Old Crops Waiting to be Revived

loading Collection of nutmeg fruits to be made into cider and jam.

Map of the Moluccas Islands (currently known as Maluku Islands), the origin of Penang nutmeg and cloves.

Penang’s potential for plantation agriculture was obvious to its first settlers already soon after it was founded. It was hoped that cultivating crops for export to Europe would help cover administrative costs on the island.

By 1802, pepper had become the most important export produce on the island, but production soon dwindled following falling prices and increased interest in nutmeg and cloves. Thus, many pepper plantations were abandoned as the trade in other spices picked up.

Nutmeg and clove seedlings had been introduced to Penang in 1798 from the Moluccas Islands of Indonesia. In 1838 the British rapidly expanded nutmeg and clove cultivation in all parts of the island, and the trade in them soon saw them becoming the staple export crops. Production peaked in the 1850s; however, these plantations too soon fell into decline due to the spread of disease which nearly destroyed nutmeg cultivation not only in Penang, but also in Singapore.

And once again, the plantations were abandoned by the British residents in Penang, to be revived later on a smaller scale by Chinese planters. The spice continues as minor agricultural product in Penang today.

So why was Penang the colonialists’ location of choice for expanding their agriculture enterprise and spice trade?

The Secret Is Underground

Captain Francis Light had had plans to transform Penang into a “second Moluccas” with the intention to wean off dependence on Dutch possession for spices.

Penang Island’s tropical climate and hilly landscape were suitable for that purpose. The soil in most parts of the island comprised of decomposed granite and alluvium commonly made up of clay silt and sand. The granitic soil rich in a mineral combination of quartz, mica and feldspar, coupled with a microclimate from being close to the sea provided ideal conditions for plantation growing.

In the hot humid climate of the Moluccas, nutmeg trees had grown best on rich black or red mould of volcanic soil in slightly elevated areas near the sea. Once introduced into Penang, the trees proved to grow abundantly at an elevation of 2,000 feet above sea level on gentle slopes and on deep alluvial soil elevated high above the watermark.

In these high valleys, nutmeg trees yield heavy crops without requiring manure. Cloves, too, flourish best on elevated sites, especially on undulating grounds skirting the hills of Penang Island.

It has been pronounced since British times that Penang nutmegs and cloves are the finest in the world – fuller and more luscious in colour compared to imports from the Moluccas!

Nutmeg and cloves naturalised well in Penang soil and grew abundantly. Even nutmeg trees abandoned by the British residents were later found to be thriving, bearing copious amounts of fruits. The wild nutmeg tree that is indigenous to Penang bears a more oval-shaped fruit, but both the nut and mace are less pungent and more astringent than the imports.

Plumper Penang cloves with richer oils ready for harvest.

Decomposition of sugarcane and organic waste in progress for production of compost.

Eric and Kim Chong, who run Green Acres, a 16-acre farm in Balik Pulau, can attest to this: “Our cloves, too, are of higher quality. They are often plumper, and have bigger buds from which richer oils are produced. They are also more potent and aromatic compared to the ones grown in India and Indonesia,” say the Chongs.

Three of the quintessential plants in Penang can be found at Green Acres: nutmeg, cloves and durians. Of course, one can never forget the king of fruits when exploring the wealth of crops in Penang. Durian trees that require trace minerals such as quartz, feldspar and mica, grow abundantly here, especially in Balik Pulau. “This is most definitely due to the healthy topsoil that we have here,” Eric explains.

Topsoil, also known as humus and sometimes referred to as “black gold”, is the upper, outermost layer of soil. It has the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms. Plants generally concentrate their roots in and obtain most of their vital nutrients from this layer.

Penang lands are rich in topsoil, especially in the hilly areas. “When the British settlers scouted the land for agriculture in the early days, they found the topsoil to be as deep as 14 feet,” say the Chongs.

Organic matter in topsoil is essential for developing ecologically sound agricultural practices. Besides providing necessary nutrients for plants, a healthy layer of topsoil also protects the land from erosion, more so during heavy downpours.

Good Practices

While topsoil is still abundant in hilly farms at Balik Pulau, the same can’t be said about farm lands buffering urban areas. Due to development, these urban farms are often depleted of nutrients. Further south of the island, Loi Mei Shy of Wonder Wilderfarm promotes sustainable agriculture at the Relau Agro-tourism Centre through urban farming. She reintroduces nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous back into the soil by adding green manure.

