Just 20 kilometers from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of George Town, the hills of Penang are a historical site of tropical fruit production. Countless varieties of durian, banana, mangosteen, rambutan, cempedak, and langsat thrive in the steamy climate, nurtured by the hands of generations of farmers.
“The farmers here have such an incredible traditional knowledge,” said Eric San Dee Chong, a soft-spoken fruit grower with big ideas. “The old-timers know how to chop the banana branch with just the right strength so it falls slowly and he can catch it before it hits the ground, so the bananas ripen perfectly on the tree and don’t bruise.”
Unfortunately being a fruit farmer in these parts no longer provides a decent living and older farmers are selling off their farms, while their children go to work in the factories. Penang is heavily industrialized, Chong explains, and young people can earn a better wage doing factory work in one of the many high-tech electronics plants. “In a very good season, a farmer can make 50,000 ringgit ($US12,000), but after deducting for costs he ends up with around 24,000 ringgit ($5,600).
Unwilling to give up fruit farming, Chong decided to explore ways to make alternative income, hoping that other farmers would follow in his footsteps. He now opens his farm, Green Acres, up to tourists, offering a five-day stay and itinerary that lets them discover the region. Visitors cycle around the area, visit traditional productions, and relax in the natural spring water pool. They discover the local landscape and history, meet producers, slow down the pace, eat local food and immerse themselves in the culture. Understandably, it’s taking off with the tourists.
“We want to give people the full experience. They see the stars, they hear the durian fall, they experience the purity of the area, which has very little pollution,” he says. “Then when they go back home they are more aware. Once you sit at a farmer’s table with him you look at things in a new light.”
Chong is trying to get his neighbors to follow suit, seeing them as colleagues in preserving the area and traditions, rather than potential competition. “The more people that come and discover this beautiful area and lifestyle, they more other people will find out about. “Once I prove to my fellow farmers that I can make a good living from this venture they will follow. It just takes a little bit of imagination. If you sit down long enough to dream you can make anything happen.”
Visit the Green Acres Facebook page
Eric San Dee Chong was a delegate at the Slow Food Asia Pacific Festival.