We recently spent a few days at Serukam Farm. It is located in northern Malaysia, in a village within Sungai Petani. Xin and Fred started the farm about 2.5 years ago on a 2-acre piece of land that Xin’s grand-uncle and grand-auntie live on.
We first heard about this place from our good friend Will from FOLO Farms. Serukam Farm wasn’t just an organic farm, but a homestead. Over there, they live on the land. They grow food small-scale and organically; firstly for themselves and selling only if there is excess. While organic farms are getting more common in Malaysia, it is still rare to see people that view farming as a lifestyle rather than a business.
We have stayed at many farms before but this was our first time since having a baby! Luckily Xin was more than accommodating and gave us the nicest room – the only loft in the family house. She said that there’s no point farming if the farm can’t cater to a baby.
Where are the veggies?
During one of our meals that we harvested from the farm, Xin and Fred said that visitors often wonder where the vegetables are growing. They would look at the spread on the dining table and ask if they were bought from a store. Indeed, if you only know of vegetables being grown in neat straight rows, you would wonder the same.
In Serukam Farm, the garden beds are seldom straight. The fruit trees, vegetables and herbs mingle, creating a beautiful edible landscape. Basil grows beside sweet potato beside lemongrass beside cosmos flowers. You might think that it’s all random but it actually is the result of thoughtfulness and a deep understanding of plants. The yellow cosmos flowers add vibrancy while repelling pests. The torch ginger clumps nearby absorb the manure from the chicken coops up slope, and then provide a good source of mulching materials for the garden beds. They joked that the messy planting helps to confuse and prevent thieves! This probably also applies to pests…
In the center is a keyhole garden, a favourite in permaculture design. It is basically a conventional straight garden bed that has been bent into a circle, leaving a short pathway leading to the center circle (like a keyhole). In this way, you save space by shortening the pathway and the center can be used as a food waste bin. As the food waste breaks down, the nutrients get released around the bed without you having to move anything.
The farm lies next to a stretch of transmission towers, which sits on government land. These pieces of land are commonly used by anyone for farming and the government closes one eye. The only thing is that trees are not allowed in case they grow tall and interfere with the electric cables. Over here, Serukam Farm has also made some raised beds in between existing lotus ponds. The area is frequently waterlogged hence the need for raised beds. However the good thing is that there is water flowing across and hydrating the land. We were surprised when Xin said that the electromagnetic waves from the thick electric cables affect the plants negatively.
What really impressed us was that they didn’t spend a single cent on making all these beds. The edges of the garden beds are made using reclaimed roof tiles that Xin’s granduncle collected. The soil was created with organic matter like dead leaves and twigs taken from nearby.
Rearing chickens without buying feed
Serukam Farm’s use of waste materials from their surroundings translates to how they raise their chickens. They keep over a hundred chickens and yet do not spend on feed! Xin’s granduncle grew up in this village and through his relationships, he gets all kinds of food waste from his friends around town. Shredded coconut (that has been squeezed dry for coconut milk), vegetables not in good enough condition for the market, barley that has been boiled for barley water, and many others. Twice a day, he chops up the food waste into small pieces and mixes them up for a delicious meal for the chickens. In addition, the chickens have a big area to forage from. Different kind of weeds, insects underneath leaf litter, fallen fruits, etc.
Despite not spending on feed, the chickens look well-fed and healthy. In fact they are probably healthier than chickens fed with corn or wheat. Domestic chickens descended from forest-dwelling junglefowls; grains were never a major part of their diets.
Serukam Farm takes a more natural and “do nothing” way of rearing chickens. They tend to let the chickens do what chickens do by nature, instead of interfering too much. They shared an interesting story: in the past they used incubators to hatch the eggs. It would take them a month to train the little chicks how and when to go back into the coop. Eventually they stopped the incubator and let the hens hatch the eggs. By following the mother hen, the chicks learned to go back into the coop in a single day!
They used to sell the chickens for meat. However they changed to selling only eggs after a visit to the slaughterhouse. Today, the hens get to live to a ripe old age, even after their laying productivity falls. We have heard from some experienced farmers that, like human groups, chicken flocks have their unique culture too. The older chickens pass on their experience to the younger ones, just like how human grandparents are revered as they pass on culture and knowledge!
A young fruit orchard
Serukam Farm has a young fruit orchard. When they started, there were some older lime trees which were receiving chemical fertilizers. When they converted to organic farming, some of these lime trees could not take the change and died. They planted some young lime trees and made a lot of effort to improve the soil using chicken manure, organic matter and mulching. Those are thriving today.
We helped to weed some of these lime trees. After that we applied some liquid fertilizers made by Fred using chicken manure, enzyme, molasses, and water. They have been fermenting for a couple of months. When we opened the container the sweet smell of fermentation greeted us.
Every lime tree is planted beside a lemongrass bush for the purpose of mulching. It was very convenient cutting back the lemongrass and then spreading it underneath the lime tree right beside.
One of the key takeaways from our stay was the power of relationships and community. Xin and Fred said that if they started from scratch on a new piece of land in a new location, they would need to build many structures for house, storage, workshop, etc. They would need to buy building materials and chicken feed. Indeed, they are very fortunate to have grand-uncle, grand-auntie, and the entire village there!
But as with all communities, there are bound to be differences and conflicts. There were naysayers from the village when they started organic farming, not to mention a neighbour who repeatedly sprays herbicide onto their land despite being told not to do so. The challenge is to resolve, or at least bear, with the conflicts.
Check out Serukam Farm’s website! They share lots of good stuff that they do on the farm.