Sarawak’s hopes in agriculture on Malaysia Day
By Patricia Hului
With a small farm to tend to at Kampung Simpok Padawan where she grows lemongrass, ginger flowers, ginger and tapioca, Julia Jenos’ day starts at 6 am.
There she collects her farm produce and if there is enough time, she’ll go to the jungle near her village to harvest some wild bamboo.
By 9 am, Julia leaves for Kota Sentosa Market where she will have everything laid out for sale by 10 am to 6 in the evening.
“It is better to plant all these vegetables on your own, if you buy them from the suppliers you only earn half of the profits,” she said to The Borneo Post SEEDS, as she busily peeled some ginger.
For Julia who has nothing more to ask for as we celebrate Malaysia Day today, she will be carrying out her work like any other day.
With an increasing number of air-conditioned supermarkets, Julia says locals who prefer traditional cooking still find their way to the wet market.
The farmer/trader explained how her choice of fresh produce wasn’t readily available in conventional supermarkets, giving her some advantage.
“For instance, I’m selling these bamboo which I collected from the jungle,” she said, adding that there were plenty available as long as somebody willing to go and collect them.
Two stalls away from Julia sat 64-year-old Christina Tonik selling various produce such as cucumbers, yellow brinjal and lime.
Unlike Julia, Christina is a middleman buying her vegetables from suppliers and her relatives before selling them to consumers.
“Most of the sellers here do not have the time to plant any vegetables,” she explained.
The mother of six has been trading at the 7th mile market since 1993.
“Most customers are not aware that there are some supermarkets who come to 7th mile to buy their vegetables from us and then sell them at the same price but in smaller portions.
“When I ask why customers don’t buy their vegetables directly from us, some complain about the distance and even about the parking.”
For Christina, her biggest concern is the illegal traders who sell at the roadside near the market building.
“There are laws to prohibit them to trade there and enforcers from Padawan Municipal Council would come to chase them away but days later they come back selling again.”
She added that it was already hard enough to compete with the bigger supermarkets, now they had to compete with illegal traders too.
“What do I hope for this Malaysia day? I want to have a lower cost of living,” Christina shared.
She pointed out that farmers, whom she bought her supplies from, had to increase their prices forcing sellers to raise their selling prices as well.
Christina chose not to sell non-local vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, spring onions as they were more expensive to buy from suppliers compared to local vegetables.
“They (farmers) claimed that their cost of farming such as fertiliser prices increased… but if we were to raise our prices too high, we would lose our customers.
“Nowadays, I would be just grateful if I could earn RM50 a day.”
Meanwhile, Wenceslaus Arit, 24, believed that it was crucial to increase domestic food production.
Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Anthony Nogeh Gumbek pointed out in July the alarming number that Malaysia spent on fresh and frozen fruits, vegetables and meat imports last year – RM45.4 billion, in fact.
Wenceslaus said, “We cannot be too dependent on neighbouring countries to supply food for us.”
The final year Diploma in Plantation Management student also hoped for more subsidies especially for those who are in need and are passionate about agriculture.
“Perhaps in the future, we could see more traditional farmers incorporating mechanisation in their agricultural practices.”
Wenceslaus said that a majority of the farmers were still using conventional methods.
Fifty three years since Malaysia was formed, Wenceslaus’ hopes for more research and development to be done for Sarawak in the agriculture sector.
He elaborated, “Especially research on how we can have better and more environmentally-friendly approaches in the agriculture sector.”
With most of the younger generation turning to more conventional career paths, Wenceslaus would love to see more youths joining him in taking up agriculture.
“Why I choose to be part of this sector is to help, at least, educate in some way, people who are not privileged to have the knowledge to practice agriculture in the most effective way that would help minimise the ecological impact.”
Undeniably, the state’s involvement in developing agriculture has come a long way even way before the formation of the Malaysian federation.
A British director was appointed when the Department of Agriculture Sarawak was formed in 1924.
Fast forward to this 21st century, Sarawak’s focus is not only in crops, but also livestock and veterinary services, inland fisheries, research and development as well as farmers’ institution development.
To date, Sarawak has become the largest pepper producer, second largest producer for pineapple after Johor and the country is the world’s second largest exporter of palm oil.
But at the end of the day, what all Sarawakians may need the most from the agriculture sector is something that Christina and Wenceslaus would agree on – more food at affordable prices.
Happy Malaysia Day!