Little farm big heart

About 40 minutes away from the dense conurbation of Kuala Lumpur lies a farm. It’s hard to believe that so much fertile beauty can exist so close to the heart of the city… but it doesn’t just exist, it thrives and hums with life.

Here, birdsong fills your ears the second you get out of your car, green is the colour du jour everywhere your eyes choose to feast and your nasal passages are assailed by air so clean, it almost smells sweet.

The name of this charming hideaway? A Little Farm on the Hill (how cute is that?). The organic farm in Janda Baik, Pahang has actually been around for just over 10 years, but in the past three, architect Lisa Ngan and her husband, singer-songwriter Pete Teo, have taken over the running of it from Ngan’s parents.

The husband and wife have also given the 2.4ha farm a little bit of a facelift, terracing it to prevent nutrients from leaching out of the soil, and adding a private dining area and home-made smoker to showcase the farm’s produce.

“I’ve always really enjoyed cooking, even though I’m not trained, so initially it started off as a kind of an eating thing based in the farm. Eventually, I took over and ended up looking after the farm as well. And it was a slow process, but I think we both surprised ourselves at how much we enjoyed being out of the city, because we’re actually very urban people,” says Ngan.

Teo adds that they sort of fell into the lifestyle and couldn’t be happier, even though it is worlds away from the corporate and media machines they’d grown accustomed to. “We didn’t really start out as necessarily wanting to have a full-fledged farm-to-table business. It was essentially a lifestyle choice which morphed into this. And it’s been a good thing, a fantastic decision we’ve made,” he says.

Ngan’s experience as an architect helped in the design element of the dining areas and even the farm itself, and she incorporated sustainable building material into the aesthetics. In the dining area, timber logs are in evidence and the rustic wooden building fits in seamlessly with its surroundings. “For the terracing, all the stones were gathered from here. The timber logs are from here as well – basically when cutting in the road, we had to take some trees down, so we saved them and used them,” she says.

Although blending in with nature is great in theory, it can be a hard fact to reconcile with when you’re used to everyday urban amenities. Which is why the place has also been designed with creature comforts in mind (the sparkling modern bathroom is proof positive of that). Teoh says this is a calculated move designed to appease him and Ngan, as well as city-dwellers looking for a slice of paradise without the ensuing back-to-basics that nature may command.

“A lot of it is us bringing in what we would like if we were to live here. You want a place to be neat and clean and have the comforts. You don’t want to come here and suffer – we’re not into suffering!” says Teo.

What’s on offer
The farm has organic certification and over 90 different crops in its inventory. At any given time, it generally produces between 40 and 50 different kinds of vegetables like heirloom tomatoes, brinjal, leafy Chinese vegetables, lettuce, cabbage, chayote and cucumber, to name a few.

The heirloom tomatoes, in particular, are something the couple is especially proud of; they exemplify their never-say-die philosophy. Teo says most tomatoes in Malaysia are traditionally grown via the hydroponic method, as there is bacteria in the soil that kills them otherwise. He and Ngan spent two years trying to perfect heirloom tomatoes grown in soil, before finally discovering the recipe for success: a pau steamer!

“We steam the soil with second-hand pau steamers before we cultivate it, and that solves the problem. But again, it takes a long time and is a lot of labour,” says Teo.

It is this dedication to getting things right that has attracted the attention of some of KL’s hottest restaurants, like Dewakan and Sitka, which both get their vegetables from the farm. “There are a few others, which we would like to work with, because it’s always fun to work with chefs, they’re interesting people and they want us to grow very specific things for them,” says Ngan.

The produce they grow for chefs varies and includes roses, sorrel, marigold and various herbs and vegetables, some of which traditionally require foraging. Dewakan chef Darren Teoh (a strong proponent of the locavore movement) is particularly interested in local herbs, while other chefs require specifically-sized salad leaves.

While more restaurants are trying to get in-house vegetable gardens off the ground, Ngan says this can sometimes be a pipe dream – one reason that A Little Farm on the Hill has become such an attractive option.

