A family of three set out to live in a traditional kampong house surrounded by durian and other fruit trees in Balik Pulau, Penang. Asian Property Review finds out from Kim and Eric Chong of Green Acres Orchard and Ecolodge how it’s working out for them.
What is the inspiration and vision behind Green Acres Orchard and Ecolodge?
What started as a back- to-nature experience for our young son (he was 4 when we bought the farm), has morphed into what is now Green Acres. As we invited friends with children our son’s age to the farm to share the experience with him, a number of like- minded friends encouraged us to open up our farm to share our nature inspired experience.
Why pick Balik Pulau in Penang as your location?
We wanted an area which was elevated enough so that we could enjoy the coolness of the evening and a place where it was isolated enough so that we could have some privacy. We do not have a resort. It’s just a 16-acre farm with a restored kampong house with an attached tree house. We restored another kampong house about 4 years ago to cater to day visitors.
What are the eco activities that are offered at your farm?
During durian season, we offer a tour of the farm and durian tasting. Those who book either the main house or the tree house with us get a better feel of what it is like to actually live in a fruit orchard with durians falling all around them especially during the peak of durian season. And if their ears are up to it, they can get the long version of why we should live a more sustainable lifestyle starting with the most basic of all needs – providing safe food for the family. How competitive is this business in Penang?
I don’t have the figures for this. But from the response that we are getting from our discerning guests, experiential tourism is what they are looking for.
Who are mostly your visitors?
More than 50% of our visitors are foreigners with a big percentage of that from Singapore. Every year, we have to put in more time at the farm as we have more visitors. Word of mouth and genuine bloggers who believe in sustainable farming have helped us tremendously.
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Durian is the star attraction at your resort. Which ones are the most popular at your orchard?
Every year, we have different favourites due to the microclimatic changes and possibly the impact of the different types of compost we amend the soil with. Safest bet is to find out which tree the squirrels are feasting on.
What are some of the most unique features of your farm?
What attracted us to this farm was that when we viewed the farm from across the hill, it was the greenest property. The 16 acres of green patch matched the topo map we carried with us. The neighbouring farms were all blotches of brown due to spraying of weedicides.
To top this chemical free land, it had its own pure spring water and a little stream running through the land. With a myriad of mature fruit trees to feed us and good supply of water, all we needed was shelter to complete our basic needs. With lots of help from family and friends, we managed to dismantle two kampong houses and reassembled them at our farm. The main house is semi solar powered. I would say that Green Acres provides the experience of a low carbon footprint lifestyle.
How do you manage to keep the orchard chemical- free all these years?
Every year, we learn a little bit more from people who are willing to share their chemical free farming methods with us and apply them. The key is a willingness to apply what we have learnt, to make mistakes and to do it better the next round hopefully. It takes a lot of extra experimenting to find chemical free methods which are suitable for the conditions and plants of our farm but we think that it’s been a worthwhile venture with our regulars telling us that our fruits have improved through the years.
The best testament of positive change is when our caretaker who was the previous farmer said that the trees have looked so much better since we made our own compost and fertilizer. The leaves are darker green and the fruits taste better with each year. These are his words. We had no prior experience with farming so we think that we are on the right track keeping the farm chemical free.
Is the farm fully self-sufficient including using solar power and rain harvesting system?
We do not have enough solar power for the whole farm yet. With a bit more investment, we’ll get to the point where we are 90% self-sufficient. We have not had to look into rain harvesting extensively as we have our own spring water which for now is sufficient for the whole farm. Having said that, we will rely on rain harvesting when we anticipate an oncoming drought. Do you think more people are going into farming for a more sustainable and healthy lifestyle?
Farming is not a sexy vocation to get into. Most Penang farmers are not being replaced by their children who prefer to work in factories or be closer to where the action is as it is getting harder to eke out a living with just farming. With land prices soaring, unpredictability of harvest due to climate changes and middlemen and retailers taking a big chunk of the farmers’ earnings, it comes as no surprise that few of the younger generation are working the land.
Are there new projects you are working on?
These are the two we are working on:
To turn the tide, to make farming more sexy, wehope that the sustainability model that Green Acres is pursuing will catch on. We believe that there’s a market for people paying to live with sustainably minded farmers for a couple of days and be fed what the farmers eat. Good safe food from a trustworthy source is key. Staying at a farm in a traditionally built home, learning the local culture and eating local food are much sought after by these new travellers who seek experiences. Our model shows that a larger percentage of our farm income comes from people who stay with us during weekends.
Creating a community of like-minded people who are willing to make the farm their holiday home. Allow a few people to lease out parcels of land and build their small homes on one- acre lots. The farmer continues to look after theland and plants while making use of proceeds from the lease to maintain the farm. The lessee gets to eat, sleep and share the joys of a back to nature lifestyle without having to worry about the maintenance of the farm.
There are currently farms which lease out parcels of land but they work it by per square foot. We haven’t worked out any pricing for our farm as we haven’t actively promoted this concept yet. Once there is an interest, we can negotiate with the interested party and perhaps set the precedence for other farms.
The upside of these two projects when they succeed are that our farms will be chemical free. Our land will be less prone to landslides. Our streams, rivers and seas will be chemical free. We will have food and water which are as pure during our forefathers’ time.
Is this wishful thinking? Maybe.