Coffee Break With...: Agriculture... sexy?

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My grandparents depended on the land for their livelihood but by the time my generation joined the workforce, the economy had evolved, and none of  us — my siblings, cousins and I — know anything about farming or agriculture. But by a strange twist of fate, I ended up writing about the palm oil sector for a living.And so, one weekend, hoping to enrich my knowledge of the ubiquitous oil palm — and in the spirit of Bloomberg TV’s “It’s clearer the closer you get to the source” tagline — I decided to help out at a relative’s small oil palm estate about 80km from the Klang Valley. After a few hours of hard labour there, I find myself having newfound respect for smallholders.Firstly, I had to endure the bites of a million mosquitoes while trekking into the estate — ah, trust the mozzies to detect the scent of fresh blood from the city. But I soon discovered that if I stood among the young palms, which were slightly over a metre in height and offered no respite against the scorching sun, the little creatures left me alone. Well, there went my RM200-a-pop whitening facial but freckles are less painful compared to deadly mosquito bites, for sure.Then I had to do some real work. With a parang in hand, I was tasked with clearing the creepers overwhelming some of the young palms, as well as to nip the wild banana tree shoots sprouting everywhere. Soon, I was happily hacking away, sometimes on all fours in order to reach the creepers making their way up the young palms. That’s easy enough, or so I thought. I managed barely a row before my arms and legs were screaming, “Stop!” I can manage hours of shopping in high heels but am no parang-wielding Lara Croft wannabe.To make myself useful, I offered to pick up empty fertiliser bags strewn along the paths between rows of palm trees. Easy peasy, right? Not quite. I encountered frogs that had practically built their homes between the damp earth and the empty black plastic bags in which palm seedlings once grew. Who knows what else I might find in there — snakes, bats? And trudging up and down the slopes wasn’t so bad at first, until my collection of empty bags got larger and heavier. If I do this once a week, I won’t have to step foot into a gym ever again.After those few hours at the estate, I was overwhelmed by the realisation of how the actions of people in far-flung places — traders in Tokyo (in the case of rubber) and India, policymakers in Europe and the US — affect the humble smallholder who just wants to make an honest living, pay his workers and make some profit for the risks taken.It is only in the last few years, amidst fears of food shortage, high fuel prices and rampant speculation on commodities, that farmers and planters have been able to enjoy decent returns on their crops. So much so that even office workers have quit their jobs to tap rubber trees back in their kampungs. But as the prices of farm outputs rose, so did input costs, such as fertilisers, diesel and labour. What goes up must come down but that is not quite the case for the smallholders. But such is the fate of smallholders in the agriculture sector — the lack of economies of scale.Now, with prices of most commodities off their highs, will commodities, and by extension, the agriculture sector and even the smallholder, be “sexy” again? Having “commodities”, “agriculture” and “smallholder” share the same sentence with “sexy” doesn’t sound quite right, but you know what I mean. There may be hope yet as resources such as land become scarce while populations continue to grow. But in the meantime, I should stick to my day job. And, boss, I won’t be able to hold a pen for a couple of days since my hands are still aching from all the parang action over the weekend…

This article appeared in The Edge Malaysia, Issue 749, April 6-12, 2009