“Although many restaurants like the idea of growing their own vegetables and herbs, in reality, it seldom makes financial or operational sense. Growing produce with consistent quality and supply takes more expertise and dedication than most people realise. So our chef customers turn to us as a trusted outsourced supplier. We have resources at the farm to do things that would be impractical in a restaurant operation,” says Ngan.

Teo says that ultimately, the chefs at these restaurants value good produce and appreciate what the farm is capable of doing, as well as the fact that they can pop by and see for themselves how everything is grown.

“Part of the reason that chefs do this is that they want to know where it’s coming from and if it’s a trusted source. That’s an important element to sourcing organic food, because you want to know what’s gone into it,” says Teo.

The farm has also been supplying vegetables like beans, asparagus and okra to Justlife under the Enderong Farm label, continuing a long-standing working relationship initiated by Ngan’s parents.

“We have a big variety, but quite small quantities, that go to Justlife. Basically, they take whatever we send them – there’s no specific quantity. It works very well for us – it’s a good relationship,” says Ngan.

Farm realities
For all its bucolic allure, the realities of running an organic farm are often quite grim. According to Ngan, the general rule of thumb is that for every one worker in a conventional farm, three are required on an organic farm because of the volume of manual labour needed. Everything has to be done by hand – even things like weeding – because no pesticide is used.

Ngan and Teo also had a steep hill to climb in terms of learning how to grow things, as neither had any prior experience. “We’re Google farmers – we Google everything! People laugh when we say that, they think we’re joking. We’re not! When we started, we knew nothing about farming. I didn’t even know what compost was!” says Teo.

Ngan says that even though it was tough learning how to farm, it has been enjoyable. She discovered the joy of not having a deadline or pushing to get things done, because nature rules the success of the farm’s produce and there is little that she or Teo can do to either expedite things or slow them down in any way.

At the farm, crop rotation is practised, with vegetable beds rotated every 18 months. According to Teo, there is a very specific reason for this. “Different crops do different things to the soil, and use different nutrients. For example, corn uses a lot of nitrogen from the soil, so you want to plant a legume before you plant corn, because that fixes nitrogen into the soil,” he says.

Because spraying pesticide is out of the question, other remedies have to be applied instead. Like Epsom salts to address a magnesium deficiency in the soil, baking soda used as a fungicide and neem oil as a natural pesticide.

It’s not an easy process, and a large part of being first-time organic farmers is making mistakes and eventually learning from them.

“Sometimes you try all sorts of stuff, and it doesn’t work and the only solution available to you is ‘Oh, we’re gonna stop growing this for six months.’ Because obviously the pests and diseases are crop-specific, so there’s sometimes no point fighting it,” says Teo.

Learning the intricacies of running their farm has given Teo and Ngan added appreciation for full-time farmers, as they now understand how hard it is in practice.

“What we both have is a newfound respect for people who do this properly. We’re in a very lucky situation where we have an income from doing this, and we have this lovely organic farm, but the reality is that we’re not reliant on selling vegetables to making a living,” adds Ngan.

Plans for the future
Interest in A Little Farm on the Hill has skyrocketed, so much so that Teo and Ngan are making incremental expansion plans. First on their to-do list is the construction of a house for themselves on the property. At the moment, they commute daily, but have grown so fond of farm living that they want to live there permanently.

Next on the cards is accommodation for people who would like to stay in the farm’s surreal, peaceful setting. Apparently, they’ve received loads of requests for this, which is why their plan is to complete the homes (about 10) by the first quarter of next year.

“There are a lot of requests for it, and I can understand why, because being here is a totally different experience at night. Jungles are noisy places – you imagine them being quiet, but they’re not actually, with all those insects. If you look up on a clear night, you can see the entire sky filled with stars. You can see the moon,” says Teo.

The two are also planning to incorporate more community activities on the farm. Things like gardening and terrarium-building lessons. “I think that’s what we enjoy and I think that’s what the community needs – something different,” says Teo.

A Little Farm on the Hill, www.alittlefarmonthehill.com

The Star2, Published: JULY 18, 2016
People are talking about this little organic farm

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