter from the farm, or converting house or industrial organic waste into a BIO fertiliser to stimulate healthy soils. Farmers learn to turn organic wastes into compost, make “BIO Juice ” in the form of fruit enzymes or fermented fish, or learn to produce biochar and intercrop their oil palm plots to enhance their farms’ biodiversity.
“I always believe that the soil is alive. It’s the life in the soil that’s the most critical part of the equation.”
His Second Act
A trained marine biologist, Peter spent a big part of his career in related fields, from fisheries science and aquaculture to marine and freshwater ecology and environmental assessment.
Yet the inherent pull of the ‘living soil’ led him to explore various sustainable farming techniques, from permaculture and organic to regenerative agriculture. Before joining Wild Asia, Peter put his regenerative agriculture theories to the test by running a vegetable and fruit farm for about three years. Read more in the Q&A below
“Being trained in biology and understanding the basic principles of how things work in nature, like the carbon cycle, the soil food web, and etc, helps,” says Peter.
But it was serendipity that led Peter to Wild Asia.
Six years ago, whilst looking for someone to do HCV (High Conservation Values) work, he reached out to Wild Asia Founder and Executive Director Reza Azmi.
“When I started talking about my farming experience, it suddenly clicked with Reza. As it turns out, he had piloted a “living soils” programme to help promote organic and chemical-free practices amongst smallholder oil palm farmers,” says Peter. “We only spent 5 minutes talking about HCV and the rest is history.”
From there on, Peter became part of a senior Wild Asia team that co-creates the approach and tested out ideas on working farms, leading to the organic growth of the in-house WAGS BIO team. Like Peter, many of the team members already have farming experiences.
“I saw a way of how I can really disseminate what I understand about living soils and WAGS is a good vehicle to spread the information,” says Peter.
The WAGS BIO community
Since 2019, the programme has been growing slowly but surely.
Despite the Covid pandemic putting a damper on field work, Peter and his team continue to run various projects, from biochar production to ginger intercropping and mushroom farming. Some farmers leapt at the chance to acquire new farming skills and explore avenues for extra income.
To date, a total of 650 ha of farmland, owned by smallholders and a few estates, have kickstarted their BIO journey. Based on data (from 2022), a BIO farmer saves up to 70% on farming costs after switching to chemical-free farming. Farmers also earn an average of RM7,000 per quarter in supplemental income for each hectare of oil palm plot intercropped with ginger. Among their peers, farmers like Neoh Ah Seng from Perak and Nisa Usman from Sabah have become passionate advocates for WAGS BIO and sustainable farming.
For Virgilius Intang, being part of the BIO team with Peter as the consummate mentor, has been a real eye opener.
“Learning about the importance of soil biodiversity and helping to change the mentality of the small farmers have been deeply gratifying,” says Virgilius who leads the WAGS Regional Support Unit in Beluran, Sabah.
“More importantly, Peter is always generous with his knowledge, advice and guidance. His semangat (ardour) is infectious!”
Under Peter’s lead, WAGS BIO goes beyond imparting principles of sustainable farming – it is also about a reverence for the land, the age-old rhythms of work, community, and the small farmers as the land’s best stewards.
As acclaimed American author, environmentalist, farmer Wendell Berry wrote eloquently:
“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all.”
Q&A: Peter talks about how his hands-on experience formed his design for WAGS BIO, and what spurs him to keep spreading the sustainability gospel.
Q. You ran a farm at a children’s home in Papar, Sabah, prior to joining Wild Asia. How do you channel your experience and farming know-hows into WAGS BIO?
The goal was to help the children’s home become self-sufficient by growing their own food. We experimented with different farming methods like permaculture, stratification planting and multi cropping to make optimum use of the soil. We planted vegetables and fruit trees like mangosteen, jackfruit, pomelo, pineapple, lemon and passionfruit. Today, the home is entirely self-sufficient in food production. They produce ample vegetables and raise chickens to feed 20 kids, and sell the fruits for extra income.
