Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Suria Helang Lui: 7 years later Part 3: From produce to products

When I first started the farm, I was more focussed on producing produce: fruits, vegetables and fish.  I felt and even more strongly belief now, for the continued sustainability and economic well-being of the farm, it was essential to not only have "raw" produce but to also have a range of products based on the farm outputs.  All our products have to live up to our principle of being affordable to the masses.

I began to experiment and delve into the world of producing healthy food in the firm belief that the underlying basis for good health is good food.  Personally, I am not into processed supplements so my concept it merely to facilitate the consumption of good food.  From the herbals, fruits, leaves and flowers, I began experimenting in producing drinks that could be consumed as part of my daily beverage intake.  I had to belief in the benefits as well as it had to taste good.  So, I am always the first guinea pig.  I wanted to be able to produce health supporting drinks, that are preventive as well as curative.  So, many of the plants at the farm serve a multi purpose.

The top of my list are the Bentong ginger and turmeric combination, Misai Kucing leaves and flower, Soursop Leaves,  Mangosteen and Roselle.  I did research on the nutritional value, the health properties as well as the use in traditional and alternative therapy.  All the source is planted at the farm and grown organically.  Some of our drinks are seasonal whilst others are available year round.  In line with trying to produce healthy products, we do not use any colourings, preservations or flavourings - it is all natural.  Some of our drinks are sweetened and we use brown sugar; no white sugar is used.  At this stage we only do direct selling to the customer as I do not feel that we are prepared to go beyond that yet as our produce is not mass-produced.
I do not want to outsource production of the ingredients as it then goes out of my control and I may wonder if short-cuts are taken.  The basic principle in our products is "If I do not consume it, then I will not sell it" - the same that applies to our fresh produce.  With the production of these drinks - in concentrate or ready-to-drink - it has allowed us to add-value to our produce.  At the moment, the packaging is simple as I focus more on what is inside the bottle than the appearance.  However, I know that in the future the packaging will evolve but the key consideration is still affordability to the masses.

Over the years, I have developed our own liquid fertiliser concentrate and there are 3 types:

  1. Enzyme fertiliser with pest control targeted for flowering and fruiting plants
  2. Enzyme fertiliser with pest control targeted for foliage
  3. Fish amino acid fertiliser
These concentrates are made from produce from the farm with limited addition from outside such as molasses and sea salt.  The ingredients from the fish for our Fish Amino Acids (FAA) are also from the farm as we do rear fresh water fish.  In this way, I am able to ensure that there is negligible introduction of toxic matter into the fertilisers.  My 3-year old son "helps" me out at the farm and one of the things that he loves to do is to spray the plants.  I do not want to have to worry that he may be negatively affected.  These are all used at the farm and we now sell it.  It is a concentrate and is non-toxic making it easy to use and affordable.

I also do seasonal products like tempoyak from quality kampung durian so we have these when durians are in season and until our stock for that season finish.  We do not add any preservatives or colouring to it and it is done naturally.

Sometimes, when we have a bit of time, we will also do fermented green papaya which is a good source of probiotics and the enzyme papain.  I enjoy eating this either as a salad or turning it into a topping for fish similar to the Thai mango topping for fish.

We rear fresh fish, namely catfish (keli), red tilapia and lampam in our fish ponds.  We pipe our own water from the source specifically for the fish ponds ensuring a 24x7 flow of fresh water through over 3000m of polypipe.    This is a separate supply line from the pipeline for the rest of the farm use. Although the actual distance to the source is less than 3km, due to the route we have to take, it takes that length of polypipe.

This is one of the most worthwhile investments that I made on the farm as it results in us having a clean fish pond that requires no artificial aeration and brings with it additional food for our fish in the form of the small river fish and shrimps.  An aesthetic value added to the fish pond is our fountain which doesn't require any pumps to function, merely the application of the law of Physics.  (Note: Took me years to see firsthand the application of what I learnt in Physics in secondary school).  The water comes in on one end and exits the pond into Sg. Lui on the other end.

