Not many Penangites are aware of a lovely green haven in southern Penang that lies in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of traffic and towering apartment blocks nearby.
Here at the Relau Agro-tourism Centre enterprising folk are involved in little farming ventures on plots of land typically ranging from a quarter of an acre to one-and-half acres.
One runs a lotus pond, almost two or three acres large, that produces lotus flowers and lotus seeds.
A couple of others breed goats (for the milk and meat) and catfish. Seedlings for fruit trees and flowers are grown in three nurseries. A starfruit orchard looks as if it could have come straight out of the Garden of Eden.
All in, there are about five active farmers with another three taking care of the lily pond and the goat farm. Of some public interest are a couple of organic farms.
One of the organic farmers is Loi Mei Shy, who previously farmed in Balik Pulau for three and a half years with a friend. When the owner decided to take back the land there, the USM graduate found another plot at the Relau centre, which serves as an ‘incubation’ centre for those who want to start ventures in farming and related activities.
For Mei Shy, who comes from Kedah, work on the farm is far removed from her undergraduate major in special education. On her one-and-a-half acre farm, she grows bayam, kai lan, brinjal, corn, papaya, roselle, lemon grass, and amra.
For fertiliser, she uses compost – and manure from the goat farm. I ask her what kind of pesticides she uses. She looks surprised. “No pesticides.. the ladybugs eat the aphids.”
Her farm also sells fresh produce and processed organic foodstuff to walk-in customers and organic shops around Penang. Stuff like vinegar, tea, dry herbs, chilly sauce, corn flour, corn meal, and roselle jam. I bought a couple of bottles of organic roselle jam and chilly sauce. Not bad at all.
Every first Sunday of the month, she and half a dozen other farmers organise a farmers’ market.
She pays a monthly rental of RM100 to the state for her plot. That may sound cheap but it is hard work in the sun that few want to try. Drops of sweat roll down her face as, armed with a shovel, she wades through her nursery under the shade of a canopy. It is back to the earth and nature, and Mei Shy has been toiling here for three years already – but she seems to draw immense satisfaction from the experience.
Visiting the place is an eye-opener for urbanities who have never been to a farm, much less an organic outfit. Until I visited this centre, though I enjoy roselle juice, I had never seen a roselle plant. This is what it looks like:
At the back of their minds, the farmers and smallholders worry as over the years they have heard rumours that developers are coveting the land here. “Some say (they want to build) a hotel, others say condos and a mall,” said one farmer.
The farmers are on two-year tenancy agreements. Some of these agreements expired in September last year but were extended to April this year. Mei Shy’s own tenancy agreement expires in April 2017, and last year there was a bit of uncertainty about what would happen after that. But it looks as if the farmers will be allowed to remain – for now.
“We hope we can get more information and that the government will keep this place – because farming is very important to humans,” said a farmer. “It involves what we eat and do everyday.”
Further away, another organic farmer grows kai lan, various types of lettuce, sawi, pak choy, kale (a ‘super food’), swiss chard, arugula (salad or garden rocket) and sweet basel, which are supplied to organic restaurants. This is a photo of rocket and misome, an all-season Japanese leafy green, growing at the centre:
He has been working this half-acre plot for seven to eight years and sells his produce directly to customers apart from providing home deliveries for those in surrounding areas such as Sungai Ara, Queensbay and Bukit Jambul.
I find him hard at work, but he takes a few moments to speak to me. “We love farming but we don’t have the land. This is our career. It is not a part-time job.
The work is not easy. “We are the ones toiling and sweating to produce quality organic produce. You work on organic things … you have to have passion. Otherwise, with the irregular income and long hours, you won’t continue for long.”
The farmers believe it is important for them to remain in an urban centre as they can raise awareness among urbanites and visitors about where the food they eat comes from and why organic farming is so important.
“This place is centrally located and it is easy for people to come. Those who are concerned about the food and environment actually live in the city and its easier for them to drop by and get exposure. If we are further away from urban centres, the significance of organic farming is less.”
In a sense, this idyllic setting is the last bastion of Relau’s farming past. Bit by bit, the area around this centre has given way to so-called “development” as towers sprout all around this green lung. The Relau Agro-tourism Centre sits on what, to developers, would be prime land.
The farmers are hoping they can continue to provide pesticide-free natural food to urbanites as an alternative to chemically laced vegetables and fruit commonly found in our markets.
The centre could also be used as a source of education for urbanites, including schoolchildren, opening their eyes to organic farming and natural food. Courses could be conducted to stir interest in going back to Nature for our food sources. Who knows, there could be other young Mei Shys in our midst.
Public support for this centre is crucial so that it will remain a green hub, showcasing an alternative, more earthy, natural and healthier way of growing our food.