Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How apple trees came to Ba’Kelalan

YES, apples do grow in Malaysia. They are grown and harvested by the lorry load at Ba’ Kelalan in the interior of Sarawak.

Pak Tagal examining a bunch of apples

This is how the apple flower looks like

Harvesting time

However, the apples are only sold in some shops in Lawas and Miri as the amount produced by the 3ha farm in Ba’ Kelalan is not enough even to meet the demands of supermarkets in the state.

Ba’ Kelalan is home to a community of Orang Ulu in the deep interior of Sarawak. It is close to Lumbawang in Indonesia which lies across the hills, an hour’s trek away.

This settlement, sitting at 1,000 metres above sea level and dubbed by some as the Switzerland of Sarawak, has a cool climate all year round, colder during the dry season, and is ideal for growing apples.

Although there are other places in Malaysia that have the same climate, only Rata Farm, located next to the Buduk Nur airstrip in Ba’Kelalan, has successfully cultivated apples.

The Ba’Kelalan apples are of the Anna, Rome Beauty, Granny Smith (also called Lady Williams) and Manalagi varieties.

Anna is red on top and yellow below, soft to the bite and tastes sweet-sour.

Rome Beauty is green with a reddish tinge at the bottom and similar to Anna in taste but is crispier.

The Granny Smith is green and tastes sour, and is suitable for cooking or making cider.

The Manalagi (Golden Delicious) is said to have got its name when visitors from Batu Malang in Indonesia, where the original seedlings were brought from, asked for more (“Mana lagi?”) after eating one apple. This is the variety that has become widely known as the Ba’ Kelalan Apple. This greenish yellow apple is sweet and crunchy and is great for making apple pie and fruit salad.

How It Began

Tagal Paran, a missionary turned farmer, is credited for his untiring efforts for almost three decades to grow apples there.

Affectionately called Pak Tagal, he is a feisty 75-year-old who speaks with a glint in his eye about the fruit of his labour.

He recounted how his family went through the heartache and joy of seeing their apple plants going through the difficult phase of adjustment before they started to bear fruit.

He said the plants grew well but then died. They replanted and these too grew and died, eaten by bugs. Finally, some plants adjusted to the conditions at their farm and have thrived till the present.

He said the Ba’ Kelalan apple story began in the 1960s when his younger brother, Andrew Balang Paran, brought back 50 wild apple seedlings from Kalimantan after he saw the locals there cultivating the fruit.

He said that it was only in the mid-1970s that he seriously ventured into apple cultivation by taking over the 300 apple trees planted on trial basis on his land by the agricultural authorities.

He noticed that the trees were slowly dying and the authorities had limited know-how on apple cultivation and could not do anything about it.

“I immediately set off to Batu Malang in Indonesia to learn more about apple cultivation and enlisted the services of two apple growers there.

“I returned to Indonesia three times to obtain new seedlings. It’s all done by trial and error until we succeeded in getting the farm to be as productive as it is today,” he said.

Pak Tagal’s farm now has about 2,000 apple trees producing about a tonne of apples per season.

He said apple fruiting season comes twice a year, usually in the middle and the end of the year. Artificial winter is created by pruning the leaves manually. After the pruning, the trees begin to bloom and fruit.

The farm does not use pesticide or other chemicals to make the apples look pretty. No wax or preservative is used, unlike some imported apples.

Pak Tagal is confident Malaysia can be an exporter of apples if the people in the nine villages in Ba’Kelalan start growing the fruit.

Better Access, Please

Pak Tagal said citrus fruits and other temperate fruits like strawberries and grapes can also be grown in Ba’Kelalan but some villagers prefer instead to cultivate Arabica coffee.

“Our main problem is access to the outside world as the nearest town is Lawas, 170km away on the coast. It takes four hours by four-wheel drive vehicle on a logging trek on a dry day. If the road is wet, it may take between seven hours and two days.

“We are now served by MasWings’ Twin Otter aircraft coming from Miri, Bario and Lawas a few times a week but what we really need is a good road. The state government had promised before the last general election that a RM520 million budget had been approved for the road project.

“With a good road, big companies can undertake apple cultivation on a big scale. The apples can move up the value chain and be processed into jam or cider.

“In future, Ba’Kelalan could also become a leading producer of highland fruits and vegetables for Sarawak, like how Cameron Highlands is to the peninsula and Kundasang is to Sabah,” he said.

The main produce of Ba’Kelalan, the Adan rice (Bario rice), overshadows the apples grown here. In fact, Ba’Kelalan means “rice field by the Kelalan river”. “Ba” is padi field in the local dialect.

The friendly people of Ba’Kelalan, who speak English widely, are now tapping into the tourism market. About 3,000 tourists, mostly Europeans, make their way to this Lun Bawaan community of about 1,000 yearly.

Tourists stay at the homestay-styled Apple Lodge or at a few other lodges and family homes.

A group of journalists from several media organisations were brought to Miri and Ba’Kelalan to experience the hospitality of the community there in conjunction with the launch of the Miri-Ba’Kelalan direct flights by MasWings and the annual Apple Fiesta.

The trip was organised by Tourism Malaysia, Sarawak Tourism Board, Sarawak Tourism Action Council, MasWings and Borneo Jungle Safari.

By: Sager Ahmad