Iskandar Ab Rasid, 53, lives in a double-storey terrace home with limited space but that has not stopped him from farming to provide for his large brood of nine children.
His small farming venture, the main source of income for his family, began in 1997 as a hobby. He used to live in an apartment then and could only use pots to plant his vegetables.
But as the cost of living rose and it became a burden on his large family, Iskandar turned his pastime into a source of income, reinventing himself as an urban farmer.
The side of his Semenyih house is filled with small plots measuring between 9 sq ft and 12 sq ft that are planted with crops of over 20 kinds like eggplants, bok choy, long beans, ladies’ fingers (okra), basil, zucchini and other salad greens.
His vegetables are all organic, using only compost to fertilise them.
With his urban farming, Iskandar, who holds a biology degree from the US and a Master’s in Information Technology from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, saves over RM400 a month on expenses for his kitchen, including on vegetables.
“In a day, we save RM15. So that is about RM400 a month on food. That is, if we go by the usual price these vegetables are sold in the market. If we go by the prices for organic greens, then it is more money.
“But I am no sifu (expert). I am just an old guy who loves to plant things,” he told The Malaysian Insider when met at his house recently.
Admitting that his farming has brought him encouraging success, Iskandar said he began to take his hobby seriously when his teacher’s pay was not enough to support his family.
“A teacher’s pay used to be a few hundred, and some of us had to drive taxis at night to survive. I found it tough to rely on my teacher’s pay.
“Since my salary could not cope, I decided to plant vegetables at home in the old apartment we used to live in,” said Iskandar, who is fondly known as ‘Cikgu Is’.
Looking back at how tough things were, Iskandar said his family’s expenses especially the food bills, were “unusual”.
“When I buy bread, the guy selling it would ask if I run a sandwich business. When I buy rice, the seller thinks I am having a ‘kenduri’ (banquet).
“So I felt that we could save some money if we produced some of the food we needed, like vegetables. I also started to bake bread at home, mixing the ingredients in the bread maker at night, and having the bread ready when I wake up the next morning.
“The whole house smelled like bread. At the time, a kilo of wheat flour was at RM1.50,” he said.
Iskandar even reared catfish as a source of protein for his large family.
He said even when the family’s income gradually grew, they still needed to find alternatives to cope with their daily demands, since his children also grew.
“We want to cut down on spending but we have many kids. Since we cannot grow our own rice, we need to think of alternatives.”
Iskandar also sells his vegetables in ulam (salad) sets. The sets, with sambal belacan thrown in, are sold in airtight containers.
He has also published over 20 books on planting various types of vegetables, and close to 450 other titles including those on computer science.
He is also sharing his vegetable farming knowledge on his blog www.tanamsendiri.com, and Facebook page “tanamsendiri”.
He also sells seeds to customers all over the country, including those in Cameron Highlands, sending them by post.
“But now I have stopped selling seeds for the time being. Don’t have enough time. Packing one packet takes 10 minutes so half a day is spent on just packing them. After that I have to run off to post them. Takes up so much time,” he said.
His little urban farm also receives visitors from higher learning institutions and customers from overseas like a visitor from The Netherlands, who wanted to buy seeds from him.
“This Dutch customer, who has a restaurant, bought seeds from me and I shared with him the ‘Nasi Moringa’ recipe. The dish was a hit. The restaurateur has three branches in his country now.”
Iskandar admitted that his biology degree has helped him become a successful urban farmer.
“I don’t care for the plants. I care for the soil. The soil will take care of the plant.”
Another man who is into urban farming is Subang Jaya Municipal councillor assistant Mohd Rezal Hashim, 45, who runs a small farm monitored by the council together with some neighbours at his apartment in Puchong Indah.
Rezal, a father of four, said farming at home in the 4 sq m plot has helped cut down his family’s kitchen expenses that cost roughly RM50 a week.
“I plant cabbage, spinach, water spinach, okras, eggplants, long beans, sweet potato leaf, and chillies. What is most important is I plant what kids like to eat.
“I also have some herbs like Sabah snake grass, black stemmed sugar cane and lemon basil,” he told The Malaysian Insider.
Rezal said he has enjoyed planting and growing things since he was a boy and it had crossed his mind to sell some of his crops if he had more space to farm.
“Apart from just being a hobby, urban farming has been something I have been into since moving to Puchong in 1996.
“There is a lot of good in planting our own veggies. They are safer to eat, being chemical free. Here, I use organic pesticide. You can also teach your kids too,” he said.
Healthier, greener lifestyle
Yoga teacher Susan Tam Thimei, 37, has been keeping a small garden in her balcony since three years ago. She grows basil, curry leaf, brinjal, lettuce and lemongrass.
She said it was satisfying to grow her own vegetables that were chemical free, although the space constraints at her home prevented her and her husband from planting more.
“My husband is a vegetarian. He prefers to know where the food he eats come from.
“We are not growing our own veggies to cut expenses. We just want to be healthier and have a greener lifestyle.
“It is fun to be able to walk to our own balcony to pick up some greens, instead of having to go out to a store, find parking and buy the vegetables. That takes more time,” she said.
Tam said she also joined an ‘edible project’ in her neighbourhood in Taman Tun Dr Ismail with some neighbours.
MPSJ landscape architect Ramzi Mohamed Lazim said urban farming was introduced by the council in 2012 but it did not gain popularity then due to lack of awareness among people about its benefits.
After further surveys and promotions by the council, urban farming gained encouraging response among the locals.
Ramzi said MPSP’s role was approving open or abandoned spaces in the city suitable for locals to carry out urban farming, creating community environmental projects that also encourage people to make friends and foster stronger communal ties.
He said the council had set a condition that there must be at least five people from the area who would run the urban farm together before approvals were granted.
“From our surveys, we have found that the people can now save RM20 to RM30 a month by using available land to farm and grow their own food. They are getting a healthy life out of this since they grow their vegetables without using chemicals,” he told The Malaysian Insider.
Ramzi said the RM20 to RM30 saved might seem small but it meant a lot to those who earned low income like residents in the Sri Serdang and Garnet apartments in Puchong Indah.
However, he said it was different for people with higher income in neighbourhoods in SS19, USJ6, and USJ13, who were into urban farming mainly to get to know their neighbours better.
“So people there decorate their farms and set up a mini library there to create a friendly garden atmosphere. They have turned it into a place to hang out as well,” he said.
Ramzi said it was up to the communities how they wanted to manage their urban farms, which are monitored by MPSJ every three months.
He said some communities only made it halfway with their urban farms and the council had to encourage them to keep it up.
“Among the challenges we face is keeping the people committed to maintaining their urban farm.
“Some are very excited when they start but lose interest halfway because they get too busy with the day jobs and have little time for the farm,” he said.
Most of the people in the council’s urban farming initiative are housewives and pensioners. – March 14, 2016.