Where your veggies come from: Sweat and toil of a farmer in Cameron Highlands

Where your veggies come from: Sweat and toil of a farmer in Cameron Highlands

CNA visited a farmer at Cameron Highlands, who shares the challenges of growing, harvesting and packing fresh produce every day, including festivals and public holidays. Most of his produce are exported to Singapore.

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Mr Liew Kee Chong moved to Cameron Highlands to open a farm 30 years ago. (Photo: Fadza Ishak) 

CAMERON HIGHLANDS: Before the first rays of sunshine hit his 20,000 sq m farm each day, Mr Liew Kee Chong is already awake. 

By 7am, the 65-year-old is in his farm watering his crops, his black protective boots mottled brown by a fresh layer of mud.

After the crops are watered, Mr Liew harvests some vegetables and plucks cherry tomatoes, radishes or watercress, depending on the order list for the day.

The process is tedious, as he has to climb up and down the steep and narrow slopes of his farm, and kneel for hours at different spots to collect the correct quantity.

Even though Mr Liew is in his 60s, he moves like an agile teenager, climbing down wooden ladders to move between terraces on the mountainside. 

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Mr Liew waters his 20,000 sq m farm every morning. (Photo: Amir Yusof) 

Mr Liew's Sunrise Farm is located alongside a few other farms at Habu, but many more line the slopes of Ringlet, Brinchang and Tanah Rata.

The landscape at Cameron Highlands is a sea of green terraces tended by farmers. Some of them are local farm owners like Mr Liew, who are hands on and prefer to do things on their own. 


However, for some of the other larger farms, including those which are hydroponics, the work is done by migrant workers.  

Mr Liew is just one of the hundreds of farmers in Cameron Highlands who work relentlessly seven days a week to provide vegetables for consumers, including those in Singapore. 

READ: 48 hours on the road: Life of a Malaysian trucker who delivers vegetables to Singapore 

According to statistics from the Singapore Food Agency, Malaysia is Singapore’s top source of vegetables, supplying 69 per cent of the imported leafy vegetables. 

The cool climate on Cameron Highlands makes it an ideal place to grow vegetables, which are harvested and delivered to Singapore on a daily basis.  

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Mr Liew snacks on his crops to keep his energy up while working. (Photo: Fadza Ishak) 

"NO SUCH THING AS HOLIDAYS"

As he harvests his crops, Mr Liew brushes soil off the newly plucked vegetables and occasionally eats a few to keep his energy up.

“I like them raw like this. It’s perfectly safe,” he told CNA, while chomping on a radish.  

For the rest of the day, he packs vegetables into containers, transports them to the distributor at a lorry depot and continues maintenance work on his farm. 

Even at night, he has to stay on guard in case his crops are attacked by wild boars. He typically heads to bed around 10pm. 

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Mr John Liew helps his father with running the farm. He has promised to take over the farm when his father retires. (Photo: Amir Yusof) 

Regardless of their nationality, Mr Liew said all farmers in Cameron Highlands “work tirelessly” all year long to deliver to their suppliers. 

“The working hours are very long. There are no such thing as holidays as there are orders to fulfil,” said Mr Liew.

READ: Gap in vegetable supply chain puts Cameron Highlands farmers in overdrive before CNY

In the lead up to the Chinese New Year  on Jan 25, most families are busy decorating their homes and shopping for new colourful outfits, but Mr Liew's focus and attention are on his crops. 

He grows a wide range of vegetables, including watercress, tomatoes, cabbage, kale and fennel, and has shipments to prepare the crops to be delivered to companies and consumers in Singapore during the festivities. 

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Mr Liew harvests his vegetables according to the orders placed by distributors. (Photo: Fadza Ishak) 

“During the Chinese New Year holidays, there are two to three shipments to fulfil, so we cannot go anywhere. We have to complete the shipments first before we can celebrate. We’ve got to be responsible,” Mr Liew. 

He has worked at the farm for 30 years, and like always, will delay celebrating the Lunar New Year. He will meet his relatives at a later date when it gets less busy.

FARMERS "ARE A POOR GROUP" 

A farmer's job is strenuous and the financial gain is relatively low. 

“The farmers here are doing a hard job, and the income is not so good. Sometimes it is not enough to fulfil the needs of their families,” said Mr Liew. “We are a poor group, mostly,” he added.

In 1990, he spent his life savings to buy a piece of land in Cameron Highlands and move his family there from Bidor, a town in Perak. But he soon discovered that income from farming alone was not enough to finance the education of his four children. 

To make ends meet, he took a huge risk and invested his hard-earned money in other businesses. 

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Mr Liew says most locals are not willing to be a farmer because one has to constantly touch soil and get dirty. (Photo: Amir Yusof) 

He opened a small seafood restaurant at his farm, targeting tourists who visit Cameron Highlands, and started a provision shop. 

Running these businesses in parallel with farming has taken a physical toll on his body, but he pushes on for the love of his family. 

"We are quite frugal and live humbly. Working at the farm keeps me grounded and I prefer it this way than working at some high-rise office building," he said. 

BATTLING SEASONAL MONSOON 

On top of the relatively low financial gain, Mr Liew and other farmers in Malaysia also have to battle unpredictable weather.

During the northeast monsoon from October to March, his crop yield is typically reduced by 30 to 40 per cent because there is less sunshine to let the plants photosynthesise, and the humid conditions encourage fungus growth that destroys the vegetables.

He explained that cherry tomatoes are particularly vulnerable to fungus.

“Even in the rain, we have to do our job. We need to make sure we can maximise our output for the orders,” said Mr Liew.

“If the rain continues for a prolonged period, our livelihoods will be affected,” he added.  

As an organic farmer, Mr Liew has pledged to do things the “natural way”, and this means he does not use any artificial chemicals that could multiply crop growth. His farm's Malaysian Organic Scheme certification is pending approval from the agriculture ministry. 

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Mr Liew's organic vegetables are grown without using pesticides or artificial fertilisers. (Photo: Fadza Ishak) 

He has to work harder than most of the other conventional farmers to get the same quantity of vegetables, he said. 

“Some of these pesticides or chemical fertiliser are harmful to the body. But we are committed (to producing) organic. Some of these plastic shelters are also to protect our vegetables from the pesticide fumes at adjacent farms. We are very careful,” he added.

Whatever Mr Liew does on his farm, he has the interest of his customers who eats his vegetables in mind.

“We want to promote a healthy lifestyle. If they eat our vegetables, we hope they will live a longer, more wholesome life,” he said.

Mr Liew added that he wants to retire soon and passes the farm to his son, but he needs to continue working for now so he has some funds to fall back on. 

"I want to rest but not now," he said. 

Source: CNA/am(tx)

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