An Unexpected Christmas surprise courtesy of the school teacher

December 24, 2012

me2 6133380Woke up at the break of dawn. Hit the fields well before the sun stood high on the ridge – inspected the Southern reaches of my lands to see for myself how bad the flooding has been while I was away. Not too bad it seems. Could be worse – might have to shore up the banks next week to make sure they don’t burst like last year.

I know the Christmas spirit is probably in full swing back home in Singapore. But it’s really just another working day here in the plantation – Christmas seems to be very faraway from where I am standing – could well be on the surface of the moon judging from the way the farm hands go about their daily chores with hardly a trace of expectancy.

The reeds are tall this time of the year along the riverbank – they’re razor sharp and cut against the wound on my forearm – I find myself suddenly turning to the SMS’s the school teacher sent me last night

3.27 – Does it hurt Darling? I am sorry. But you really shouldn’t have pushed me to the edge. What did you really expect. 

3.53 – I realize there is two of you.

4.37 – The man who I met me in the pavillion by the lake. He’s not you is he? No, I don’t imagine that man would have allowed me to do what I did to u. No. He wouldn’t. I just know, it’s a womans thing. I could see fire in his eyes when I called him a common thief. I could feel the heat of his anger. His manliness as he came for me.

4.54 – Boy, I want to tell you, when that man sees what I have done to you. He’s going to get really mad. He’s going to get even. He’s going to come after me. That’s when I’II give all of myself to him. Did you really think it was so easy to get rid of me.

5.06 – You can watch if you want. It will be like that dark moonless night by the lake. That’s all you r really good for Mr Scady Cat.

I looked at messages again and asked myself just then – what does she really want….except maybe to explode, light the sky for an instant and just disappear.

When I went back the plantation mansion – I checked my journal. I had after all kept detailed day to day records of my liaison with the school teacher

Nothing…absolutely nothing….what is school teacher talking about when she mentioned… “it will be like that dark moonless night by the lake..” With these lingering thoughts I drove half heartedly to Telugu estate.

The Chee’s were planning a Christmas do for the tiny Singaporean community that had to stay back this year and though I was not really in the party mood – I felt that I should at least try to snap out of my stupor and put my best foot forward to play my part the best I can to keep the spirits up – after all the specter of hardship looms over the countryside and 2013 is going to be a tough year.

When I pulled up to the porch – Mrs Chee and the other ladies were tightly knotted at the far side of the garden – they seemed to be preoccupied with something or rather. When I approached the knot of ladies, they parted revealing the school teacher who was seated demurely dressed in a modern lace cheong sam; she seemed to be showing off her new engagement ring to the other ladies – a huge solitaire diamond – when the school teacher looked up at me, at that instant it was as if the bright disk of the sun had suddenly exploded the sky for an instant.

“Merry Christmas.” A voice boomed followed by a hearty back slap. It was Max. “We just thought we will drop in to keep you company. Don’t look at me. It was her idea. She can’t bear the thought of you spending Christmas alone in that big house all by yourself.” It was then that I noticed the school teacher staring at the wound on my forearm – she was wetting her crimson lips.

Darkness 2013   


Dear Readers

I feel there is a need to set the record straight. As many have written to me to enquire about starting an agri business. Firstly, commercial farming is a very serious business – for every 100 farmers that venture into this industry, only 1 succeed. Starting off on a right working assumptions is jugular – COMMERCIAL FARMING SHOULD NEVER BE CONFUSED WITH RECREATIONAL GARDENING.

How big a land to do you need? This a delicate question. If the land is too big – one dimension is that you may reap more. But it also means when there is a shift in the market, you will also go under pronto. For optimum yield computation. This is really quite a complex process since all arable produce are commodities. Hence the price is always subject to daily fluctuations due to market demand and supply. This basically means it is really quite impossible to use standard spreadsheeting methodology to compute ROI effectively 

I use a rolling accounting method that is a hybrid of ABC that takes into account price fluctuations which I have developed in conjunction with the guilds – I find this gives both accuracy and allows for fine tunning to achieve short term goals.

Even so, determining your optimum hectarage will not be easy. In my case, luck played a big role. Maybe 99.9%. I am not kidding. As when I started the price of oil palm was trading at a historical all time high. So that meant I was able to pay off the banks within a record 5 years. But if you ask me today to pull off that sort of act – it will not be possible as the price of PO has plummeted by nearly 50%. Many planters now face bankruptcy. Many big plantations are currently operating at a loss to the tune of millions per month. This just goes to show you that luck will always play a big role in the success formulation.