The fish pond also serves as our flooding prevention measure as this area can flood when there is a lotof rain for a period of time. Our fish also feed on the banana pseudostems, tapioca leaves and kangkong so it also enables us to have another use for our produce "wastes".  The banana pseudostem also have the added function of cleaning the water in the fish pond.  From time to time, I also feed it with the black soldier larvae, which is a by-product in the production of the enzyme fertiliser.  We do also feed them fish pellets but with all the other food that the fish feed on as well as the clean water, the fish produced does not have a "muddy" smell or taste.  Whilst we do sell fresh fish, we also will do smoked fish (ikan salai) which we first  marinate with our own farm produced and blended herbs.   It is a time consuming process but well worth it in producing a quality fish product thereby adding value to the raw produce.  No artificial additives or "smoke" flavouring used and alhamdulillah, whenever I bring them to market, it is always sold out.

Because we produce organic produce, I am currently experimenting with producing more probiotics food products.  This will be a new chapter in the farm development with an eye for the future.

The last and final part of 7 years later is : Behind the scenes which will cover the infrastructure as well as human resources.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Tomatoes, oh Tomatoes: You love TLC

I love vine-ripe tomatoes that are grown organically.  If you find them in supermarkets, they are expensive.  So I grow my own.  To those of you who have tried growing them, you know how trying it is.  First, they are susceptible to pest especially aphids and white flies.  These pests basically suck the life out of the plant.  If the pest is not controlled, you end up with a dead plant which leads to a major disappointment especially if you started with a healthy seedling.  Over the years, I have had many plants died on me so I continually experiment with the mixture for pest control.  After many iterations, I have finally come up with one that I can live with.

You can produce it yourself by creating an enzyme solution from organic wastes (such as fruit peels, vegetable discards, etc.) with citronella, indian borage and ginger fermented with a sugar source (molasses, gula nipah, gula melaka, etc.) and unchlorinated water for at least one month. though I tend to ferment for 3 months.  What will be produced is a liquid filled with beneficial enzymes and microorganisms as well as nutrients with pest control properties.  This is a concentrate which you then dilute at the rate of 10ml or 2 tablespoons of concentrate to 1 litre of water,  Just spray the plant including the underside of the leaves twice a week.

Tomato plants love water but cannot abide soggy soil so the soil mixture had to be able to retain water but not drown the roots.  Water had to be accessible to the roots so by having a richly organic soil, the soil remained moist throughout the heat of the day, keeping the plant "fresh".  The plants love the sunshine and does best in full sun in the day but if there is a lack in moisture, the plant can wilt and may not recover.

Now that I got the pest under control, and the soil mixture with drainage done, the next step is to encourage flowering and fruiting.  Most organic fertilisers are general purpose and doesn't provide the full support for flowering and fruiting.  I conducted some experiments and found that liquid fish amino acids (FAA) with sea salts and liquid calcium concentrate worked best for me to encourage flowering and fruiting.

I produce the liquid FAA by fermenting 500g of fish wastes, 100 ml of probiotic liquid (such as from probiotic drinks or yogurt drinks), 100 ml of liquid molasses or 100gm of molasses with 1 later of unchlorinated water.  The mixture is fermented for at least 1 month.  I use fish wastes from the farm fish as I can ensure that it has not had any contaminants introduced such as chemical preservatives that are often applied to fish from the market.  Fish wastes include the innards of the fish, the gills and the bones.  Instead of molasses, I have also tried using gula melaka.  

I also produce the liquid calcium from eggshells from the farm eggs (which are from free-range organic chicken) fermented with vinegar for at least 1 month.  For the sea salt, I will dissolve 500g of sea salt in 1 litre of unchlorinated water and leave it overnight before making my FAA concentrate.  The difference before and after the application of this combination is tremendous.  Now I am even more motivated to plant more varieties of tomatoes :)

Before application, 1-2 fruits per bunch
Before application, few flowers

After application, average of 5 per bunch

After application, increase in flowers

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Suria Helang Lui: 7 years later Part 2: Vegetable and herbs

The farm is designed with the concept of every thing grown at the farm is either edible and/or have therapeutic values or in support of the farm produce.  Hence vegetables and herbs are integral.  Most leafy vegetables require more care and with the farm size of 2.5 acres and the multitude of content, I needed to have a way of growing it with the least amount of time and effort required and lowest cost possible.  The objective is to produce quality vegetables for the family and to support our market stall, making it affordable to many.  This is where the producing our own fertiliser and pest control helps as well as having the greenhouse.

