JB farmer, 30, gave up family retail business to grow bananas: 'Unlike people, my trees won’t cheat me.'

Is he bananas? Maybe not.

Joshua Lee | | Sponsored | August 03, 2023, 10:40 AM

Are you someone who enjoys eating bananas?

Chances are, you don’t pay much attention to the bananas that arrive at our markets and supermarkets, nor how they’re cultivated and the people who grow them.

Huang Ren Yi is a 30-year-old Malaysian farmer who cultivates bananas in the outskirts of Johor.

Originally meant to join his parents in the photo-printing business, Huang decided on a different route because he felt that the family business was not easy to sustain.

After completing his secondary education, Huang packed his bags and travelled to Taiwan to study agriculture.

His time spent overseas marked the start of his career as a banana farmer.

When he returned to Johor, Huang worked for a Malaysian farming cooperative and distributor before he decided to strike out on his own.

Huang is now his own boss, cultivating bananas for export to Singapore.

He grows mainly Cavendish and Berangan bananas—varieties which are popular among Singaporeans—as well as palm oil as an intercrop on a 36-acre plot of land.

Harvesting bananas

Showing us around his farm, Huang gave us a peek at his farm operations.

Amidst the lush, verdant leaves of a banana tree, a blue plastic bag encased a cluster of ripening bananas.

Huang uses a low-cost method to identify which clusters are ready for harvesting.

This also gives him a rough gauge of how many bananas he would be harvesting in any given week.

“This one will be ready soon,” he said, while tugging at a piece of raffia string attached to the cluster.

“When the tree starts flowering, we will attach a piece of raffia string to it. We use strings of different colours to differentiate between flowers that open at different times.”

From the time the banana tree starts flowering, it takes about 75 to 80 days before its fruit is ready for harvesting.

That period of time is extremely crucial for the developing fruit which requires careful monitoring and protection.

That’s where the blue plastic bag comes in.

“The plastic bag protects the bananas from pests that damage the banana skins. It also shields the fruit from direct sunlight. Direct sun causes the developing bananas to darken which affects my selling price.”

Huang is also very mindful about the delicate banana skins when harvesting the fruit.

During harvest time, his men use bolsters to cushion the heavy clusters of bananas while carrying them on their shoulders.

After harvesting, the bananas are treated to a gentle bath where the sticky sap on the fruit is washed off.

This prevents the bananas from turning brown when the sap is exposed to air.

“It’s really like caring for a baby. You cannot scratch it, you must handle it gently,” Huang said with a laugh.

Small scratches or discolouration will affect the grade—and subsequently the selling price—of the bananas.

Grade A bananas can fetch a price of RM2.20 (S$0.64) per kilogram.

The price drops to RM1.50 (S$0.44) for Grade B bananas, and then RM0.40 (S$0.12) for Grade C bananas.

Typically, retailers won't even consider Grade C bananas.

Those are usually rejected, said Huang.

For farmers, they represent months of wasted effort:

“We invest a lot into growing these crops but once they are rejected, it means that they are worthless.”

It’s especially hard for farmers like Huang because they run small-scale operations that do not have access to technology used by bigger farms.

For instance, big banana farms overseas have cableways to transport harvested bananas, minimising contact to keep the fruits pristine.

Dependent on the weather

Huang’s farm is irrigated naturally by rainfall—a blessing in this part of the world.

But when the weather gets erratic, Huang falls back on water from a mini man-made reservoir.

No bigger than a basketball court, the reservoir draws water from a nearby stream and pumps it to the 18,000 trees on the farm.

However, it is not foolproof.

An uncommonly dry spell in early May this year depleted the reservoir and dried out the stream, causing some of Huang’s trees to die.

He had to undertake a replanting programme to recover his losses.

“We rely on the weather in this line of work. There’s really nothing you can do,” he said.

Things like this are out of his control, obviously, but Huang takes it in his stride because he loves his work:

“It’s very different from my time in retail. I didn’t enjoy having to deal with people all the time. Now, I just have to deal with trees, which is a lot easier. If I treat my trees well, they give me fruit in return. Unlike people, my trees won’t cheat me.”

To Huang, this work is very meaningful because he is able to transform this empty plot of land into a banana farm and harvest the fruit for others to enjoy.

Huang’s story is one that is familiar to many farmers in Malaysia but typically unseen by consumers on this side of the Causeway.

If you would like to learn more about the people behind the food that we eat, local non-profit organisation My Community has a series of tours that take you behind the scenes to farms, distribution centres, and wholesalers in Johor.

Aside from Huang’s banana farm, you will get a chance to visit farms that cultivate papaya, prawns, and durians.

Tour Dates: Aug. 5, 6, 12, 13, 19 and 20

Ticket Prices: S$30 to S$40

Tour details can be found here.

These tours are part of the MY-SG series, which is one of the eight programme series under the My Community Festival.

Check out more programmes by My Community Festival here.

This sponsored article by My Community reminded this writer that he had to get bananas.

All images by Mothership.