30 May 2011

The Pineapple Express

While many of us have enjoyed a refreshing slice of pineapple or some good old pineapple juice, I guess not many of those around my age or the ones from the younger generations have had the chance to visit a pineapple plantation before. Believe me, it is a true sight to behold. Hence, with the good weather and wonderful sunshine, I decided to pay a visit to a well-known Singapore-owned pineapple plantation in Johor today to take some photographs.


Typical shelter for short-term storage of baskets of pineapples
before lorries hauled them away for processing

Did you know that the pineapple industry of Malaysia is the oldest agriculture-based export-oriented industry, dating back as far as 1888? Pineapples were so synonymous with our northern neighbour that pineapple juice used to be served on board all Malaysian Airlines flights not too long ago. In fact, most of the canned pineapple cubes juice you see on the shelves in our supermarkets are grown, processed and canned in Malaysia too.


Crowning Glory

Although the pineapple industry is relatively small compared to the larger markets of palm oil and rubber, the cultivation of pineapple played an important role in the socioeconomic development of Malaysia, and particularly in the state of Johor. In fact, the planting of pineapple for canning is confined solely to Johor due to the abundance of peat soil in the state, thus making Johor the only major producer of canned pineapple in Malaysia.


Early 20th Century Pineapple Plantation, Malaya
(Photo from National Archives of Singapore)

Johor's pineapple plantations are actually located within an hour's drive from Singapore. Pekan Nenas and Simpang Renggam are two towns which are known for their vast pineapple plantations, while small quantities are grown in Kota Tinggi and Segamat as well. For decades, pineapples and pineapple products were the pride of Johor until its harvest and production took a nose-dive during the mid-nineties, counting development, lucrative factory jobs and poor prices among the main reasons for the decline. This casued the locally-produced fruit also saw the scale tilt slowly in favour of pineapples which were imported from the Philippines.


Thriving pineapple shrubs dominate the foreground, while smoke was still emitting from the large darkened plot of land in the background, the result of slash-and-burn agriculture, a technique used to quickly clear dead crops.

Although the name Pekan Nenas (literally Pineapple Town in Malay) may give one the notion of it being the main pineapple hub of the country, in reality, only a small portion of Pekan Nenas's environs are used for pineapple cultivation in the present day as oil palm had taken over as the main cash crop since the slump. All that remains are the name of the town and a large pineapple sculpture in the middle of the town to remind the townsfolk of their humble beginnings.


Pineapples in different stages of growth

Instead, the honour of having largest pineapple plantation in Johor goes to the sleepy town of Simpang Renggam, located somewhere along the way from Singapore to Malacca. The name Simpang Renggam (literally Junction of Renggam) is derived from the fact that this town lies on a junction between the Northbound-Southbound road and the nearby town of Renggam, hence the name. Those from the neighbouring towns of Kulai, Renggam and Kluang, often claim that Simpang Renggam is famous for 2 things only, the jailhouse (located on the road to Renggam) - where the most nefarious criminals in the country are said to be held, and the pineapple plantation.


Peninsula Plantations, a Singaporean-owned company, has been managing the 2,792 hectare (27.92km2) plantation for the last 5 decades and yields a whopping 60,000 tons of pineapple per year. While Peninsula Plantations remains the largest pineapple producer of canned pineapples, harsh sunlight poses a danger for the crop. When the weather turns extremely hot, some fruits get sun-scorched and fail to make it to the final cut and are discarded. Also, due to the number of pineapple plants being planted, harvested and burnt to prepare for the next cycle for the last 50 years, soil quality and fertility has dropped.


