By LEONG SIOK HUI firstname.lastname@example.org Pictures by SAMUEL ONG and RICKY LAI
An organic farm, retailer and green living advocate all rolled into one, Little Green Planet strives to make organic affordable.
WE have all heard the gripe before when it comes to buying organic – “it’s exorbitant!’’
Yes, chemical- and pesticide-free food costs more because it’s labour-intensive, and yes, this kind of farming requires more care. But the premium on organic food means only one in five Malaysians are willing to fork out more for them, reports the Nielsen 2011 Global Online Environment and Sustainability Survey (which polled over 25,000 Internet respondents in 51 countries).
“High prices of eco-friendly products such as organic food were a hindrance to Malaysian consumers,” Nielsen Malaysia concludes.
Well, the folks at Little Green Planet (LGP), an organic farm and retailer, want to change all that by spreading the message that “now everyone can eat organic”, or something to that effect.
How are they going to do this?
For starters, they are cutting out the middleman by selling veggies from their own farm in their own stores. They will even deliver veggies to your house for free to help you cut back on your carbon footprint. Rather than importing dry products, LGP prefers to import raw materials. For example, they buy soybeans and black sesame to rustle up their powder-form beverage.
The price of their highly popular Black Sesame Soy Drink is a fraction of those for imported ones.
Starting from scratch
“We believe that good ‘real’ food do not need lots of scary stuff added to it to make it delicious,” says Adrian Foo, one of the three founders of LGP.
Foo and his partners, who are IT entrepreneurs-turned-farmers, believe that agriculture, especially organic, is the way of the future.
“Through consumer market survey, we’ve found that there is huge a demand for organic products – especially amongst mothers, aged between 30 and 50, with young children,” explains Foo, who’s in his early 40s. “Some of these mothers may not eat organic food themselves but they make sure their kids do.”
Having no background in agriculture, Foo and his partners began by mining information on vegetable farming. They called on various farms around the country and gleaned invaluable tips from seasoned organic growers. They also looked into the latest organic farming technologies like composting and pest control sans synthetic pesticides.
“The Department of Agriculture was extremely helpful once they knew we’re keen to get involved in agriculture. Their experts provided the know-how and helped us find a suitable piece of land,” reveals Foo.
In 2009, Foo and his partners leased an 8ha land, cleared the secondary jungle and primed the land for planting over a period of six months.
The company hired and trained Indonesians from Lombok as farm hands. Today more than 30 varieties of edibles, including Hong Kongchoy sum (Brassica parachinensis), sweet corn, New Zealand spinach, long beans, mini cos lettuce, amaranth, lady’s finger, bananas and Indian lettuce, are grown on the farm.
Not surprisingly, the budding farmers had a steep learning curve to overcome. They experimented with and tested the efficacy of various composting methods and settled on a blend of banana stems recycled from the farm, enzymes, molasses, bacteria and chicken manure.
“We use wood vinegar and enzyme to get rid of pests but some veggies are still ravaged by a type of flea,” says Foo who manages the farm and deals with the whole- salers.
“I had to stop growing some crops like kai choi (mustard greens) because they attracted a swarm of pests.”
Foo also found that some veggies like spinach don’t flourish in warmer climate. Natural insect repellents like lemongrass and Thai basil work great but demand is low and so aren’t widely grown on the farm. To stop the spread of weeds amongst the veggies, their workers have to manually yank them out.
“I take my hats off to our workers who stoically endure the scorching mid-afternoon heat,” says Foo.
In recent years, farmers worldwide have seen an increasingly capricious weather adversely affect their crops, and it’s no different with LGP.
“Obviously, the erratic weather affects our harvest most but there isn’t much we can do about it,” sighs Foo.
In June 2010, LGP collected their first harvest – and a few more hard lessons into the bargain. Keeping the veggies crisp and fresh in our hot climate proved a tall order. LGP had to pump in more money to buy refrigerators and iceboxes. Also, they discovered that leafy veggies had a maximum shelf life of only three days.
It also took them a while to gain the trust of big buyers like hypermarkets and grocery chains.
“Some companies want us to be certified first before they hawk our vegetables while others allow us to sell without the organic label,” says Foo.
LGP’s farm is currently in the final stages of getting the Skim Organik Malaysia (SOM or Malaysian Organic Certification Scheme) certification introduced by the Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Ministry in 2003. Under SOM guidelines, the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides or any growth regulators, antibiotics or hormones are a big no-no.
Other criteria include traceability, land and soil management, water management, handling, storage, packaging, workers’ health, and safety and environmental impact. Starting January 2011, all local produce must be SOM-certified before they can carry the organic label.
“Frankly, to date we haven’t recouped the money we’ve put into the business,” Foo admits. “But we’re definitely hanging in there.”
Sticking to their maxim of keeping prices low, LGP opened their retail shops in June 2011. Their flagship store sits in Centrepoint, Bandar Utama with their other outlets spread out in Cheras, Dutamas and Jalan Ampang Hilir.
“Our concept stores are a way to bring us closer to our customers,” says Vanessa Low, LGP’s marketing manager.
Fresh veggies aside, the stores offer a wide range of products ranging from personal care and baby products, to beverages, sauces and seasonings, to noodles, grains and organic clothing. All stores spot similar design scheme – white walls and white built-in shelves with a touch of green on the logos or lettering. The style is chic but simple.
“We select organic products that are either internationally certified like goods from Australia, New Zealand and the US or locally certified ones,” adds Low.
The imported stuff is on the pricey side but the local veggies are a steal. A 200g-packet of bayam (amaranth) or kangkung (water convolvulus), enough to satiate two adults, goes for only RM1.40 while Hong Kong choy sum costs RM2.50. I have been buying LGP veggies sold at a small supermarket near my housing area for some time now and found their best-selling veggie, the HK choy sum, to be sweet and crunchy; their sweet corn, lady’s fingers and long beans too.
In March this year, LGP started their home delivery service. Modelled loosely after the community-supported agriculture (CSA) concept, the service allows consumers to sign up for a monthly veggie subscription. From as low as RM160 per month, you receive a weekly supply of 10 varieties of fresh veggies – enough to feed a family of three – direct from the farm.
Practised in Europe and Japan since the 1960s, the CSA model allows consumers to form a relationship with and support their local farmers. It is also the least expensive way to purchase fresh, local organic food. To date, more than 30 families have subscribed to LGP’s delivery service.
The green lifestyle
Apart from running the farm and shops, LGP tries to advocate the organic lifestyle through activities, events and social media. Last Christmas, they organised a day out for the orphans from Klang Valley-based Ti-Ratana Welfare Society.
“Other than handing out hampers of organic products, we try to educate the children on the benefits of organic living,” says Low. “We also took part in the annual Hari Organik organised by CETDEM (Centre for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia)”
LGP stores also hold the occasional free food-tasting event. They have, among other things, invited the founder of Ozganics, an organic product brand from Australia, to do a cooking demonstration based on organic recipes for the public.
“We try to spread the word on how and why everyone should adopt the organic lifestyle,” Low sums up. “We have yet to make a big impact on society but we are doing our part one tiny step at a time.”
By making organic veggies more accessible to the masses, LGP is definitely on the right track.
>For more info, check: www.littlegreenplanet.com.my