Texas Tech University

Professor Heads Research Project to Bring Sustainable, Environmentally Advantageous Agricultural Program to Malaysia

George Watson

January 29, 2019

Michael Farmer is an environmental economist in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.

It's not often that a researcher can walk into a grocery store and, literally, see the fruits of his work.

But Michael Farmer can, and has. The fruits he has helped plant and cultivate a half a world away in Malaysia have found their way to the produce aisle in Malaysia and, hopefully soon, in Lubbock. And while that's a point of pride for the environmental economist and associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, it's just the beginning.

What started out as a long-term research focus shortly after attaining tenure has turned into a passion to help the people of Malaysia develop a sustainable source of income and improve their overall economy. Farmer has done this by instituting a program to grow and sell native fruits while also reversing decades of abuse to the land that has left some of it unable to support agriculture.

"How can we turn back some of the aggressive land use that is impairing the environment, especially where people are living, and begin generating a high-value product?" Farmer asked. "Niche markets get high value and can, potentially, do this. So we looked at a plan to grow indigenous fruits that have a very high commercial value."

Michael Farmer, left, poses outside the BONCO Virgin Coconut Oil wholesaler in Kudat, Malaysia. He is working with Malaysian farmers to develop a more sustainable agriculture program.

Over the last seven years, Farmer has seen this project go from testing products to see if they would grow to now being on the verge of creating a sustainable economic market for the people of Borneo, an island in the Southeast Asian Malay Archipelago. He also has helped turn a degraded, overgrown forest into farmland capable of growing enough fruit to create a viable economic product.

The work has earned him a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to establish a baseline to determine if their efforts have the desired environmental effects on the land being used in the Borneo region of Malaysia. It also recently garnered him a Fulbright award that has allowed him to take the next step in establishing the sustainability of this program.

"If we can get the market right, and that's what the Fulbright is about, then the institutional economists who come in will tell the government 'the institutions you have right now guarantee poverty to those people,'" Farmer said. "We had to have a project that had done enough work to suggest, from a business management perspective and ecological perspective, that our idea makes sense. There are some things that have to change to make this workable, and that's what I've been working on, pretty much, these last two years."

Finding the niche

Farmer's interest in Malaysia began from a chance to deliver remarks at three different conferences in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, in about a two-week span in December 2011. The conferences dealt with issues such as marine fisheries, sustainable fisheries and forestry, all related to the field of natural resources management.

During these conferences, issues surrounding land use and land management kept popping up, piquing Farmer's interest. The main issue was trying to turn around land that had been denuded to the point it was barely, or no longer, viable as a growing region. The northern part of Borneo island, which is part of Malaysia, kept coming up as a potential location.

Farmer is passionate about his work.

The following year, Farmer went back to Malaysia to try to find a place in Borneo where he could research the best methods to not only bring the land back as a fertile growing option, but also do so in a way that could generate revenue for the people in the area. He wanted an area that was not overtaken by poverty, where the people weren't facing starvation and where the project would cause no harm.

He found the right area, a 40-mile stretch between two mountain ranges on Borneo, that he said, come together to form the highest peak between the Himalayan Mountains and New Guinea. The valley had high-sloping mountains on each side that formed a nice, contained space, and they had been over-farmed to the point they were no longer useful and had been grown over by the jungle. The areas that were being farmed were generating low-value crops that didn't benefit either the people or the land.

"I talked to them, and everyone was very generous," Farmer said. "It took about two years, and it was clear they were spending too much time on a product that wasn't going anywhere, and it wasn't a product that was good for the environment, either."

Farmer and his fellow researchers decided on the indigenous fruits of the Borneo region – mangosteen, rambutan and soursop, for example – because they were hard to find, even in stores in Borneo. Some of these fruits are considered "superfoods" because of their high-quality health content. They contain high concentrations of vitamins E and C and are high in fiber.

The idea is to not concentrate on one fruit – in order to spread the potential economic risk – while also hoping to get some cross-complementarities in production to keep pests down, preserve the soil and generate income at different times of year. It also will help economically in that the processing plants needed for harvesting and distribution would be open for longer periods of time. That way, small producers do not have to compete with huge single-crop processing plants that operate for 45-50 days each year.

So the niche is there. The easy part was discovering it. The hard part was getting all the necessary pieces to come together.

Roadblocks along the way

While the opportunities in Malaysia are high, so are the potential pitfalls for this project, not the least of which is the soil itself.

With the help of Texas Tech researcher David Weindorf, Farmer has been able to show that the depth of the fungi in the soil needed to grow effectively is only about a half-inch thick in many places around his proposed site. The roots of plants grow sideways instead of down to take advantage of those fungi.