Green manure is often made from plants that are grown, intentionally ploughed and left to wither on the field to improve the fertility of the soil. This tedious process – which takes one and a half to two months to complete before the next round of planting – reduces reliance on chemical fertilisers. These fertilisers can be harmful for the environment.

The Chongs also opt for compost to fertilise their crops at Green Acres. They collect organic waste such as sugar cane and coffee beans, and ferment them before adding a serving of chicken dung. Not only is this inexpensive compared to synthetic fertilisers, Eric also claims that composts give his fruit and vegetable produce a better taste.

“Crop rotation also helps in mitigating the depletion of nutrients in the soil,” says Kenneth Khoo, garden curator and director of the Tropical Spice Garden at Teluk Bahang. While rejuvenating and maintaining the structure of the soil, crop rotation also prevents the build-up of pathogens and pests, which often occurs when only one species is continuously cropped.

This practice commonly goes hand in hand with the cultivation of soil with green manure.

Chong, Loi and Khoo live and breathe these sustainable farming principles. A huge part of their initiatives is education and bringing awareness to the public. While Green Acres offers tours and team-building activities centred around appreciation of organically grown food, Wonder Wilderfarm manages small plots of urban farms for the community to have first-hand experience in bringing food from farm to table. Tropical Spice Garden, a fantastic nature museum with a plethora of 500 species of flora and fauna, is a sensory playground of spices for both adults and children.

A healthy harvest of durians at Green Acres resulting from good farming practices.

“Awareness is growing, albeit rather slowly,” say the Chongs. While these good practices undoubtedly bring benefits such as sustainability, and better health and better food produced, the cost and labour involved are often a considerable downside. Organic farming is evidently more laborious than chemical-reliant methods; therefore, short cuts are often made especially in mass production agriculture. “But some farmers are starting to pick up on these good practices,” says Loi, referring to durian farmers who are now opting for the manual method of weeding rather than using herbicides. This was encouraged by the difference in taste of durians grown without herbicides. Clearly, the change has to start with consumers’ demand.

Although farming in Penang is increasingly unappealing to the younger generation, small pockets of urban farms are gradually increasing in number. “Farmlands that are left unattended can be broken up into smaller lots and rented out to interested communities,” says Eric. These smaller plots of land can be communally serviced and maintained by a farmer, giving the owners the flexibility and convenience of tending to their patch of garden whenever they can.

While edible gardens have thrived in various cities abroad, that trend has not quite caught on here. Besides nutmeg, cloves, pepper and durians, Penang is also rich in local plants and herbs that are edible and medicinal; these can be easily reintroduced in urban gardens. Crops of the old spice trade like nutmeg and cloves are in need of innovation and revamp. For instance, Green Acres have made soaps with cloves and turned nutmeg juice into cider to keep up with market trends.

There are various ways to reinvigorate small-scale agriculture to promote local crops as a healthier source of food. Initiatives besides Green Acres, Wonder Wilderfarm and Tropical Spice Garden have cropped up as we become more interested in knowing about the food we put on our tables and the impact on the environment. Who knows, in the process perhaps a new type of crop may be discovered to overtake the glory days of nutmegs, cloves or even durians.

References:

Agricultural History of Peninsular Malaysia: Contributions from Indonesia; K. T. Joseph [https://www.jstor.org/stable/41493709?newaccount=true&read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents]

A dissertation on the soil & agriculture of the British settlement of Penang, or Prince of Wales Island, in the Straits of Malacca: including Province Wellesley on the Malayan Peninsula; James Low. [https://archive.org/details/dissertationons00LowJ/page/2]

Disparate Identities: Penang From A Historical Perspective, 1780 – 1941; Ooi Keat Gin [http://web.usm.my/km/33(Supp.2)2015/km33s22015_03.pdf]

https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Building-Soils-for-Better-Crops-3rd-Edition/Text-Version/Organic-Matter-What-It-Is-and-Why-It-s-So-Important/Why-Soil-Organic-Matter-Is-So-Important

Going against the grain, Stephanie Kee moved from bustling KL to laid-back Penang, where the "creative pulse" is said to be. With no prior background in the arts, she dove headfirst into exploring the complexities of a flourishing local arts scene, only to discover there’s more to Penang than meets the eye.



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