Father Sez

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Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Is my so called “Elixir of Life” a banned substance?

Friday, March 27th, 2009

I wrote about the “African Leaf” in my blog sometime ago. The name was told to me by my brother in law (who is no botanist, by the way). He, in turn, had heard the term from his neighbour. So I do not know the actual scientific name of this plant.

I planted a few cuttings back home last September. Since then I have harvested the leaves twice and have dried the leaves and used them to make tea. I drink this tea much like one would take a drink of water, and so far so good. 

A reader, Sam, wrote in asking me if this leaf was any good as a herbal treatment for diabetes. I told him that I had not heard of any such effects and since then I have exchanged a couple of emails with Sam. He dropped a bombshell when he sent me a picture of a plant that looked eerily like the African Leaf and said that it might be Ketum. A search on Google revealed that the English name for it was Kratom.  

Kratom is banned in Malaysia and every Malaysian and any traveller to Malaysia should know about the tough laws we have on drugs.  As I have no intention of tangling with our Anti Narcotics cops, I asked around.

A friend told me that this plant is grown widely by Chinese families in Malacca. (My brother in law’s neighbour was Chinese). It was used as some sort of herbal medicine though my friend did not know what were the particular uses of the plant. 

A University Science Malaysia publication showed a picture of a large Kratom tree. Thankfully, it did not look anything like my African Leaf shrubs. You can see the  comparisons of two pictures here.    


 My African Leaf. This picture was taken at my brother in law’s house.


I found this picture in www.kratomfarm.com. This looks like a tree and a huge one at that. I don’t think my African leaf will ever reach this size.

A lady reader has recently commented asking me where to get such plants. Apparently she wants to do some research. I have asked her to get in touch with me as I should be able to give her plenty of leaves.  

I only hope that my research is not wrong, and this lady is not actually an undercover cop.  

The Ashoka Tree, my curiosity satisfied after 11 years

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Picture Credit: The Hindu 

I first saw or rather noticed the Ashoka Tree whilst working in Ghana. This tree looks like a folded umbrella with the branches leaning downwards. I had never seen the trees flowering and neither had I seen any fruits on the trees. I did ask the locals why people grew these trees, since they did not seem to provide much shade and neither were they pretty. I did not get any logical answer.  

During a trip to Mauritius, a couple of years later, I noticed that visiting Indian dignitaries like the late Madam Indira Ghandi as well as her son, the late Rajiv Ghandi (both previous Prime Ministers of India) had planted this tree in the Pamplemousses Garden.

The trees, had markers showing the date and the name of the person who had planted the tree. And this was how and when I got to know that they were known as Ashoka trees. I also realised that there must be some history or significance attached, as they had been the tree of choice for two former Indian Prime Ministers. But I did not do anything to find out more. 

A couple of weeks ago, during my trip to the northern tip of Borneo, I saw these trees again. Some of them had been planted by the roadside and also in several of the village houses around Kota Belud. This time I just had to find out more.   

We stopped over at a roadside tea stall and talked to a couple of locals who were also having tea. It took a little while for them to warm up and then they told us what they knew about the tree. 

They had never ever heard the term, Ashoka. To them the tree was called “Pokok Penunduk”, or “Taming Tree” or “Tree that makes you submit”.  If we planted the tree in front of our house, any visitor would accord us respect and dignity. If we wanted to go into some negotiations then we should have some leaves in our pocket and be assured that the negotiations would go our way.  

This was the first time I had heard this story and I thought that I should write a post on this tree.

Whilst doing some additional research, I was amazed at the seeming “richness” of his tree that I once thought useless.  

Wikipedia says that the tree is considered sacred throughout India and Sri Lanka. Lord Buddha is believed to have been born under this tree. And surprise, the tree does bear beautiful flowers. In fact, the tree is prized for its flowers! 

Dr. Rupa Shah, a trained practioner in allopathy and homeopathy has nothing but high praise for this tree. She ranks it as one of the most sacred and fascinating of the millions of species that are probably available in India.

I quote below from her write up.

Ashoka is a Sanskrit word meaning without grief or that which gives no grief.

In India, drinking the water in which the flowers have been washed is widely considered a protection against grief. It is a healer for deep seated sorrow, sadness, grief, and disharmony in one’s inner being due to events such as bereavement, failure, suffering, disease, and isolation. On using this essence, a profound inner state of joy, harmony and well being is produced. It works very gently, in that it changes one’s perception of the sorrow.