There also are areas where there are fungi detrimental to plant- and tree-growth mixed in with the good fungi. Rather than spray to kills the bad fungi, petri dishes can be placed around the area to see which of the good fungi can kill the bad, kind of like giving the soil a flu shot. This, however, takes years.

"We are in the infancy of those things, and we're going to have some setbacks," Farmer said. "So there are some areas that we would probably not be able to bring back for quite a while. All we can do is keep a cover on it."

Also, while clearing a hill, care has to be taken to make sure that the bamboo that holds the hillside up is immediately removed once it is cut. Farmer said bamboo is a very thermal entity and will kill a lot of the life in the topsoil if just left there.

Farmer speaks to a class at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah.

Even if everything comes to fruition with the project on the local level, there's still the matter of selling the product. One concern in that area for Farmer is there isn't as much of an American business presence in Malaysia as there could be despite the fact that he sees plenty of opportunities there. Pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been a contributing factor, and China has stepped in, Farmer said, to fill much of the financing gap, although it could have been more advantageous for the local people working with American investors.

That is why Farmer feels that, eventually, much of the market for their products will be in Southeast Asia and China. It will be harder to export these products to the U.S., so he feels Hong Kong will be a better market as a conduit into China, which could then open up Chinese assistance for other aspects of the project, such as road repair for the large refrigerated truck needed to transport the fruits.

And speaking of that truck, finding insurance for it is crucial to make sure the truck can be serviced when it breaks down, as well as having someone who can properly keep it operating so the fruits aren't spoiled. And there's no guarantee of being reimbursed for a breakdown even if the insurance is available and used.

But the real key is getting the buy-in from local farmers and officials. While it has been slow, progress is starting to show in that area.

The problem with convincing officials in areas where people are not starving or facing rampant poverty is they could be doing better.

"Part of the disadvantage when making these reforms is all officials have to do is say, 'Look at our neighbors. We're so much better off than they are,'" Farmer said. "I'm not totally critical of that. There's a certain appeal to that where they can say, 'this reform is wrong because nobody is starving and 20 miles over that way, they are.' So it makes them a little conservative."

Plus, Farmer said, clearing a hillside with a 50 percent or higher grade, and getting rid of all 40 years of jungle growth just to plant some fruit trees is backbreaking work. But one thing recently has helped the project: an overturn of the Malaysian government that ended 61 years of rule by as single coalition. The new government is very open to Farmer's proposals.

Environmental benefits

Starting around 2013, the former government paid people to plant and harvest rubber trees, and even offered to clear the land for them. But there is little market value in rubber, plus the government owned all the rubber-processing plants in the country and also would give subsidies to their friends to keep the plants open.

The Universiti Malaysia Sabah recognized Farmer's work there with a commemorative plaque.

In planting rubber, however, the hillsides were ravaged. Farmer already knows their plan will be much better than that in the long run, even if it gets a little worse in the near term.

But to make sure Farmer's plan has a positive environmental impact, the NSF grant that establishes a baseline of the soil will tell him just how they are affecting it and how they need to adjust along the way to bring the soil back to life. He's also hoping the vegetation they add will help bring back the rain lost to deforestation in some areas.

"Once we look at it 10 years from now, we will have a very credible case to say what we have done and what we haven't," Farmer said. "I don't think we can sell the product overseas without that. I think we'll have the answer to that and be on the positive side, and I don't know of a single case where that has happened, where someone put up a full agroforestry program and tested on it."

Work to be done

Even after seven years of work, this research project is still in its relative infancy. But after studying all the potential economic and environmental impacts, the project is moving into the agricultural part – managing and advising local farmers and setting the platform and baseline to conduct tests.

Farmer's next step is to work with local farmers and conduct tests.

That, Farmer said, is where he needs the assistance of agricultural scientists and a large grant to handle the scientific developments, and that is his current pursuit.

In terms of getting the local farmers and administrators on board, Farmer is confident his project is resonating well. In 2015, the government established a local community college with a focus on agriculture in order to train lab technicians to perform tests on soil. Farmer said local officials have indicated their desire to establish their Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) processes around agriculture since it is so prevalent and for it to be a conduit to the way they teach chemistry, biology, physics and geosciences.

Farmer said it is not a process that can be done by Malaysians alone. They need help from investors from the U.S., or elsewhere, willing to help push the program.

"It is a long-term program, and I believe it will work," Farmer said. "People will sustain a system through time if it provides well over time, not just to get through for their lifetime, but thrive so their children can go to college and find it profitable to return home. That should be our aspiration."