The vegetables selected are based on what I like - after all, what is the point of growing things that you don't like?  My favourites are tomatoes, cabbages, kale, kailan, choy sum, spinach, french beans, long green beans and broccoli.  I also like other vegetables so we have an assortment of them planted.  Some are planted in the greenhouse - those that require more care like tomatoes and cabbages - and others are planted outdoors - especially the ones that require a trellis or climbing support like the beans and cucumbers.  We rely on organic methods for fertilisation and pest control and I am continuously experimenting on formulas to improve the quality and yield as well as to protect my vegetables from the damage done by pests.

Another aspect that I continue to experiment is growing vegetables in polybags.  As more and more people tend to live in apartments and condominiums whereby they do not have the land to grow their plants, container gardening is the only option.  As the greenhouse has a size limit, I can simulate growing vegetables in a small space - the soil composition, water and drainage, fertilisation, pest control and light requirement.

The seeds we selected are all non-GMO and some are organic.  In the last year we have started to produce our own seeds to support our continued planting cycles.  This will help reduce our seed costs as well as reducing our dependence on commercial seed suppliers.  We have started to sell some of our seeds but this is not a focussed activity.

Part of the learning process is understanding the soil composition for the various vegetables, pests that love it and how to control it as well as water and fertilisation.  A key component is to keep the soil healthy and alive by regularly introducing beneficial microorganisms and enzymes as well as encouraging the earthworm population.  For me, one of the best decisions I made was not to bulldoze the land hence I retained the top soil that took years to build.  All the vegetation wastes are recycled back into the soil which further adds to the quality of the soil over time.

Going organic has also made it more of a challenge in controlling pests but ultimately, it is worthwhile for the quality of vegetables produced.  Having access to quality water free from contaminants also makes a difference.  Chlorine kills microorganism hence their use in the water purification process.  This in turn may also affect the beneficial microorganisms in your soil.  In promoting the natural health of the soil, this can adversely affect our efforts hence our reliance on natural river water that we have piped down from the source.  Whenever someone asks me what to look for when buying a piece of land, I always says it is important to have a good natural water source.

One of my interest is the role of food as a source of promoting good health and prevention of diseases.  So apart from having nutritious vegetables, I also love to plant herbs and spices.  Over the years, I have been building and studying the herbal plants that we plant at the farm.  I focus more on our native plants and gather information from practicing traditional herbalist.  The various herbs can be used in cooking as well as in drinks.  Amongst the plants we planted are turmeric, Bentong ginger, small galangal, ginger torch, lemon grass, citronella, and misai kucing.  I began this collection about 5 years ago and continue to build it as I study our traditional therapies.  I focus on what is found in Malaysia as I hope to build a heritage collection at the farm.  Some of the produce is sold in its raw form and some are used in the production of our drinks and concentrates which is designed to make it easy for people to add to their diet and consume as part of their normal diet.  In order to ensure perpetuity, we also work on propagating the plants.

Apart from human consumption, my herbals also serve as source materials for my pest control formula.  There are many herbals that can serve as pest control such as citronella, Indian borage and ginger.  So, these types of herbs serve a dual purpose at the farm: for humans and for pest control.  By growing them at the farm, I can be assured that they are free from chemical pesticides thus it prevents the introduction of toxic chemicals into my farm system.

Apart from herbals, we also plant honey bamboo (rebung madu) and it also have multiple purpose - provide for rebung madu (honey bamboo shoots), the bamboo to use in create supporting stakes for the plants , bamboo rod to harvest fruits and source material for creating a trellis.  At the same time, it can also provide me with an impromptu fishing rod.

The basic underlying tenet is still to do no harm to the ecosystem and continue to retain the balance.  It is a holistic approach with care and thought given to all at the farm.  Hence our tagline: "Maximizing nature's bounty".

Part 3: Our products for continued sustainability of the farm.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Suria Helang Lui: 7 years later Part 1.