Ashoka is also seen as a remedy for women, allowing them to be feminine. The tree is regarded as a guardian of female chastity. The Vrikshadevatas–the gods of trees who represent fertility–are known to dance around the tree, and are worshipped by childless women.

Herbally, the bark of this tree is a household remedy for uterine disorders. The essence also helps women to be fertile. It is said that ‘weeping woman, weeping womb,’ in that the woman’s emotional state affects her reproductive organs. Therefore, the essence, like the herb, helps in the uterine problems like excessive bleeding, irregular menstrual periods and infertility.

I must say that I was quite fascinated by what I found out from my little research into this tree. Though 11 years late and despite the fact that this research has no commercial value, it sure looks to me like something that the Ririan Project describes as things in the world that make me pause, think, and end in a good ole hmmmm…”

But somehow it feels worthwhile.  And I am sure that during my next trip to Kota Belud, I’ll be able to tell the villagers a completely different view about this tree.

My family’s agricultural bonds – an update

Monday, January 12th, 2009

I have written about my investments in gaharu trees or Aquilaria malaccensis, for the more scientifically inclined. 

The tiny tots that we bought in June 08 had grown a bit by August, so we attempted to transfer the trees to bigger polybags. The plan was to let the trees grow to about 4’ high or so and then transplant them in our rubber smallholding.


The gaharu tissue cultured seedlings that we bought from FRIM. The picture was taken in June 08. 


After 2 months in our nursery, before the polybag “transfer exercise”.

Alas, this transfer process was an unmitigated disaster. Out of the 100 tissue cultured tiny tots purchased from FRIM, only about 25 survived our transfer process. Since then I have been told that the polybags that I thought were too small would have handled the trees until they grew to about 2’ or so. Whilst this was a setback, it has not swerved us from continuing our journey into gaharu. 

We have bought another 150 trees, this time about 2 feet in height. These were bought from a private tissue culture farm and cost us about RM 1,000 in total. 24 of these trees will be planted in the rubber smallholding this coming week and we’ll check the survival rate before planting the rest. 

If the survival rate works out for the 150 trees, the next plan is to increase the 150 to 1,500 trees.  The trees do not need much tending to after they have grown for a couple of years. I saw some approximately 5 year old trees in FRIM where some of them were being “innoculated” for the trees to generate the resins. 


5 year old trees in FRIM


The trees being “innoculated”. 6 ” deep holes have to be drilled in a spiral round the tree and a type of virus innoculated through the holes. This was gathered from just casual conversation. I still have some time to find out the details. 

My faith that this investment is a lucrative deeply discounted bond still holds. God Willing, in eight - ten years, the Fathersez family will be able to cash in on these bonds and roll in the mullah!!!


The pictures shown of the “innoculation” and the 5 year old trees were taken by Ms. Naa, a young Ghanaian lady who was on attachment or secondment to FRIM. I was very happy to meet someone from Ghana, the country which holds such good memories for me.

I hope her stay in Malaysia was as enjoyable and pleasant as mine was in Ghana. 

Looks like our square foot garden project is still not worthy of a success post

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

It was in August that I posted an update on our square foot garden project. The prognosis was not that good. I did mention that though the house project did not work out well, we were about to launch something a little more ambitious.  

Well, we did and it turned out to be too ambitious and too successful! We parcelled out part of our goat farm for planting vegetables. My intention then was that the “fruits of our labour” would be for the consumption of Zai’s household, our Indonesian farm workers and our household. And we had vegetables in abundance……much too abundant.  

The farm is about an hour’s drive from our house, so it was not practical to drive down daily for vegetables. There were just too much for Zai’s household which consists of 5 adults and 3 young children.  Even Zai’s attempts at giving them away to his neighbours, was not that successful as being a rural community, almost everyone had their own square foot garden.  


Picture shows the former spinach patch now being planted with the Napier cuttings. In the background is the patch for long beans, okra and maize. This will also soon be planted with Napier.

So we have cancelled this project and are converting the plots to grow Napier grass as feed for the goats.  

Meanwhile at our home front, the chilly plant on which I had placed hopes of meeting all our chilly requirements just died. (The late plant is the one shown in the picture.) This happened after we transplanted the plant from its pot to the ground. Apparently the soil along the edges of our house, where the plant was replanted was not that good. Now we are regularly throwing the poop from the rabbits on this part and hopefully the soil will be much improved. 

In the meantime, we are growing two more chilly plants in flower pots and hopefully they will fare better. The plants are still young. I hope that we get to eat something that we have actually grown ourselves.  

