“Hati hati! Jangan pijak tempat itu!” (Watch out! Do not step there!) The warning comes just in time. I freeze in my steps, not daring to move even a muscle. I train my eyes on Fitri Ismail who had sounded the alarm just seconds earlier. His right index finger points exactly to the place a mere foot away from me.
Feeling jittery, I start to scan everything within my vicinity. “Did Fitri spot danger ahead? Is there a snake or a scorpion lurking nearby?” I ask myself as my heart begins to beat significantly faster. Instead, I only see what appear to be white pebbles in front of me.
I’m just about to comment about the unusual stones when he drops to his feet and gently picks up a large one. Then he puts it in my hands. It’s only then that I realise that the white ‘pebbles’ are actually mushrooms. I always assumed that these fungi had to be propagated in a specially constructed shed, away from predators and the devastating effects of Mother Nature.
A MUSHROOMING BUSINESS
Just minutes earlier, I had followed the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) officer to one of the rubber estates participating in the recently launched mushroom planting programme.
Navigating the narrow back roads of rural northern Kedah to reach this isolated plantation located just beside a river (Sungai Padang Terap) is quite the harrowing experience for a visitor like me. But having Fitri as a guide is comforting, knowing that he’s made many regular visits to this remote location while working on various MCMC outreach programmes. He knows the area like the back of his hand and I’m quite certain he can even find his way blindfolded!
He tells me that the owner of the estate we’re heading to numbers among the few rubber smallholders in northern Kedah who had recently participated in the Volvariella mushroom cultivation programme conducted by the Mushroom Development and Production Centre (PPPC) in Padang Terap. The centre is managed by the Kampung Padang Nyior village cooperative and receives technical assistance from the district Agriculture Department.
As we reach the estate, he waves at the rows of rubber trees and encourages me to go on a mushroom hunt. “You’ll be able to find them easily... they’re everywhere!” he assures me with a grin.
Walking gingerly, I begin scouring the ground to look for the prized fungi. To my utter amazement, he is right — they seem to be growing everywhere! The haphazard rows of the now easily identifiable mushroom plots speak volumes about the commitment of the participants of the mushroom cultivation programme towards this novel venture.
“Most rubber estate smallholders face a lot of tough challenges especially in recent years,” shares Fitri, before adding: “It’s good for them to diversify.” The price of rubber has been on a steady decline since February 2011, says Fitri. He grows serious as he tells me that the commodity is worth less than half of what it used to command six years ago. To make matters worse, many small holders have to contend with middlemen who regularly give them a raw deal by paying below fair value for their produce.
His face brightens a little when he starts talking about the locals who have reaped good profits from this new venture. Although Volvariella mushrooms are found naturally in tropical and subtropical countries, its propagation on a commercial scale only started in earnest back in the 1970s when researchers in China successfully grew them on padi straw, banana trunk and coconut husk beds. “Even with that breakthrough, early Volvariella mushroom growers found it difficult to market their produce as the fungi only had a very short shelf life,” he adds.
This edible fungi, which is also known as padi straw mushroom, has been making waves in Padang Terap ever since its initial unveiling back in 2015. “Aspiring mushroom growers are only required to participate in a one-day course at PPPC. Within that short period of time, they are taught everything they need to know about this lucrative venture,” Fitri explains proudly, adding: “I joined the course out of curiosity and never realised how easy it was to plant mushrooms until that day.”
Thanks to the innovative research staff at PPPC, Volvariella mushroom cultivators in Padang Terap are the first in the world to use discarded oil palm bunches as base culture medium. Previously these oil palm bunches were just thrown away after the fruits had been removed for oil extraction.
“Today, the local mushroom farmers are playing their part in helping to recycle the refuse and at the same time put them to good use,” discloses Fitri. He tells me that the only setback is that the oil palm bunches have to be washed thoroughly prior to use in order remove the remaining oil residue. “That aside, we find these leftovers from the oil palm industry to be one of the best growth promoters for Volvariella mushrooms.”
