A farmer’s organic farming journey
What does it take to switch from conventional oil palm farming to organic practices? Plenty of hard work and resolve, as farmer Neoh Ah Seng shares.
20 years ago, Neoh Ah Seng inherited his family’s oil palm farm after his mother passed on. Neoh hails from Sg Kroh, Perak, a predominantly Chinese village of about 500, located 170km-north of Kuala Lumpur. The villagers’ main livelihood derives from oil palm plots that were converted from rubber in the 1980s. As the sole breadwinner with a young sister under his care, the high school leaver had few job options. Farming oil palm full-time seemed like the next best thing for Neoh.
Like most independent smallholders in Malaysia, Neoh Ah Seng learned to farm by trial and error. Conventional farming practices involve the liberal use of commercially produced chemical fertilizers and pesticides. At the start of 2015, Neoh noticed his yields (fresh fruit bunches) were dropping and many tree trunks were rotting.
“A typical way to get rid of bagworms is to inject or spray the trees with pesticides,” says Neoh. Bagworms are leaf-eating pests, one of the most common and destructive pests of oil palm. “Eventually, my trees died due to the excessive use of chemical pesticides which damaged the roots and soil. ”
Around the same time, Neoh had just joined the Wild Asia Group Scheme (WAGS). The WAGS Perak project was initiated by Wild Asia, in partnership with Cargill. Many Sg Kroh’s farmers supply their fresh fruit bunches to the local fruit dealer Teik Joo Chan (TJC). In 2013, TJC rallied a group of smallholders to join WAGS to receive technical assistance and training. The following year, the first group of farmers and TJC received their Roundtable Sustainanable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification, making TJC the first dealer in West Malaysia to be RSPO-certified. Neoh was part of the second group of Sg Kroh farmers who signed up with WAGS in 2015.
“Aside from wanting to get RSPO-certified, I wanted to learn to manage my farm better, reduce operating costs and increase my yields,” says the 51-year-old.
With tips from WAGS’s field officers, Neoh experimented with planting beneficial flowering plants like Turnera subulata (White buttercup) and Cassia cobanensis (Senna). These plants become a food source and host plants for parasitoids like Sycanus, which are predators of bagworms and caterpillars. Neoh also kept grass as ground cover to maintain moisture and deter the bagworms which prefer dry conditions.
Two years on, Neoh’s yields doubled, his production costs halved and he had transitioned to chemical-free farming.
“I use a grass-cutter to manage weeds and make my own EM (effective microorganisms) liquid fertilizer,” says Neoh who became RSPO-certified in 2017. To inspire his peers to adopt natural pest control, Neoh grows beneficial plant saplings to share with fellow farmers.
“I have to deal with ongoing issues and find solutions,” Neoh laments.
“But organic farming is the way of the future. I just need to keep at it and keep my feet on the ground.”
The learning continues
Neoh is one of the pioneer farmers who joined the WAGS BIO pilot programme in 2018.
“One of the things I picked up was the importance of soil biodiversity, which is essential for soil health, plant growth and nutrition,” says Neoh. He learned to make compost and fruit enzymes to create microbe-rich soil and recycle mill wastes like oil palm decanter cake and empty fruit bunches as organic fertilizer.
“The workshop was timely because we found alternative options to weather the tough times when palm oil prices dipped,” says Neoh. “Buying commercial fertilizer is one of my biggest expenses. DIY fertilizer helps to reduce my farming costs.”
As part of the pilot BIO project, Neoh’s farm was used as a trial plot to suss out the benefits of using mill waste as fertilizer.
“After four months, the soil seemed healthier and the younger palm trees had larger, vibrant green leaves. But the yields didn’t really increase,” Neoh admits. For the past two years, he has been forking out an additional RM220 (USD50) every two months for a commercially produced organic fertilizer, Seacharcoal, to supplement the DIY fertilizers.
Neoh also gleaned the benefits of intercroppings with fruit trees like bananas and pineapples to boost diversity, control weeds and pests, and to earn additional income.
“I tried to intercrop pineapple on my plot but cows from a neighboring farm trampled on the pineapple shrubs,” says Neoh. “It will cost over RM10,000 to erect a fence to keep the cows out but there’s no guarantee the fence will hold up.”
On Wild Asia’s recent visit to Neoh’s farm in June, the encroaching cows have chewed off his beneficial plants. Some older trees are affected by Ganoderma (basal or upper stem rot), a fungal infection of the oil palm.
“I have to deal with these ongoing issues and keep finding solutions,” Neoh laments. “But organic farming is the way of the future. I just need to keep at it and keep my feet on the ground.”