I must take my hat off to people like Frugal Dad and Lynnae who have done so much better.  The GRS household is in a class of their own. They have a GRS Garden Project and track the time and money they are spending to grow their own food. See their September report here. And Squawkfox deserves a special mention. She (with some help from her “better half” and her tried and trusted Tivo) had to contend with and overcome deer and gophers in her journey in growing her vegetables.

But rest assured that the Fathersez family has not thrown in the towel yet. 

Our deeply discounted bonds are dy/dx closer to maturity

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

In June, I wrote about adding some deeply discounted bonds to our investment portfolio. 

They were seedlings of the gaharu tree, which we bought from the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM).  It’s been about two and a half months since we got the seedlings.

We have been keeping them in a small makeshift nursery at our goat farm before transplanting them at our rubber smallholding. So far they are looking good.  We intend to transplant them only when they have reached a good height (about my chest height). Otherwise the local goats that somehow manage to get into our rubber smallholding might make a meal of our “bonds”.


The seedlings seem to be outgrowing their present tiny polybags. So now, we are going to transplant them into much bigger polybags. I also have to check with the people of FRIM from whom we bought the seedlings.

Perhaps I can just point them to my blog and see if the picture is good enough for them to do an overall health assessment. 

I’ll keep you posted.    

Applying the Bengkang Theory on our goat farm

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Some years ago I worked for a boss who was one of the best communicators I have ever known. He could colourfully describe almost any management fad or theory in such a simple manner that anyone could understand.    

His description of getting ISO certification was his “Bengkang Theory”. No Malaysian can profess not knowing what a “bengkang” is. It is a local Malaysian delicacy served at almost every function, and we have busloads of functions all year around.  

A Malaysian delicacy……..a bengkang cake.  For a recipe, please check out this site.

My former boss’s theory was that: 

If the correct and required amount of ingredients are listed, and the way to mixing them up shown clearly, and the temperature setting of the oven and time needed in the oven are stated, then any body could make a “Bengkang”. 

So relatively complicated tasks can be simplified in such a manner that novices can produce the desired results on a consistent basis. 

And for our goat farm, we intend to implement and practice this Bengkang Theory.  

The farm will be manned by workers who do not have degrees or diplomas. The workers would be just normal people with basic intelligence and perhaps a lot more street smarts than the most of us who read blogs like this one. 

My intention is :- 

a)    Sit with the workers and prepare simple drawings of the basic work flow and processes. 

b)    Go through with the workers on these processes until there is complete and clear understanding. 

c)     Prepare checklists for the repetitive work to be done daily, weekly and monthly. And let them have the freedom to simplify the work processes as they go along. These simplified processes, once agreed upon to be re-documented and the process repeated.  

The primary goal is to keep the goat sheds scrupulously clean, and the goats well fed, healthy and reproducing profusely.  

If we get this right….the rest should be easy.  Time will tell.        

We have just added some more “deeply discounted bonds” to our investment portfolio

Monday, June 9th, 2008


Deep discount bonds are those which are sold at a big discount to their par values because they are zero coupon bonds (bonds that pay no interest), bonds with bad credit or suspect ability to pay, or a longer bond with a very low coupon requiring more yield in the form of a lower price.

The bonds that we have bought are of the 1st variety, i.e. bonds that do not pay any income/ interest but have a thundering maturity value. My family has chosen these bonds in the form of gaharu trees. 

Last Thursday, we collected 100 trees from the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) where they grew these trees using a tissue culture process. They had thousands of these little plants growing in small plastic bags in a number of greenhouses. We were informed by the research folks at FRIM (and this is also confirmed by Wikipedia) that these trees (when they are around 5 years of age) have to be inoculated with a parasitc ascomycetous mould, Phaeoacremonium parasitica, a dematiaceous (dark-walled) fungus. (All these are still rocket science to me. I have to find out more over the next 5 years.)

As a response, the tree would produce a resin high in volatile organic compounds that aid in suppressing or retarding the fungal growth. While the unaffected wood of the tree is relatively light in colour, the resin dramatically increase the mass and density of the affected wood, changing its colour from a pale beige to dark brown or black. High quality resin comes from a tree’s natural immune response to the fungal attack. It is commonly known as agarwood #1 (first quality). An inferior resin is created using forced methods where aquilaria trees are deliberately wounded, leaving them more susceptible to a fungal attack. This is commonly called agarwood #2.The “trees” (as the picture shows, they are still teeny tots), are 10 months old now. We cannot transplant them in our rubber smallholding as they would be eaten or stepped upon by the local goats that somehow find their way into the smallholding. 