Noticing my growing interest in Volvariella mushroom propagation, he suggests that I visit PPPC which is located along our route back to Kuala Nerang. Before leaving, I simply had to ask Fitri a question that had been hovering in my mind ever since I laid eyes on the mushrooms. “Is it alright to plant the mushrooms out in the open like this?” I ask.
The affable man assures me that the Volvariella mushrooms have very few enemies, saying: “Only monkeys and wild boars feed on this species and luckily for us there are very few of these animals in this area. Also, we’re not compelled to use any insecticides or pesticides at all. You can say that our products are 100 per cent organic.”
The Kampung Padang Nyior PPPC is a hive of activity when we arrive around noon. Apparently a new shipment of padi straws had just arrived from Alor Star so both staff and workers are busy rolling the huge bales into the open-air storage area.
I learn from section manager, Norman Hassan that the mushroom stock produced at the centre is cultured in a mixture of oil palm bunch residue and padi straws. This is done to acclimatise the fungi to nutrients from both sources. “This gives farmers the freedom to use whatever growth medium available to them when they start planting. They are assured that their mushrooms will be able to adapt well,” he adds.
The inoculating room manned by supervisor Norain Zakaria is the place when the padi and oil palm residue are inoculated with the Volvariella mushroom spores. She works in a laminar flow cabinet to minimise contamination. The effort Norain takes to carefully sterilise the equipment speaks volumes of the hard work put in by everyone at PPPC. It’s therefore little wonder that the centre’s productivity has increased by leaps and bounds within two short years only.
Before heading off, I join Fitri and Norman at the research and development section to see what the future holds for the Volvariella mushroom industry. Laboratory analysis has proven that this popular mushroom is rich in protein and fortified with various vitamins and minerals. Capitalising on the fungi’s proven anti-ageing properties and low cholesterol content, the centre is in the final stages of unveiling a series of Volvariella mushroom-based products that will be marketed both locally as well as abroad.
“We are aware that farmers are unable to store fresh Volvariella for more than a week. As a result, our researchers have come up with novel ideas to extend the shelf life. This includes mushroom tea and serunding,” explains Norman as he walks me through the different types of products.
After a tasting session, I find myself in a quandary when asked to name my favourite. It’s not an easy choice as everything appealed to my palate. After much contemplation, I decide on the preserved mushrooms. The thinly sliced pieces have a mild taste, closely resembling that of potato chips. Fortunately, mushrooms are carbohydrate-free and I can safely munch on as many of these savoury crisps as I like without having to watch my weight.
On the way back Fitri makes a detour and takes me to the Padang Terap Pusat Internet 1 Malaysia (PI1M) cluster headquarters. As we walk towards the single storey building located beside a picturesque padi field, he tells me that the local farmers owe their success in marketing the Volvariella mushrooms to the expertise and assistance provided by the PI1M staff. Among the state of the art programmes that the farmers find most useful here include the multifunctional dashboard system and the basic entrepreneurial training simulator.
The Padang Terap PI1M cluster is made up of nine nearby 1Malaysia Internet centres. These centres are located in Kuala Nerang, Lubuk Merbau, Kg Belukar Luas, Kg Perik, Kg Musa Pedu, Kg Tanjung Padang Sanai, Felda Bukit Tembaga, Pekan Naka and Kg Tong Pelu. Helmed by Hayati Rejab, these centres assist budding entrepreneurs in setting up their portfolios and websites to market their products.
The arrival of several secondary school children catches my attention. Locals, regardless of age, only need pay a one off RM5 fee to become life members of PI1M. Apart from using the computers and notebooks at the centre, this nominal sum also gives members full access to facilities like printing, scanning and photocopying.
He suddenly taps me on the shoulder, turning my attention to a nearby computer screen. The Volvariella mushroom website belonging to one of the smallholders has just been updated and just at that very moment, two online orders for Volvariella mushroom pop up on the screen from Sungai Petani and Ipoh.
Before leaving, I congratulate Fitri and the rest of the PI1M staff on their success and thank them for the eye-opening experience. My perception of this once sleepy hamlet has changed for the better. By harnessing the awesome power of the Internet and combining it with a good measure of innovation and hard work, I can only say that the sky’s the limit for the people of Padang Terap!
Pictures courtesy of Alan Teh Leam Seng