By Kuah Guan Oo
Photo by Mohd Hasrul Hamdan
SERDANG, 24 April (UPM) – To the staff and students of Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), they would know what you are talking about when you talk about the” farm” in their campus.
But to the outsiders, the “farm” is an amazing 426 hectares (or 1,022 acres) of undulating land in Taman Pertanian Universiti (TPU or University Agriculture Park) that has been devoted to agriculture and animal husbandry for education, research and training purposes for more than half a century.
Through all these years from the time of the British colonial masters to now, thousands upon thousands of UPM agricultural graduates had cut their teeth or honed their shills at the farm, as the institution evolved from a school to an institute, college and then to a full-fledged multi-disciplinary research university.
From this faithful test bed of Malaysian agriculture, it is not an exaggeration to say that its graduates had gone out to help build the nation, where they had played a big role in shaping up the nation’s agriculture, particularly the rubber and palm oil industry that are the envy of other countries.
These young men and women had also played a role in guiding the paddy farmers of Kedah and Perlis to undertake double cropping when the Muda irrigation scheme came on stream in the late 1960s, changing the lives of these farmers for the better.
“The farm had seen its good and bad days, its ups and downs in history,” said Prof Dr Abdul Shukor Juraimi, the Dean of the Agriculture Faculty as he outlined the new role for the TPU to play in the coming days.
At the height of its heydays, the farm had coffee, tea and cocoa plantations among the other leading crops like rubber and palm oil. The fruit orchards like durians and rambutans were what made UPM well-known among the folks in the Klang Valley.
However, as the Government changed its economic focus to industrialization, the farm which was a cost centre was relegated to a minor role.
“But now the new Vice Chancellor, Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Fauzi Ramlan, has given us the task of transforming the farm with new functions so that it can be profitable and sustainable,” said Prof Shukor, adding that agriculture is still UPM’s niche and core business.
“We have to look into how we can generate better returns so that the students can immerse themselves and learn farm management, ROI (returns on investment) and what it takes, for example, to maintain a hectare of palm oil.
“We know we may not be as competitive as the private sector but the UPM farm should be able to run on its own steam and continue to be a test bed for Malaysian agriculture,” he said.
He was also quick to add that the transformation would not be an easy task and is likely to take some years to achieve, as the plants and trees take months and years to grow before bearing fruits.
For example, the UPM experts started tinkering with rock melons some 20 years ago and the first fruits were rather tasteless. But now the crop which used to be imported, are not only home-grown but they have also attained a sweetness of 12 or 13 brix (a measurement of sugar in the fruit), similar to the imported ones.
Another feather in the farm’s cap is the saTiri turf grass used in golf courses. Dubbed the superdwarf grass, its darker green colour lends a more luxurious look to golf courses, not to mention its prowess as more tolerant to water stress and shade.
Among the golf courses using the saTiri are Templer’s Park, Damai Golf Club, and UPM golf course while the Bayu lawn bowl in Klang and the Sepang lawn bowl are also using the same grass.
From the farm, Prof Shukor also said they managed to obtain a cross-breed between the Malayan fowl or ayam kampung with their wild cousins (ayam hutan or jungle fowl). The new breed called akar putra is bigger and grows faster.
It was also from the farm that UPM scientists successfully propagated orchids in test-tubes in a sort of cloning from a piece of leaf or any tissue. The method which had filtered down to private orchid farms today ensures that the orchid flowers are almost exactly the same as the mother plant’s, as against the uncertainties when grown from seeds.
In its heydays, the farm was much bigger than it is today, said the Director of TPU, Prof. Dr Abd. Wahid Haron, noting that they had hundreds of heads of cattle, buffaloes, goats and all types of table birds then.
The farm had grown smaller to make way for developments like new faculties, the highways and the URL linking KL Sentral to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
“We have started to think of generating incomes from our farm, especially from our fruits and vegetables though our core business is still teaching and research,” he said.
There are rare fruits and herbs in the farm like the Brazilian nuts, nutmegs and the “mahkota dewa”, a small tree with fruits said to be a portent cure for high-blood pressure and cholesterol.
“We shall be sending our excess produce to our Food Science and Technology Faculty for them to see how they can utilize them for the market or to their L’apprenti Restaurant for the students to serve up new dishes,” he said.
Prof Wahid said his department is a service sector and it is up to the various faculties, institutes and centres of UPM to decide what, and how they want to use the farm.
“Our role is to serve them, from getting the raw materials to planting, up to the pre-commercialisation stage,” he added.
One staff who has been doing this job over the last 30 years and would not trade it for any other is Hj Abdul Ghani Hashim, the divisional head of TPU.
He said the farm presently served 13 institutes and faculties which have a combined total of 26 courses.
With an average of 80 students per course, there are some 2,080 students who would make use of the farm as a test bed for their studies and research work.
Depending on their areas of studies, there are also machineries to plough fields, 76 hectares for nursery, horticulture and floriculture for those keen on flowers and decorative plants; 54 hectares of palm oil; 3.5 hectares for covered sheds for poultry farming, and 100 hectares for vegetable, goat, deer, horse or equine farming.
“Our vegetable farm is accredited by the Agriculture Department for practising the best farming practices,” said Ghani.
For their daily work, he and his staff of over 200 have to meet the needs of the lecturers and students for whatever work they want to do on the farm, including another 160 hectares of farmland in nearby Puchong.
They also have to take care and maintain all the trees and all the greenery in the campus.
“Of course, we have outsource some of the maintenance works like grass-cutting but we have to take care of all the potted plants, trees and greenery around the faculties and institutes here,” he said.
A drive around the farms with its valleys, streams, ponds and lakes is a refreshing experience since it is only about 20 minutes by car from Kuala Lumpur.
The farm is enormous as it is contained within the main UPM campus measuring another 1,047 hectares. Over and above all these, is another 1,345 hectares of forest reserve in nearby Air Hitam.
To Ghani and his staff, the recent directive to get the “farm” to generate income is like a catalyst to rejuvenate the lands and the greenery around them.
They have been selling their produce at a sales office within the campus and people in the know would come in for their fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meat like chickens and quails, besides compost, fruit cordial and saplings of fruit trees.
But this is not enough for him. “We want to improve the image of the university by showcasing the best farm practices but we need financial support from the board,” he said.
He also said the TPU would provide every support needed by the Agriculture Faculty as it launched its campaign to get urban residents to take up urban agriculture. – upm
For enquiries, plse contact:
Prof. Dr Abd. Wahid Haron
Phone: +603 8946 73901
43400 UPM Serdang
Selangor Darul Ehsan