What we discovered is that we CAN produce healthy crops using the basic principles of “BIO transformation” – converting organic wastes into compost and soil amendments to provide valuable nutrients, improve soil structure and create microbe-rich soil. But we need to find the right kind of organic material to provide the kind of micronutrients or trace elements that the soil needs.
Q. What other insights have you gained from farm visits in the region?
From organic and permaculture farms in Sabah and West Malaysia to topography farming in the Philippines, I gained valuable insights and possibilities that we can apply to our WAGS BIO models. For example, the CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) model and windrow composting method adopted by FOLO Farm in Johor inspired many possibilities. The hydroponic system in the Bentong (Pahang) farm spurred the idea to combine my expertise in aquaponics with hydroponics to create a fertilizer mix with optimal nutrients from organic waste. Or, I would take and adapt the general principles of syntropic agriculture into WAGS BIO. For instance, being able to mimic nature and find ways to maximize land utilization, in management and added value, is the way to go.
Q. From the oil palm farming context, have you looked at models from other countries?
I have looked at farms in Thailand where they intercrop sugar palm or cashew trees with oil palm. But these trees require different types of soil not found in Sabah. That’s why we look at crops that are conducive to the local soil conditions like ginger.
Q. What is your definition of an exemplary “BIO farmer”?
The word ‘sustainability,’ and how we equate sustainability with agriculture hold a lot of weight for me. Take oil palm, for example. To me, using commercial fertilizer and pesticide does not equate to sustainability. So, a BIO farmer should be 100% dependent on his farm production, uses and practises all the “BIO interventions” (e.g, using a grass cutter to control weeds instead of applying chemical weed killers or making natural fertilisers to enrich the soil). And he is also able to disseminate the correct information about his practices to other farmers and work independently on his own.
“WAGS BIO goes beyond imparting principles of sustainable farming – it is also about a reverence for the land, the age-old rhythms of work, community, and the small farmers as the land’s best stewards. “
Q. How do you generate ideas for WAGS BIO?
It’s a collective effort of brainstorming with the team and farmers, and also based on my previous experience with different applications, for example, ginger intercropping. I’ve also used biochar to improve soil health but never thought beyond that. Since we started exploring biochar production, we know biochar can be used to sequester carbon. It brings a whole new dimension to the equation.
I’m never short of ideas! I’ve another 300 things that I want to do. The only limit is (the lack of) time!
Q. Any lessons learned since WAGS BIO launched?
A good idea does not mean it will be adopted and sustained. We learnt this recently on a project to encourage vegetable plantings. It seemed a good idea to promote local food security and improve farmers’ household income. We encouraged our farmers to apply what they’ve learned in BIO workshops into growing their own vegetables. During the pandemic lockdown, many farmers had time on their hands so we helped them start home gardens. It was a success. But once the lockdown lifted, the gardens were neglected because everyone had no time due to other commitments.
Q. What are WAGS BIO’s current challenges?
How we can grow the programme, acquire more funding, scale it up and get more farmers to subscribe to sustainable farming practices. The biggest challenge is to convince people that there is another way (of farming), apart from what’s been practiced or taught in the last decades (conventional agriculture), and the notion that only chemical fertilizer can return the much needed nutrients back to the land. People have abandoned the traditional way of farming, to a point that it was almost forgotten. Until we wake up and realize we’re destroying our ecosystem.
We can only try to change the mindset, one farmer, one farm block and one village at a time…
Q. What next for WAGS BIO ?
Top on our priority list is to come up with a formula to scale up the programme and to involve more people. In the works, we’re looking at developing the capacity to propagate more economic non-timber and timber forest trees and to explore how they could be integrated into current oil palm blocks. For starters, we will set up a tree nursery system so that we can supply seedlings to our farmers to begin this journey.
Q. What motivates you, whether it’s WAGS BIO or your role at Wild Asia?
I thrive on new challenges in life and working with Wild Asia suited my zeal for new adventures in a field that I’m passionate about. It allows me to explore the possibilities and challenges that come with the job. And what I do best is innovate!
Most importantly, what keeps me going is hearing the success stories of the smallholders, and the joy and pride one sees in them when they share their experience.
Hear what our farmers have to say about WAGS BIO: