How is "My Kampung Life" the Most Extreme Rural Microfarm in Malaysia?

This rural permaculture microfarm is forged by grit under the most difficult conditions imaginable. These conditions discussed are to be collectively seen as one interdependent complex network of reasons to the question above, and should not be taken out of context to be appreciated discretely. They serve to provide an honest account of the struggles we face, in hopes of shedding light on why things are done the way they are. Hopefully, they help inform the very characteristics that shape this unique farm into being what it is, as it evolves. More importantly, they contribute to better understanding why real and hardcore natural farming as a profession continues to evade the younger generation. (Updated 8 Jun 2021).

1. Turning 40 years old by mid 2021 : Successful farming/homesteading is often associated with financially sound people between the ages of 55-70 who are either semi/retired or with good network connections.

2. Being a non-professional : I’m no architect, engineer, lawyer, doctor nor any other profession that would naturally allow me the financial prowess into this cash-zapping venture.

3. No savings/inheritance + financially-challenged : I’ve exhausted my life’s savings (and eating into my EPF retirement funds) to build a farm without any safety net, except say for my wife as this farming venture is a partnership with my better half. As both middle income folks, we have finite resources. Currently the farm is very much sustained by her wage-earning corporate job, and less so, my business.

4. No financial assistance : Not only are we broke, my wife and I are doing this without any financial support from friends or investors, not even our own family. This is solely a 2 persons endeavour. When it comes to project ownership, direction and accountability on money matters, we deem it best to be answerable only to ourselves without troubling others and complicating matters.

5. Land fully owned : We do not believe in farming on leased or TOL lands. With all due respect to many successful farmers who have done so for 40 years or more, we are rather conservative instead. Infrastructure cost money and we are not about to be losing them all upon eviction if we don’t own the space upon which we build. Consequently, we depleted our savings to purchase the land. How are we then going to develop the land if we don’t have money left and if borrowing is not an option?

6. The immense pressure to perform : With no money and no one to help, the onus then is on me to quickly monetize the land. Cash crop? Go for high yield specialty produce? Derive income from farm visits or perhaps co-host paid permaculture design courses? Easier said than done. Travel, food, equipment, fuel, building materials; they all cost money. Many fail to see that it takes money to make money. My livelihood depends on the farm generating some sales. As such, it is not a hobby or showcase farm. Thus, I’m farming because my life depends on it. Unfortunately, running a farm means being prepared to not see any returns from your investments for a number of years. With a looming pandemic, stifled business opportunities and burdensome city bills to pay, earnings are greatly affected. But wait, money aside, how about the labour?

7. I can’t be at the farm 24/7 : I am but one person. Unfortunately, I have a family to be with in the city, a 3 year old toddler in tow, loads of bills to pay and a struggling business to care for. Had it not been for the bills to pay and a myriad of other urban attachments, uprooting would have been easy (not that I’m complaining. That’s just my personal circumstance that I need to embrace and work around with). Generating a sizeable and consistent yield for sale (commercially and to sustain full time; not as a hobby) is virtually impossible if I’m not based at the farm. Even if I am, how much can I accomplish alone? Not much really. Hence, the challenge on me is to progress incrementally when I make the weekly touch and go to the farm. Now how long is that going to take? Well perhaps I can get a worker to help out, but wait, I have limited funds to hire someone! Maybe the government can help?

8. Bureaucracy : My first attempt to apply for a foreign worker was turned down by JTKSM for really vague and strange reasons and being “not qualified” for a foreign worker because 2-acre of land is “too small” to justify having a worker. Second attempt; no response even after having met the officer in charge and subsequent exchange of emails. There’s always a prevailing disparaging notion towards polyculture/permaculture farms being a “hobby” farm that has no commercial viability in producing food for the masses. Unfortunately, the text book guide dictates a land space of X has to produce Y amount of Z food type to qualify for a certain number of worker(s). So without a legal foreign worker, how can this work?

9. Lack of technical knowledge : Let’s take a breather and a step back to focus on the modifiable factors in hopes of being positive. Perhaps, despite lack of funds/support and my non-constant presence at the farm, I can short-circuit the entire process by having the right knowledge in farming. I could. But that takes time with all the trials and errors experienced and resulting monies loss. Yes, it’s a learning process but I can’t keep on “learning” and making expensive mistakes. Not having the network connections with the right people to speed up the process dampens things a bit. No easy way out. School of hard knocks indeed.

10. Difficult terrain : Between a rock and a hard place it is. The farm is roughly 70% hilly and 30% flat. Lack of full sun areas on flat land makes planting and building difficult. About half of the entire farm space is under shade cast by tall 20+ years old durian trees. Lack of sunlight penetration limits my planting choices. The other half’s soil condition and health leaves much to be desired.

11. The rigours of natural farming : I have from the very beginning envision a farming setup where no external input is required. This means making my own fertilizer, pesticides, composts, probiotics and even animal feed. However hard I try, this is not possible, at least in the near future. I’m still purchasing broken rice and rice bran for the chickens and ducks. I resort to scraps and food waste to feed them and make my own BSFL. I still venture out of the farm to obtain dry grass for the coop when we run out of bedding materials. Some of our compost materials are from commercial wet markets. While the source is questionable, survival is immediacy as long as there’s no/minimal money spent. Regardless, we ensure a 100% natural farming method employed. For example, our chickens and ducks are not fed a trace of commercial pellets because we believe they are to feed on natural food. Most poultry farms in Malaysia feed their chickens with likely imported GMO corn and soy. Doing things naturally with manual labour is so much tougher (but more fulfilling). Even though the benefits of natural products are well known, can I make a sale?

12. One-man show : Farming is just one part of the equation. Selling is another. When I try selling, only do I realise why was there ever a need for a middle man. With small acreage, labour issues, limitation of product offering (by type and amount) and technical challenge of producing specialty crops in time, the only way for me to survive is to sell premium and direct to niched consumers. With no fancy packaging, marketing gimmicks, advertising budget and social persona/presence, a happy and loyal customer gained is as precious as a gem. Barrier to securing buy-in from prospective customers is prohibitively high. Thereafter, the effort involved to ensuring customer retention is even more difficult as a small-scale farmer. If I have to plant, harvest, grade, weigh, package, sell and deliver after pitching for sale, what time is there left to actually farm and manage my overalls? In a nutshell, because we are small, I have to do everything by myself from A-Z.