Don’t be shy being an executive urban farmer
Published on: Sunday, November 27, 2022
By: Eskay Ong
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Basic gardening tools and equipment to start a business in producing and selling cultivated edibles.
IN LIGHT of the current food security issues everywhere that affects virtually every country, the question of producing food has become a very serious food for thought for governments, ministries, departments and policy makers everywhere. Even the ordinary man in the street, the loafers, stragglers and dedak-seekers are also worried about the availability of the next meal.

Recently, some big-name political luminaries, VVIPs and Tun, Tan Sris and Datuks have been harping on the same topic which was regularly highlighted in this column since several years ago. That people are still hyping on the subject shows that they are aware of the seriousness of the issue and may want to do something about it in the months ahead.

Whether or not one likes it, food sufficiency has always been an issue for debate, with food self-sufficiency sitting on top of the list. Although it may not be entirely economically brilliant to go all out for total self-sufficiency, at least a decent and safe figure should suffice especially considering that food security is closely tied to all aspects of life.

In Sabah, many goals have been set especially with respect to increasing the percentage of self-sufficiency in rice production and other food crops such as onions, cauliflower, ubi-ubi, etc., within specific timeframes. How much or how many per cent of targeted figures have been achieved over the years is a matter of conjecture.  How much longer do consumers have to wait for higher actual percentages to be achieved is a matter of conjecture too.

A wheelbarrow with some tapioca going for sale.  

The important thing is, if there is sufficient food on the table for everyone in the family, then that is all that matters for the lower income group such as the B40s. Fortunately, there will be more dedak coming soon in the months ahead, on which even the M40s are also keeping an eye. Such disbursements are always very much appreciated and are very helpful for the many who are living from hand to mouth on shoestring budgets and are struggling to lift themselves out of abject poverty.  

Within the state, there are a number of districts that are considered to be the poorest in the whole country. This is a huge shame, considering that Sabah is one of the richest in natural assets. While some may say that poverty is subjective, one needs to go through the grind to feel what that means. There is a proverb that says ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’.  

This means that it is possible to help enrich the less privileged by sharing the know-how and showing the means to a profitable end, and in the process, lifting them out of financial doldrums. This should not be laughed off as a dream as some countries have successfully lifted hundreds of million out of wretched poverty by showing and sharing the right methodology and leading the pack in the right direction. Never in the history of humankind has anything of that proportion been achieved in the past.

In the towns and cities in Sabah, the situation may appear to be prosperous and progressive with countless numbers of cars and other vehicles dashing around for some errands. The rich man has to do it in the hope of making more, but so is the poor kucing kurap who can only dream of scraping up some extra bucks to make ends meet for the day even though it may only mean just crumbs and morsels.  And what better way to go for self-enrichment than by starting from the ground where the home is. How? Be an urban farmer-lah.

Be a respectable executive urban farmer

Usually, the mere mention of the word ‘farmer’ immediately conjures up images of isolated, backward, muddy, unclean and monotonous green land, with plenty of organisms such as bees, flies, mosquitoes, slugs, snails, caterpillars, centipedes and other creepy-crawlies. Usually these are turn-offs for urban folks who tend to quiver at the mention of these critters getting into a comfortable position between the skin and underclothings. Moreover, the ill-informed and disdainful usually regard farming as a low class profession that is unfit for flashy urban folks without remembering that farming is respectable and highly profitable.

As for the little critters, they are actually godsends as part of the cycle of the chain of material requirements from inputs to outputs. They can be put to advantageous uses when they go back to the ground to raise the fertility level. The important thing is that when needs are paramount, all fears and other restraints are secondary, including the feeling of shyness. But then, as shyness is just in the mind, it can be put in the backburner and the focus turned on solutions to fulfil the need.

When shyness is overcome, it is necessary to look at urban farming while taking aim at planting, growing and selling the produce.

Materials and methods

Next, get the materials list noted. Tools are important, and these may include the usual gardening or farming gadgets such as cangkul, spade, rake, trimmer, trowel, secateurs, garden machete and knife, hose, backpack sprayer set of the 4-litre type, and other working tools such as saw, hammer and axe. Other gardening inputs are needed too such as several kilos of NPK fertiliser and urea for a start, and popular vegetable seeds including sawi, kalian, bayam, long beans, lady’s fingers, cucumber, tomato and bitter gourd, among others. These are short-term annual crops that can be easily planted to yield good harvests within a short period of time.

But for the serious urban farmer who truly needs the dough, virtually every obstacle can be overcome. Except for those city folks who live in apartments, flats or condominiums, most in the city are well blessed with suitable areas in the front and backyards. From these, a total of about 20 beds can be measured out and then worked on such as weeding, tillage and removal of foreign matter such as rocks, bricks, old pails, plastic bags, unwanted gunny sacks, discarded bottles made of plastic or glass, tin cans, etc. 

When working on building up the planting beds, it is not entirely necessary to have them raised to 15 cm. Although this allows for water to run out, raising the level of planting beds does not make much difference especially if the land has a slight slope, or if the beds are to be filled totally with organically-cultivated plants. A week before the planting, the soil may be enriched with old manure, fertilisers and compost to boost the growth rate of the plants. Well-grown seedlings may then be transplanted onto the beds and given a light watering. The young plants should be ready for harvesting after another 25-35 days.

In addition to the usual planting beds, it is also easy to construct a few timber racks each carrying a 3-4 shelves that are separated by up to 40cm between them.  Such contraptions can hold more plants that are cultivated in 6x6 polybags. These should be able to grow solitary vegetable plants to heights of 30 cm, and when sold lock, stock and barrel, the price is surprisingly high.

A tricycle with a single carrier can collect or dispose of farm produce to more distant places. 

An open-sided trolley cannot carry watermelon, honeydew or tomatoes as they may roll all over the place (left). A two-level dining car pushcart can carry more produce (right).

The problem then arises as to how the produce may be moved out and disposed of in the market place outside. It may be street fairs, city or town market, gerai-gerai or roadside warungs, or even in supermarkets and food outlets where the produce may be used fresh.  

Strong demand for such home-growns invariably results in the need for more space to be in the business of growing and selling.  In the past, people used to lug them over the shoulder in a karung and amble slowly to the nearest outlet to make the sale, in the same way that many PTIs and those from South Asian countries did in Sabah. Then, it was the colourful striped bags that were used to carry about 10-15kg of produce per bag, with each person handling two bags.

Later, the situation progressed to bicycles, tricycles and motorbikes which allowed the entrepreneurs of home-growns to carry large quantities over greater distances. Often, the tricycles and motorbikes have add-ons in the form of an extra carrier basket in the front. This means each unit of such vehicles are able to load from 50-100kg of saleable edibles. And if the backyard and front yard are not able to fill the order, the enterprising entrepreneur may go around the ulu areas where more fresh produce may be collected. With this method, many wage takers were able to rake in good profits by working extra long hours after their 8-5 work schedule.

The above takes may sound simplistic and farfetched but the reality is that there are already people in the M40 group doing this in order to make more for the family. They may be dealing not only in vegetables but also fruits, cakes, titbits and other fast-moving consumer items that city folks need.  It may not originally be a niche market but is made so by the hardworking and struggling urban folks who need to find a way to earn some honest ringgit to put more and better food on the table. At the end of the day, it takes a very strong-willed urban folk who are not adverse to working harder than others and who are able to deflect the stigma of shyness to take on two jobs in a single day. Perhaps the outstanding ones should be honoured with certain awards on a class basis rather than always honouring the loaded fame-seekers. But will they be recognised?


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December 20, 2014