We have decided to build a small shelter for the trees at a corner of our goat farm and nurture them there for another few months or a couple of years if need be. (I am not sure of the growth rate of the trees.) Once they reach about my height, then they can be comfortably transplanted. We have been assured by the FRIM research people that soil that is good for rubber trees would be great for the gaharu trees.

Harvest time should be in about 9 years.  

The Malaysian Business, one of Malaysia’s premier business magazines wrote in December 2007, that a kilogram of the tree could fetch a price of about Ringgit 3,000 – Ringgit 25,000 (approximately USD900 – USD7500 at current exchange rates) depending on the grade.  

These trees, if properly looked after, should give us a good return. I am not sure of actual figures, but I think it’s safe to assume that one tree should easily yield more than a kilogram. 

I think these trees are as good as any deep discounted bonds that are in the market. Since there are 100 trees, they can be compared to diversifying our risks amongst 100 companies, though they are all in one industry.  

Each time my family visits the goat farm (which should be very often after the planned launch date of the 22nd June), I would be able to show the trees to my children.

Hopefully these trees will repay our care and love for the next nine years or so in the form of super duper returns.

We have launched our Square Foot Garden Project

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008


 Picture Credit: Azah. The stuff we bought. We have a few more packs of the garden soil.

I first read about square foot gardening in Lynnae’s post on Building a square foot garden. It seemed to be a cool way to grow some greens in not too big a space and without too much heavy activity. 

Lynnae also gave links to Frugal Dad’s take on square foot gardening. And he has written his journey into this in no small detail. 

We have some land around the house and this approach looked very doable. And besides, this looked great as a family project, something that cannot but have positive returns. 

I bounced this idea off my second girl and she agreed to read Lynnae’s and Frugal Dad’s posts. Which she did. And the project was officially launched last Saturday. 

We had some reservations on the issue of the boxes. The recommended or suggested manner seemed to be too much of a major engineering issue.  I discussed with my daughter about using baskets. After all they were about the same size and could be moved around easily. They had small holes at the bottom so drainage would not be a problem. They were so easily available, and besides we had a couple lying around at home. And secretly I was wondering as to why we could not use pots. And we had a number of available pots. 

Last night I read Jim’s post on his version of the square foot garden, the Blueprint for Financial Prosperity Garden Project. And he used garden pots!  

For now, my daughter has planted some seeds. They have been planted in polybags. (The leftover polybags bought for the incubation of the petai belalang and the geti trees for the goat farm.)  The idea is to transplant the plants into pots (for tomatoes, lime and chillies) and baskets for the vegetables.  

So far the money spent on the project is negligible. A total of about Ringgit 25 which is about USD 7.80 or so, which was spent on buying seeds, some garden soil and a couple of gardening implements.    

Our rubber smallholding – considering growing some Gaharu trees

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008


Picture Credit: My son. The tall scrawny looking trees are the 1.5 year old rubber saplings. 

Yesterday, my son and I visited our rubber smallholding. 

The rubber saplings are growing well. They still have about 3.5 years or so, before they can be tapped for their latex. I have mentioned earlier that the land is hilly and we have cut terraces on which the rubber seedlings were planted. We originally planted about 2,100 trees. About 200 trees have died and new ones have been planted in their place.

The latest “census” indicates that another 300 trees can be planted in the spaces available. The walk around the smallholding was quite a tiring one, but the spectacular view from the top made the whole thing worthwhile. I had a deep feeling of satisfaction when I reflected back on the work that has been done on the land since mid 2006 (when my wife and I sighted the land for the first time.) 

And though this was not the first time, my son has climbed up this hill, somehow I felt a stronger sense of belonging and responsibility from him. 

Recently some friends of mine have talked about planting gaharu or agarwood trees. These trees are prized for their resin which is used in the manufacture of perfume. 

Some additional information on the tree is shown here.

Our Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) sells these seedlings. I talked with one of the research scientists at FRIM and he mentioned that they had a waiting list for the seedlings till 2010!!! 

He also mentioned that the trees should be inoculated (wow!….I’ll find out about this later) when they are 5 years old, and they can be harvested when they are 7 years and later. And he also mentioned that the later the better. 

It seems that commercial planting of gaharu trees is a big business in Malaysia. So there are also a number of private planters from whom we can buy the seedlings.  

I’ll discuss this with my wife and then craft out a plan to buy and to plant the trees. And then I’ll follow up with an investment appraisal. For now, we’ll just plant for fun.

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