Organic is a popular idea. I emphasize idea, because in Southeast Asia the term “organic” may mean many things depending on who’s making the claim: from low-spray to no-spray to simply harvesting from abandoned trees in the jungle.
Certified organic farms are rare. I’ve been to a few in Thailand, but this is the only one I’ve ever been to in Malaysia .
Why Aren’t Other Durian Farms Certified Organic?
You probably just asked this question in your head, right?
The program is pretty new. It’s called Skim Organik Malaysia (SOM), and was only introduced in 2010. Getting certified takes a full two years of keeping precise records, making deadlines, and general paper shuffling.
None of which are the average farmer’s favorite activities.
So I suspected that the owner of Karak Organic durian farm was not your average farmer. By time he’d ushered us indoors for a PowerPoint presentation, I was sure of it.
About Karak Organic Durian Farm
Before the tour of the farm, Ng Swee Pen set up a slide presentation and gave us a lecture defining what organic means and why it is so important. It’s been his passion since he retired and converted the farm to 100% organic principles 5 years ago.
Before that, the farm was a source of spray-free durians for his family, especially his wife.
“My wife,” he said, ” she can eat durian three times per day, everyday! She’s like that. Buying durian outside — it was expensive!”
We laughed. “And,” he added, more serious, “When I buy outside, I don’t know the source.”
|Huai Bin finds a durian at Karak Organic Durian Farm
Most people occasionally ponder what awful chemicals are on our food, but Mr. Ng knows. He graduated with a degree in agriculture from the University of Malaysia and in 1979 began working for Sim Darby.
That’s the same Sim Darby of the infamous palm oil plantations. And in fact, Mr. Ng was once manager of the 7,000 acre oil palm plantation that now surrounds his farm.
|Palm oil lurks at the fringes of Karak Organic Durian Farm
Getting There Through the Palm Oil Plantation
Okay, so I admit that I was more than a little surprised to find a certified organic orchard buried inside of a gigantic palm oil plantation.
To be honest, I still find the trees creepy. When Huai Bin and I turned off Highway 9 into the Sabai Estate, I felt like Snow White entering the forbidden forest. The little red dirt road wound amid the tall trees, planted so closely their thick umbrella-like foliage blocked the mid-day sun.
If not for occasional signs for the durian farm, pinned to trees with arrows, I would have asked to turn around. It was spooky.
A Note On Palm Oil and Pesticides
I can read your mind. You’re thinking: If there’s all this palm oil around the farm, how is it certified organic? Don’t they spray all that huge mono-crop with terrible rainforest-destroying pesticides?
Surprisingly, no. Palm oil plantations use remarkably little fertilizer or pesticides compared to other crops. It’s what keeps costs down and makes them both so lucrative and also possibly an okay environmental choice
The problem, and the reason Greenpeace infamously blamed Kit Kat candy bars for killing orangutans, is there’s so much of it that plantations have replaced animal habitat. So don’t worry, you can still feel empowered by boycotting palm oil products.
Enough critical thinking. Here’s some durian to re-invigorate you.
So what does Mr. Ng do differently than other “organic” farms?
As a well-educated agriculture man, there are three things that he does that few “eco-friendly” farmers are doing on their farms today.
Treating Disease With Micro-organisms
In the picture above, Mr. Ng is showing us the healed scar of a tree that was infected with phytophtora, a fairly common durian disease. It’s well known that if you have healthy trees, you’re less likely to have sick trees. But what do you do if your tree gets sick? Or you inherit an orchard and want to transition it to organic?
Most farmers just have to let the trees die, or they need to treat it with fungicides. Mr. Ng sprayed the tree with “good” micro-organisms. He says it’s expensive, but worth it.
|Me with the healthy soil of the farm
Ground Cover for Healthy Soil
Mr. Ng dug around in the thick groundcover and plopped a handful of the soft dirt into my hand. It felt rich and moist, with a loamy, just-after-the-rain aroma. I like dirt.
Most eco-friendly farmers are being radical by simply allowing ground cover to exist. Whereas many farmer would use Roundup to kill the grasses and weeds, these farmesr will mow their farms each year before the durian season to make it possible to find the durians when they fall.
To be honest, it looked like it would be hard to find fallen durians in the ground cover Mr. Ng planted too; but at least it stops growing at about waist high. The plant Mr. Ng chose is the nitrogen fixer Mucuna bracteata, or Penetup Bumi. It’s commonly used on oil plantations to prevent soil erosion.
One of the reasons the Ng’s started inviting people to eat on the farm was so they could keep the durian shells and their nutrients on the farm.
Composting can be a lot of work, and Mr. Ng says it gets a bit out of control during the season, but he doesn’t worry about it. When it’s all over he and his helpers will transfer the durian shells to another big pen and layer them with other plants to help them break down faster.
When we’d circumnavigated the 10.5 acre farm and were as hungry as you probably are now after reading so far into this post, Mr. Ng led us back to the main house for our feast.
Attached to the house is an airy red canopy, which lent an odd rosy tinge to everything that passed under it.
Another group was there when we first arrived, but they gulped their durian and scrammed while Huai Bin and I were still happily involved taking pictures of the durians. Huai Bin was just as focused in getting pictures to share with readers of the Sixth Seal as I was getting pictures for you.
Isn’t it fun when someone enjoys something as much as you do?
Keeping your camera clean of durian is an art I gave up on long ago.
Of the 200 trees at Karak Organic Durian Farm, the majority are D24. It’s their specialty durian, and for a reason.
At 300 feet elevation, the farm is one of the highest in Malaysia and you can really taste it in their D24s, which grow best in the highlands. Of the durians we ate that day, my favorites were the 2 or 3 D24s we downed, so thick and fatty they stayed stickily in our throats like peanut butter and with a strong, bitter, herby finish. Just delicious.
The other durians were interesting for a collector’s sake, but just not as tasty.
This was the first durian I ever tasted in Malaysia, and I long remembered it as the best durian ever. This durian, however, is proof however that memory is clearly fallible.
It was the second time I tasted it this year, and just as much of a disappointment. I half-hoped the one at The Durian Tree in Singapore was a fluke, but it was the same. Too sweet, very big flesh, and a bit fibrousy. This one, however, had also become a bit watery, which you can tell by looking at the smooth glimmer of the flesh in the picture. We didn’t even finish it!
Huai Bin was excited because he hadn’t tried this durian before. Huai Bin has quite a collection of durians on his blog, maybe even more than me!
This D144 is a cross between D24 and D2 originally from Selangor. It has a thick shell an is difficult to open, with the rosy-orange coloration of a D2 but the fleshiness of a D24. This one had a unique “sleeping cat” shape, which is the term they use for durians that grow curved sharply to one side like a long “L.”
It was very fleshy, but also a bit on the sweet, fruity side. Unlike D88, which I’ve pretty much given up on, I’d like to taste D144 again.
|Mrs. and Mr. Ng of Karak Organic Durian Farm
Going to Karak Organic Durian Farm
Karak Organic Durian Farm is located about 2 hours away from Kuala Lumpur.
Turn off Hwy 9 at Sabai Plantation, and continue along the dirt road following signs for about 20 minutes. I used my GPS device to create a pin of both the farm and the turn-off, which are marked in the map below.
The road is not paved, so if it has rained recently consider what type of car you have.
If you can’t make it, you can also get their durians at Just Fruits Organic Shop.