Financing, Passion and Networking: Your other hurdle will be financing. Land under any practical definition is very expensive – one acre of arable land for PO will easily averagely set you back 70K SGD anywhere in S.E. Asia. In Africa you may get it for a dollar per hectare, but you may have to build your own roads, power grid along with oil mills along with hiring your security services and it really works out to be the same. For critical mass you would need any where between at least 100 to 1,000 acres – so as you can see this is a multi million dollar business. Not something that can be pulled off by just selling your car and house. Again I was very lucky as I was able to secure cross financing from venture capitalist who I previously had a working relationship with – so they know me and I know them and that went a long way to dispel many of the hurdles that would normally have arisen. It is doubtful that if I approached a bank (especially a Singaporean bank or any GLC) they would even bother reading my working paper – as banks simply have no understanding of agriculture – as for quasi govt orgs, all I can say is they should stick to trying to make firms like Olam float before venturing into full scale commercial farming – what I feel is so often discounted is the reality that modern farming is really a science. As the goal is maximize yield under a given hectarage and this should really be left to hard nosed professionals who know how to farm. This is really not an enterprise for people who believe they can manage it in some cubicle in some skyscraper.

In my case. I spent at least 7 years researching this industry and probably a bit more time to save up the money. I was lucky as I happen to have a boss that allowed me to work part time and still be paid a full salary. I was allowed to take Mondays off to do my research to build up core competencies in farming methodogies.

Coupled to this, I also an outdoorish sort of person who is very lucky to have a big circle of friends who are all extreme sportsmen and many of them also wanted to venture into this business. As they already saw things in Singapore going pear shaped. Many I might add were remesiers.

This I find is very important. As there are real limits to try to grow something without strong men who are able to endure the daily hardships of field life. Many I should add have thrown the towel in as they are simply not able to successful condition themselves to prolonged tour of duties in the field where they had to battle relentless loneliness, isolation along with tropical diseases. In many cases, these men have not been able to return home to their wifes or sweethearts for years! 

Interest in farming is also key. Again I happen to be lucky as I am really good at computer games and even managed to win a tractor in Slovenia when I came in first in the farming simulation Olympics. The only reason why I mentioned this is to illustrate the nexus between how gaming can be retrofitted to simulate real life farming scenarios to add value and accuracy to model outcomes – this we have found to be particularly useful in developing our own proprietry range of software and affliated services to better manage scientific farming endeavors.

My feel is the right mix of interest and attitude is definitely a key factor in driving so many aspects that can increase one’s chances of succeeding as a commercial farmer. Even before entering commercial farming. I had close to nearly 3,000 contacts worldwide that I could rely on to provide FOC directional and instructional input. Networking is key. Networking is strategic. Networking can either make or break you! 

Having said that I cannot emphasize enough the need for the prospective planter to build up core competencies in scientific farming methodology. Hard work is not nearly as important as knowing how to farm professional – at the end of the day the commercial planter is really just fundamentally a very competent farmer. Everything else just comes thereafter.  

Risk Mitigation, Hedging & Maximizing Opportunity Cost. The other business aspect of running a plantation is to hedge against single crop risk – this will require you to diversify your range of services. In my case, oil palm is really ONLY my bread and butter – that’s to say, it pays the overheads, fixed cost, labor etc, but if I just going to rely on PO to grow my business that is going to be challenging under any circumstances. Truth is PO alone can’t make you a rich man any more than running a corner shop selling sweets alone can make you rich. It may infact be a liability, if all you’re doing as a commercial planter is grow PO and nothing else. As that would really mean you have placed all your eggs in one basket! 

To really leverage on what you have to good effect – it is necessary to seriously consider a strategy of mixed diversification from the onset. This is where I feel, my plantation serves that goal very well, as it is very good platform to showcase to many of prospective clients some of my methods e.g scientific farming, fertilization methodology etc. 

My marketing strategy is simply this. I run a tight ship. And I am not afraid of anyone coming in and aditing me on safety right up to housekeeping – this I’ve found to be one of the most reliable ways to create a high level of competence trust with one’s customer base – as there remains limits to bullshitting and just relying on glossy brochures.

My feI first went into agri business I was mindful of the limits of just relying on a single crop so I started diversifying from day one into swiflet farming, horticultural consultancy, food security advisory services, risk assesment and mitigation services etc. So today these services are really 3 or 4 times bigger than plantation themselves.

At the same time I am looking at developing products for the oil palm and related industries – these include high flux centrifuge to refine crude palm oil to high torque pumps to facilitate irrigation and also military application of cross terrain vechiles etc.

As you can see by now – this is a business that I really do not recommend to anyone who is just casually looking for an easy and stress free way to turn the wheel of life.

I know that when many ppl see my videos or read my essays. They may mistakenly draw that conclusion – I am very sorry if those representations have in some way led to many forming a romantic image of a planters life. However, what they often fail to see is I work 7 days a week, I work in all weather conditions. Even on Chrismas day proper I will have to go out to the field. Even when I  get bitten by siaow charbor I have to somehow go to work and work is really the only thing that I really seem do.

I hope this will for once and forver dispell any illusions or misconceptions regarding the life of a commercial planter – my goal is simply to set the record straight. As I don’t want to responsible for giving others false hope. In tirring times like this, it is best to call a spade a spade.

Darkness 2013

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