The final hurdle

Looking at the boundless open fields of pineapple shrubs, I couldn't help but wonder if this was how the pineapple plantations of "Pineapple King" Tan Tye in the Upper Thomson area looked like during their heyday in the 1800s. (See our article on the discovery of hidden graves possibly belonging to the workers of Tan Tye's pineapple plantation in Upper Pierce Reservoir here)

Curious about the peat soil that the pineapples were resting on, I gingerly sauntered into one of the many "walkways" which led into the rows upon rows of pineapple shrubs. Plantation workers who toiled these fields were dressed in slacks and boots, and for good measure too. The serrated leaves of the thorny pineapple plant are as aloof as they come and even a light brush against these thorny shrubs was sure to draw blood from unprotected feet and ankles. Not prepared to injure myself, I lifted my feet very carefully with every step in a bid to get closer to the flowering pineapples.


Not surprisingly, the peat soil felt as mushy as it looked. My foot sank a few inches deep into the wet matter as I moved in to get a closer shot of a pineapple bud. While peat soil is made up mainly of decaying matter, there was no unpleasant odour when I got closer to the plants to take aim for my photographs. Instead, the air was filled with the charred scent of burnt plants from the fields nearby, which were harvested, razed and cleared in preparation for the next cycle.



As I drove around the estate looking for more subjects to capture, I was drawn to a little stream which cut through the sideline of the pineapple plantation and the oil palm plantation beside, forming a border of sorts. The water running in the stream was dark, probably due to the presence of peat as the stream was a part of network of the irrigation channels in the pineapple field.

With my leisurely drive around the pineapple estate complete, I decided to head into the adjacent oil palm and rubber plantations to see if I could find any more interesting things to photograph.


Turning out of the pineapple plantation, I crossed a narrow concrete bridge, traversing a wide river and arriving at the perimeter of a sprawling rubber plantation. I caught sight of small little collecting cups tied to the trunks of these rubber trees about 3 feet above the ground and headed closer to have a better look. There were no rubber tappers around, as tapping is usually done at night or in the early morning before the temperature soars in the day so the latex will drip longer before coagulating and sealing the cut in the tree trunk.


The cups used to collect the rubber sap were rudimentary at best. Made from the bottom half of a sawn-off plastic soft drink can, the white and opaque latex had long coagulated and thickened before I entered the rubber plantation. Rubber tappers normally remove a thin layer of bark along a downward half spiral on the tree trunk (The spiral allows the latex to run down to the collecting cup) and the opposite side will be tapped allowing this side to heal over.


Moving along, I continued along the same dirt track which led to the exit of the plantation area. The track was a crude, rocky path which consisted mainly of red soil, an iron rich sediment which gives the soil its distinctive red colour. The reddish hue of the oil palms lining the path was a testament to the breakneck speed that the plantation lorries - intent on bringing fresh pineapples to markets or canneries at the fastest speed - were driven at, hurtling red dust into the air, which in turn settled on the unfortunate leaves of the oil palms grown near to the track.


As I neared the exit of the plantations, I chanced upon an interesting concrete structure . It was a loading station for lorries to lade cargo trucks with oil palm fruits. Each loading bay was numbered and cargo trucks are reversed until the cargo bed of their truck were directly below the edge of the receptacle. The wooden swing door was then released and the oil palm fruits would then roll and fall conveniently into the truck's cargo bed.



Oil palm fruits are a dead ringer for porcupine roadkill

Most of Malaysia's available land is used for oil palm cultivation, and I am sure that most people who have traveled along the North-South Expressway would have noticed countless rows of oil palm trees along both sides of the highway.


It is indeed a lucrative business, and although Indonesia produces much more oil palm than Malaysia, oil palms cultivated in Malaysia are more sought after as the standard of oil palm produced here is recognised worldwide as being of higher standard. I actually learnt this from one of my Indonesia clients, who owns oil palm plantations in Malaysia.

At the end of the day, be it a pineapple, rubber or oil palm plantation, I had a fascinating experience visiting these alluring plantations, where each had its own charm. With the hectic rat race and concrete jungle that we live in, it's good to be able to get close to nature once in a while.

The next time you visit Malaysia, instead of heading to Kuala Lumpur for the nearest mall, why not visit a simple plantation to soak in the sights and sounds of nature?






Article & Photos copyright of Aaron "Six Stomachs" Chan

© One° North Explorers




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