Time has definitely flown by since I have started to focus on the piece of land that I bought in 2007, whilst I was still working on the corporate world.  At that time it was a jungle - you can play Tarzan and swing from tree to tree from the long vines that hung off the trees.  The first 3 years I spent the time developing the land with minimal soil disturbance, widened and deepened a dried-out stream to make my fish pond, studied what vegetation was there that I wanted to keep and what I wanted to remove and to figure out what I wanted to do.  Although many thought that I was doing things the hard way since I didn't just bulldoze the land, I feel that it is the right decision since we retained the topsoil that had taken decades to form.  This provided a good base for the soil condition for planting.

After 1 year of studying the contour of the land, I had a fish pond created that flowed from one side of the land out to Sg. Lui, which allowed for me to have an inflow and an outflow as well as a flood control measure.  We "pulled" our own polypipe (2 sets) : 1 for farm use and 1 for the fish pond.  This allowed for us to have a constant flow of water coming in one end of the pond thus making it more like a river than a fish pond.  The end result is our fish pond has constant fresh water incoming, no aeration needed for the fish and no smell as well as river fish and shellfish coming in which provided food for our fish.  We maximised what nature has and try to minimize impact to the river system.  The water fountain we have requires no pumps or mechanised units but just the application of physics.  All this enabled us in rearing fresh water fish that didn't have a "muddy" smell with a natural sweetness.  Subhanallah.  I tried rearing various species over the years but in the last year, we have narrowed it down to 3 species: Catfish (keli), Tilapia and Lampam.  We do have other species in there such as Kelah Daun, Seluang, Tilan and various other types of river fish that are the norm in the rivers in this area.  Over the years, we have made some modifications and adjustment, to suit with the water flow, fish production operations as well as to ensure we have sufficient protection, in shaa Allah,  from sudden rise in the river water levels.

My father used to say that my farm was like a village as I had all sorts of plants and trees.  I didn't focus on one or two types of plants like most commercial farms,  Being in the heart of the local fruit area - durian, mangosteen, cempedak, jackfruit and duku langsat - many thought I should focus on one or two of these fruits.  My concept is different: ultimately I wanted the farm to be able to provide for a complete food diet - fresh fruits, vegetables, proteins and carbohydrates hence the idea of a self-sufficient integrated farm.  It is definitely a different concept because I envisioned that some day, we would be able to do end-to-end and by choice, be independent of suppliers and to be able to produce not only raw goods but processed products - all done free from toxic chemicals and as naturally as possible.

I spent the first 3 years experimenting why grows best, how to grow it better, how to care for the land and how to strike  environmental balance.  Today, I have lost count of how many types of plants and trees we have although I do try from time to time to catalog what I have but I have to admit, it is not high on my to-do list.

Apart from the fish pond, we have a greenhouse.  Many have asked me: "Do we really need to have a greenhouse and why?".  I built the greenhouse for a few reasons:
  1. To grow vegetables that require more care
  2. To have an area for me to propagate plants especially in creating new seedlings
  3. To have an area that I can still have an activity on those rainy days
  4. To be able to experiment in a more controlled setting
Part of the joy of farming is to be able to experiment and find ways of doing things that are more attuned to nature and minimising damage to the environment.  I also call this my oxygenation room as when I work in the greenhouse during the day, the plants in there are actively producing oxygen as a by-product from photosynthesis (remember the biology class).

From a fruit production perspective, I try to make it so that we are able to have fruits year-round hence we have seasonal fruits like mangosteen, jack fruit, cempedak, jam madu as well as non-seasonal fruits like papayas and bananas.  At the farm, at last count we have over 25 varieties of bananas - all non-GMO, hormone-free and local.  Hence week-to-week, the banana variety produced from the the farm varies.  I view our collection of banana plants as part of the preservation of our heritage.  Each variety has its unique qualities from the inflorescence, pseudo stem, leaves and fruit.

From the experiments and taste, we have narrowed our papayas to three varieties: the "orange" flesh exotica, red exotica and red "sekaki".  I chose these because they are the tastiest and sweetest for me and it seems that our customers enjoy them too.
In the beginning, we only had a few plants and weekly have a few fruits.  We also had to work on scheduling planting so that we will have fruits weekly as there comes a time when the papaya tree is no longer viable and will need to be replaced.  Hence, we now produce seedlings twice a year from our own seed collection.

