Grow­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties

Jerome Ra­ga­van flicks the switch on his ca­reer in engi­neer­ing and de­cides to grom a farm in­stead

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By IVY SOON star2@thes­

JEROME Ra­ga­van was never into gar­den­ing but the idea of farm­ing some­how in­trigued him. It was not the most likely op­tion for the en­gi­neer who was in man­u­fac­tur­ing for over 30 years, till he was re­trenched when the semi­con­duc­tor plant he pi­o­neered in Shah Alam, Se­lan­gor closed down in 2014. But these days, the for­mer manag­ing di­rec­tor is fully oc­cu­pied with how plants grow and fas­ci­nated with farm­ing tech­nolo­gies.

“I went into train­ing ini­tially; it seemed like a log­i­cal ca­reer pro­gres­sion. But train­ing didn’t ig­nite any­thing in me.

“Then, some­one threw in the idea of start­ing a chilli farm. I have no plant­ing ex­pe­ri­ence but I have al­ways been an out­doors per­son. I like the idea of work­ing out­doors and hav­ing my own plot of land.

“Farm­ers are like fish­er­men, in their ten­dency for ex­ag­ger­a­tion. They told me it’d be easy and all I had to do was hire some work­ers to do the work. But I knew from the start that I wanted to be on the farm, to be hands-on,” re­calls Ra­ga­van who is in his early 50s. He was un­daunted that he had to learn farm­ing from scratch.

He went with his part­ner to scout some 10-12 sites be­fore they found the plot of land to lease for their farm. They quickly learnt to weigh fac­tors such as soil suit­abil­ity, ter­rains, util­i­ties and prox­im­ity to mar­kets. They fi­nally found a 4.5ha (seven-acre) plot of land in Mantin in Ne­gri Sem­bi­lan; it was over­grown but there were a few wild chilli plants grow­ing on it. It was a good omen, and they signed the lease.

It took three months to clear the land, sort out its ir­ri­ga­tion and get it ready for plant­ing.

“We planted the chillies and the in­ex­pe­ri­ence in farm­ing hit us in the sec­ond sea­son when pests at­tacked the crops,” re­counts Ra­ga­van who de­scribes his farm­ing ven­ture as a be­ing on a “learn­ing curve”.

For the past three years, Ra­ga­van has been on his toes con­stantly, and on his feet lit­er­ally.

He works all hours at the farm – do­ing ev­ery­thing from re­search to man­ual farm work to sell­ing his veg­eta­bles at the night mar­ket.

“In farm­ing, you get what you put into it,” says Ra­ga­van who has had to con­tend with var­i­ous chal­lenges in­clud­ing the break-up of his part­ner­ship a year ago.

He also went through a low pe­riod when he had to reeval­u­ate if farm­ing was what he wanted to do. But he de­cided that he wouldn’t go back to his known field of man­u­fac­tur­ing.

“In man­u­fac­tur­ing, I worked long hours and trav­elled a lot. The pres­sure was tremen­dous but the pay was good. But I didn’t want to go back to that.

“In farm­ing, the stress is dif­fer­ent. I feel that farm­ing is more mean­ing­ful be­cause we are pro­vid­ing food. I can’t think of any­thing more im­por­tant than food se­cu­rity,” says Ra­ga­van who in­vested his re­trench­ment ben­e­fits in his farm. He is also in­vig­o­rated by the need to learn con­stantly and seek so­lu­tions.

“You must want to learn new things. Per­haps 15 years ago, it would have been so much more dif­fi­cult for me to have gone into some­thing com­pletely new. But the In­ter­net is an en­abler. There are so many re­sources to tap into. I am learn­ing about farm­ing from blog­gers, web sites and aca­demic pa­pers pub­lished on univer­sity sites. Gov­ern­ment agen­cies such as Mardi are also a good source of knowl­edge.

“There are also farm­ing groups on What­sApp and Face­book to dis­cuss farm­ing mat­ters. These days, we can take pho­tos of a prob­lem and ask the group for help,” says Ra­ga­van.

Nine months ago, he switched from fer­ti­ga­tion (where the nu­tri­ents are fed to plants planted in poly­bag via wa­ter) to hy­dro­pon­ics (a method of grow­ing plants in a wa­ter based, nu­tri­ent rich so­lu­tion, with­out us­ing soil).

“I ran into prob­lems af­ter two years of us­ing the fer­ti­ga­tion method. My cousin was us­ing the hy­dro­pon­ics method, and I started ex­per­i­ment­ing with it on a small scale,” adds Ra­ga­van, who does not use pes­ti­cides in his farm. He now plants veg­eta­bles such as bok choy, spinach and kai lan us­ing the hy­dro­ponic method. Soon, he will also grow rock mel­ons.

The change in farm­ing method re­quired added in­vest­ments but it also meant that he could re­duce the num­ber of work­ers on his farm from 11 to two.

Ra­ga­van, who now reads a lot to

learn about farm­ing, keeps a keen eye on ev­ery­thing that goes on in his farm, con­stantly fig­ur­ing out ways of mak­ing work more ef­fi­cient.

“As I am hands-on, I know the is­sues my work­ers have. For in­stance, I cov­ered the soil with weed mat so that we’d not have to spend so much time weed­ing. It re­quired some in­vest­ment but we save on other costs.

“Last year, the cu­cum­bers were grow­ing fine but this year’s weather af­fected them. It is hot­ter and we had to use black net­ting to shade the plants from the sun.

“We also gather data like how many days it takes for the plants to fruit or ma­ture, and how much crop we har­vested. I like analysing data, which was what I used to do. That job ex­pe­ri­ence came in handy. It’s also good to keep data so we can share it with author­i­ties such as Mardi,” says Ra­ga­van, who is also cook­ing and try­ing out dif­fer­ent recipes with his har­vests.

Al­though there are earn­ings from the farm, it will take more time for Ra­ga­van to get the re­turns on his in­vest­ment. He is un­fazed, but he says he also needs to think of ways of di­ver­si­fy­ing his in­come stream, such as sell­ing nu­tri­ent mixes, or­ganic plant boost­ers and hy­dro­ponic sets for home gar­dens. He also has plans to open his farms to vis­i­tors so they can en­joy his pro­duce and na­ture ... “bird­watch­ing is amaz­ing here.”

“Pas­sion drives a lot of things. I am al­ways think­ing of how to make things bet­ter at the farm. I have gained ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge, but I can­not stop learn­ing.”

The father of three teenage sons adds: “With less in­come, we have to learn to be more fru­gal. When you have money, you tend to splurge and buy un­nec­es­sar­ily. I have learnt to value money.”

Photo: UU BAN / The Star

— Pho­tos: UU BAN/The Star

Ra­ga­van is con­stantly re­search­ing farm­ing meth­ods and he re­cently switched to hy­dro­pon­ics to grow his veg­eta­bles.

To di­ver­sify his in­come stream, Ra­ga­van makes and sells hy­dro­ponic sets for home gar­dens.

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