CAMERON HIGHLANDS: His shoulders and knees were aching, but Mr Ooi In Kun still managed a wry smile as he plucked scallions from the ground.
His breathing was fast and he was perspiring, despite the cool 22 degrees Celsius temperature.
The 60-year-old, who operates a small farm outside his wooden house in Habu, Cameron Highlands, was rushing to pack a shipment of vegetables that would be sent to Singapore that same evening.
“We are rushing a bit because people are starting to prepare for Chinese New Year, we have requests for more quantity,” said Mr Ooi in Malay.
Mr Ooi, like many farmers in Cameron Highlands, are stepping up efforts to meet high demand in the lead up to the Chinese New Year period, especially from Singapore. Prices of vegetables are expected to increase due to a gap in the supply chain.
However, the spike in demand has placed a strain on some farmers like Mr Ooi, who has no employees and operates the entire farm with just his wife.
"I have been here (operating this farm) for 28 years but recently the laborious work is getting to me,” added the man of Hokkien descent, who moved to Habu from Sungai Petani, Kedah in the 1990s.
He added: "We have to work hard and work smart. Of course, no such thing as holidays. We will work through Chinese New Year because there will still be shipment requests to meet”.
PRICE TO INCREASE AS CONSUMERS STOCK UP ON PRODUCE: MAJOR SUPPLIER
Those in the industry expect vegetable prices to rise in the coming days.
“As we get closer to CNY, a lot of people are on holiday. Some of our suppliers from China and Malaysia are on holiday, so there’s a gap in the supply chain," said Mr Kelvin Chye, managing director of Thygrace Marketing, a major vegetable distributor in Singapore.
"We have arranged suppliers to send, but there’s just no stock.”
This supply disruption also means that certain types of vegetables may not be available over the festive period, Mr Chye added.
Thygrace Marketing distributes vegetables to major supermarket chains in Singapore. Vegetables from Cameron Highlands are an important part of its supply chain.
Specifically, the demand for vegetables is expected to spike in the last two days before Chinese New Year on Jan 25, he said.
“Vegetables can’t be stored for too long, so customers will wait until the last minute because there’s this fear that shops will be closed during the festivities and there will be no more stock,” he noted.
“Whatever they need, they will go and grab. If there’s a shortage, the price will increase. This is true especially for wet markets,” he said.
Despite most supermarket chains announcing that they will remain open throughout the festive period, consumers are still concerned about a potential shortage, Mr Chye added.
Farmers in Cameron Highlands interviewed by CNA said that the Chinese New Year period requires careful planning and strategising.
Mr Fung Chee Siang, an organic farmer who operates Hatiku Agrikultur in Ringlet, said he will harvest the vegetables that are durable and more popular during Chinese New Year like cabbages.
If Chinese New Year falls on a Sunday, the vegetables will be shipped one week in advance, so that they can hit the shelves by Thursday or Friday, he explained.
“There is a lot of of preparation involved.," said Mr Fung.
WET WEATHER HITS CROP YIELD
Moreover, many of the farmers are concerned with unpredictable weather conditions during Malaysia’s Northeast monsoon season, which lasts from October to March.
Mr John Liew, who operates Sunrise Farm with this father in Habu, said a wet spell that affected Cameron Highlands for several weeks in December saw crop yield fall by 30-40 per cent. This, he said, has affected preparations for the Chinese New Year supply chain.
“During monsoon season now, there is a lot of rain. There won’t be a lot of sunshine, so the plants will not have enough to photosynthesise. It also rains a lot, and humidity in the air will cause fungus to grow,” said Mr Liew.
He explained that crops like tomatoes are more likely to get attacked by fungus and will rot. “Fungus spreads really fast. If we find some fungus and leave them unattended, it could really hurt us,” he said,
“Whether the wet weather will come back, I do not know. I hope not, but it’s in god’s hands,” said Mr Liew.
On whether consumers should be concerned over an increase in price of vegetables, Thygrace’s Mr Chye noted that this is only for the short term. Prices are cyclical by nature and will likely even out over the course of a year, he said.
“Now there may be a shortage, but in March, vegetables will be abundant because there will be oversupply (as the weather has improved). Farmers will have to throw away excess” said Mr Chye.
“Somebody always has to pay a price. If the consumers are happy (with low prices), farmers are unhappy, and vice versa.”