This farm is chemical pesticide and fertiliser-free.  In the beginning, I depended fully on commercial organic pest control and fertiliser.  Over the years, I conducted my own farm-based research and experiments and now we are 70-30 on our own fertilisers to dependence on commercial products for our needs.  We now produce our own liquid concentrate for fertiliser as well as pest control and compost soil.  The ingredients used are farm-produced with the exception of raw sugar, molasses and sea salt.  Recently, we introduced them as our ORGME line of products.  These are the same fertilisers that we use at the farm in conjunction with 2 other types of commercial organic fertilisers.  The target is in the future, we can produce all our own fertilisers and making the farm in control of our fertilisers and independence from manufacturers.

In Part 2, we will relate our vegetables and herbals - the underlying produce of the farm - without compromising on our values and principles :)

Monday, 12 September 2016

More than just a flower, Roselle

Living in Malaysia, it is easy to grow Roselle (scientific name: Hibiscus sabdariffa L., Malay name: Asam Belanda)  plants which are from the Hibiscus family.  Given the right care, it produces flowers lavishly.  The beautiful flowers have delicate petals of light pink incisor with a dark red centre.  As part of your flowering edible landscape, it is a great choice.  It can grow tall, reaching over 2m in height.  The growth can be controlled by regular pruning which not only shapes the plant but at the same time encourage new growth which leads to more flowers.

Roselle is interesting in that it is what I call a flower fruit or the correct term is calyx (plural form: calyces).  It is unique in shape and texture with a dark red color which turns almost black-red when dry.  However, when you turn it into a juice, it become a blood red color.  As part of a daily diet designed to promote good health, the juice is rich in vitamin C and other nutrients including anti-oxidants.  For me, it is the drink of choice as opposed to processed fruit juices that contains all kinds of additives and artificial colouring.

Based on a study by Purdue University, it is high in calcium, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin C and iron.  It is also caffeine-free hence it can be made as an after-dinner tea for those who cannot consume caffeine after late afternoon or they have a hard time sleeping.

It is easy to make the drink.  Just peel-off the petals from the seed pod, chop it into small pieces, place it in a claypot and bring it to boil.  A dark red liquid can be produced.  The resulting liquid is very sour.  Do not discard the chopped petals as it can be consumed either by adding it to the drink or turned into a jam.  When it is drank warm, it is often referred to as Roselle tea but when it is drank cold, it is referred to as Roselle juice.  The drink can be sweetened with honey, raw sugar or brown sugar.  I do not recommend white sugar as it adds unhealthy benefits to the drink.

You can also use it in your cooking to add the sour flavour as well as red color to your dish.

I am not a proponent of artificially and chemically produced supplements or supplements that undergo chemical process and later have all kinds of additives and preservatives hence the drink is one of my choice of drinks for vitamin C.

It also has anti-hypertensive properties and studies have been done and found that it produces a positive effect in lowering blood pressure - another plus for me as being from a family of history of high blood pressure, I see this drink as a preventive as well as a curative measure.  With our hot climate, it is a cooling drink to help quench thirst.

I am recovering from a cold so this is my daily drink now with its high natural ascorbic acid content (vitamin C) as well as the anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties to aid in natural healing.

The Roselle can also be made into a probiotic drink by undergoing a fermentation process.  The benefit of doing this is apart from the probiotics, you can store the fermented concentrate for a long period without the need for refrigeration.

All in all, why I love it as a daily drink or regular drink : I get my vitamins and minerals which help me boost my immune system, reduces hypertension (my blood pressure will rise after a hot day working outdoors), quench my thirst, increase my metabolism and reduce the hydrolysation of starch to sugar), cancer prevention, decreases bronchoconstriction so I can breathe better and helps keep my bones and teeth healthy.  What more can I ask from a drink?  All these goodness also makes it the juice I choose for my 3 year-old - to me it is much better than a lot of the processed fruit juices out there - and he loves it.

As with many natural ways, it takes regular consumption to get the best benefits - it is not a miracle cure nor does it give immediate effects like pharmaceutical drugs.  However, it is a way of enjoying healthy food for long term benefits without the many negative side effects. So, let us maximise one of nature's bounty.