Jerome Ragavan was never into gardening but the idea of farming somehow intrigued him. It was not the most likely option for the engineer who was in manufacturing for over 30 years, till he was retrenched when the semiconductor plant he pioneered in Shah Alam, Selangor, closed down in 2014. But these days, the former managing director is fully occupied with how plants grow and is fascinated with farming technologies.
“I went into training initially; it seemed like a logical career progression. But training didn’t ignite anything in me.
“Then, someone threw in the idea of starting a chilli farm. I have no planting experience but I have always been an outdoors person. I like the idea of working outdoors and having my own plot of land.
“Farmers are like fishermen, in their tendency for exaggeration. They told me it’d be easy and all I had to do was hire some workers to do the work. But I knew from the start that I wanted to be on the farm, to be hands-on,” recalls Ragavan who is in his early 50s. He was undaunted that he had to learn farming from scratch.
He went with his partner to scout some 10 to 12 sites before they found the plot of land to lease for their farm. They quickly learnt to weigh factors such as soil suitability, terrains, utilities and proximity to markets.
They finally found a 4.5ha (seven-acre) plot of land in Mantin in Negri Sembilan; it was overgrown but there were a few wild chilli plants growing on it. It was a good omen, and they signed the lease.
It took three months to clear the land, sort out its irrigation and get it ready for planting.
“We planted the chillies and the inexperience in farming hit us in the second season when pests attacked the crops,” recounts Ragavan who describes his farming venture as a being on a “learning curve”.
For the past three years, Ragavan has been on his toes constantly, and on his feet literally.
He works all hours at the farm – doing everything from research to manual farm work to selling his vegetables at the night market.
“In farming, you get what you put into it,” says Ragavan who has had to contend with various challenges including the break-up of his partnership a year ago.
He also went through a low period when he had to reevaluate if farming was what he wanted to do. But he decided that he wouldn’t go back to his known field of manufacturing.
“In manufacturing, I worked long hours and travelled a lot. The pressure was tremendous but the pay was good. But I didn’t want to go back to that.
“In farming, the stress is different. I feel that farming is more meaningful because we are providing food. I can’t think of anything more important than food security,” says Ragavan who invested his retrenchment benefits in his farm. He is also invigorated by the need to learn constantly and seek solutions.
“You must want to learn new things. Perhaps 15 years ago, it would have been so much more difficult for me to have gone into something completely new. But the Internet is an enabler. There are so many resources to tap into. I am learning about farming from bloggers, web sites and academic papers published on university sites. Government agencies such as Mardi are also a good source of knowledge.
“There are also farming groups on WhatsApp and Facebook to discuss farming matters. These days, we can take photos of a problem and ask the group for help,” says Ragavan.
Nine months ago, he switched from fertigation (where the nutrients are fed to plants planted in polybag via water) to hydroponics (a method of growing plants in a water based, nutrient rich solution, without using soil).
“I ran into problems after two years of using the fertigation method. My cousin was using the hydroponics method, and I started experimenting with it on a small scale,” adds Ragavan, who does not use pesticides in his farm. He now plants vegetables such as bok choy, spinach and kai lan using the hydroponic method. Soon, he will also grow rock melons.
The change in farming method required added investments but it also meant that he could reduce the number of workers on his farm from 11 to two.
Ragavan, who now reads a lot to learn about farming, keeps a keen eye on everything that goes on in his farm, constantly figuring out ways of making work more efficient.
“As I am hands-on, I know the issues my workers have. For instance, I covered the soil with weed mat so that we’d not have to spend so much time weeding. It required some investment but we save on other costs.
“Last year, the cucumbers were growing fine but this year’s weather affected them. It is hotter and we had to use black netting to shade the plants from the sun.
“We also gather data like how many days it takes for the plants to fruit or mature, and how much crop we harvested. I like analysing data, which was what I used to do. That job experience came in handy. It’s also good to keep data so we can share it with authorities such as Mardi,” says Ragavan, who is also cooking and trying out different recipes with his harvests.
Although there are earnings from the farm, it will take more time for Ragavan to get the returns on his investment. He is unfazed, but he says he also needs to think of ways of diversifying his income stream, such as selling nutrient mixes, organic plant boosters and hydroponic sets for home gardens. He also has plans to open his farms to visitors so they can enjoy his produce and nature … “birdwatching is amazing here.”
“Passion drives a lot of things. I am always thinking of how to make things better at the farm. I have gained experience and knowledge, but I cannot stop learning.”
The father of three teenage sons adds: “With less income, we have to learn to be more frugal. When you have money, you tend to splurge and buy unnecessarily. I have learnt to value money.”