There are many organic farms in Malaysia, but I have been searching for one that is not growing commercially to sell to the market. I am more interested to see subsistence agriculture rather than market-oriented agriculture. Subsistence agriculture is when the farmer grows to feed the family and sell the produce only if there is excess. There is a big difference between both. Permaculture Perak is one of the few that I found. It is located in the state of Perak in northern Malaysia, a short drive from charming Lenggong town. To access the land, you would most likely need a 4-wheel drive because of the steep uphill climb into 500m altitude.
Ladia and Amy live on the land with their two year old daughter and newborn son. Their neighbours are gibbons, wild boars, snakes, scorpions, and every once in a while an elephant who ransacks the kitchen for soy sauce. The only human neighbours are far away, down in the town of Lenggong.
The Surrounding Jungle
Permaculture Perak is within steep mountains, on a piece of land that used to be a tea plantation. The lay of the land is beautiful but also challenging to cultivate and build on. Access is challenging with roads frequently blocked by land slides. However these are also the reasons that has kept the place secluded and untouched by property developers or oil palm plantations. A few years ago, loggers started to clear a piece of jungle uphill and converted it to an eucalyptus plantation. Ladia had to change his water source because the loggers are likely to be using chemicals on their land.
Ladia inherited two buildings, a small farm house and a big two-storey tea factory. The buildings are old but do provide a roof over our heads.
In permaculture design, places are zoned depending on how frequently you need to access them. Zone 0 would be the house and Zone 5 would be the jungle. In between you have Zone 1 to 4 varying from kitchen garden to field crops to fruit orchard. At Permaculture Perak, Zone 5 was right behind the house! It’s quite an experience because you hear a symphony of howls throughout the night and the gibbons singing in the morning.
The farm is off-the-grid, meaning that they do not receive electricity or water. Electricity is generated by the solar panels that Ladia places on his roof. For their water needs, they tap on a couple of unpolluted springs even higher up in the mountain. The vertical drop between the springs and the house creates a high pressure for the taps and showers because of gravity. They are lucky to have a pristine water source, a basic need that many people do not enjoy.
While we were there, the water pipe got a little clogged up after the heavy rain. Some sediment got stuck in the pipe so we hiked up the mountain to the water source to clear it.
A stream flows right by the farm house that we use as a jacuzzi for baths. Nothing beats jumping into the cold water to enjoy some relief from the mid-day sun! I especially like lying in the water with the water beating on my head or back like a massage.
A big reason I wanted to visit was to see how they keep animals in the farm. From my work at Edible Garden City, I have had experience with food plants but not much with animals. People are more open to having edible plants in the rooftops of downtown Singapore but not edible animals! I think animals are an important part of the whole natural farming process. Even if you don’t eat meat or animal products like milk and eggs, they are wonderful composting machines for your food scraps, garden waste, and pests.
Every morning before our breakfast, we feed the chickens, ducks, turkeys, guinea fowls, and rabbits. Ladia puts it nicely: we treat the animals nice and feed them first before we feed ourselves. They live indoors in a big room on the ground floor of what used to be the kilang. We would do some weeding and throw the fresh greens into the room. I was curious and asked why he did not choose to keep the animals outdoor and let them forage for their own greens. It turned out that he tried before but the eagles in the mountains keep swooping down to rip out the chicken hearts and leave the carcass uneaten! Even with some form of roofing it didn’t help.
Ladia describes himself as a scavenger. During visits to the town, he picks up the shredded coconut remains after they have been squeezed dry for the coconut milk. All the animals in the farm love it.
They also keep the bigger animals like goats and cows. Those are pretty much independent and graze around during the day and return to their shelter when it rains or when night falls. The only thing we do is chase them up the hill waving a big banana leaf so that they don’t venture downhill and munch off the neighbouring farm.
While picking up shredded coconut remains from the village, Ladia also picks up coconut shell to turn into biochar. He uses it as a soil amendment to improve his soil fertility like “terra preta”. Terra preta means “black earth” in Portugese and refers to the very black fertile soil in the Amazon. Humans living there thousands of years ago started mixing charcoal into the soil to improve the poor Amazonian soil. The charcoal in the soil helps to improve fertility in a few ways:
- The charcoal helps to hold on to nutrients and reduce leaching, which is a problem with the heavy rain in the wet tropics.
- It is highly porous and increases micro-organic activities.
- Charcoal is slightly alkaline and raises the pH of tropical acidic clay soil.
Lastly, Ladia said that making biochar is a way of carbon sequestration. The carbon is converted into charcoal form and will stay that way for a very long time in the soil. That sounds like a good way to fight global warming.
Ladia began keeping bees recently, more precisely the stingless bees that are found only in the tropics. He barter traded his goats for the bees, a goat for a colony of stingless bees.
A day to ourselves
As part of the farm experience, Ladia and Amy suggested that they leave the farm in our hands for a day. It would give us a sense of what it feels like to stay on a farm by ourselves without guidance. We were a little worried to be honest, thinking of all the worst case scenarios that can happen. Elephant invading the kitchen, python eating up the chickens, etc.
In the end, it all went well. The tasks include feeding the chickens, ducks, rabbits, and dogs. We chased the cows and goats up the hill so that they stay clear of the neighbour’s plantation. We struggled with feeding the dogs because the dominant one ate everything! We found out that the dogs each need a separate bowl to eat from so that even the lowest in the hierarchy gets fed (in our case a three-legged dog). Unfortunately we forgot to feed the cat. We were glad to hear that she is an excellent hunter.
We did feed ourselves pretty well with farm fresh eggs and vegetables…
4 thoughts on “Permaculture Perak: Living beside a Jungle”
My first thought about the biochar was, there’s no way that burning the coconut husks to make the charcoal would release less CO2 than letting it compost. I did some searching and looks like that may be exactly the case. According to some articles biochar locks more carbon into the soil than other methods of processing agricultural waste. Then there are also the other benefits you mentioned.
To be honest that’s what I was thinking as well, and I’m no expert in combustion and carbon sequestration. I have done biochar using rice husk at Maemut Garden and it was combusted slowly in a metal barrel, kind of like the traditional way of making charcoal in a kiln. There’s not much of a fire. This method at Permaculture Perak is a quick method that uses strong fire and heat. An important point is that you have to kill the fire early so that the charcoal doesn’t burn to ash. Another point is that if you do biochar in a barrel/kiln, you can collect liquid smoke which I heard can be a fertilizer.
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