KUCHING: Pepper farmers, who are hit by prolonged depressed pepper prices, could reduce production costs and increase the yield of their pepper vines by using a special fertiliser
produced by the Malaysian Pepper Board (MPB). According to MPB’s new director-general Stanley Liew, the fertiliser is manufactured using a special bio-chemical formula developed by the MPB research team.

The fertiliser has 80:20 chemical and bio contents. “The bio content has living microorganisms that can help to neutralise the acidity in soil. Pepper plant does not like acidity. “Our fertiliser is cheaper by about 20 percent as compared to traditional types of chemical fertilisers used by pepper farmers,” he told New Sarawak Tribune.Liew said another key benefit of the MPB fertiliser is its ability to increase the yield of pepper vines by about 27 percent and the size of pepper berries by 10 percent “This fertiliser has been in the market for several years now but very few pepper farmers are using it. We encourage pepper planters to widely use it in their farms,” he added. The fertiliser is currently produced by a company in Johore. “My focus (at this time of lower pepper prices) is to help pepper farmers to reduce production costs.

“We are also looking into how to reduce the cost of support poles for pepper vines through researching for alternatives (to belian poles). I have asked my research team to explore the viability of using recycled wastes, like sawdust and oil palm wastes, as alternative support poles. “I am also looking at using technology,like Industrial Revolution 4.0,block chain and IOT (internet of things) to help pepper farmers in smart farming. These proposals are all in exploratory stages,” said Liew, who took over as MPB director-general about six months ago. Based on MPB’s latest figures,there are some 33,700 pepper farmers in Malaysia,most of them are smallholder Sarawakians.

The country’s total pepper planted area is about 17,440 hectares. Sarawak contributes about 98 percent of Malaysia’s pepper production output of about 31,000 tonnes last year. Besides Sarawak, there are pepper farms in Johore, Perak, Trengganu and Sabah. In recent years, some investors, spurred by the strong pepper prices, have embarked on large-scale pepper planting. A Sibu-based company is said to have cultivated some 15,000 pepper vines in commercial plantation. Sarawak’s top grade white pepper and black pepper prices peaked at RM50,000 and RM30,000 a tonne respectively in 2016 after a seven-year rally.

However,the historic high prices could not be sustained,leading the bursting of the “bubbles” two years ago,sending the prices on a steep downside spiral. At current level of RM18,000 per tonne for white pepper and RM8,500 per tonne for black pepper, the huge gains built up since 2009 have mostly been wiped out. Global pepper prices have plunged due to increased production and supply volume but weaker demand.

Global production in 2018 was estimated at 438,650 tonnes,with some 385,000 tonnes for export by producing countries. There is currently an over-supply situation globally. Liew said the black pepper price has fallen below production cost of an average RM9 per kg (RM9,000 per tonne). Between 80 percent and 90 percent Sarawakian farmers are producing black pepper. It is still profitable for farmers who produce white pepper as the production cost is between RM10 and RM12 per kg (RM10,000 and RM12,000 Better yield through MPB fertiliser per tonne). To help farmers tide over the difficult times,the MPB has been purchasing the spice from them above the market prices.

“We are buying at at least 10 percent above the dealers’ price to help the farmers. We bought an average of 100 tonnes a day last month (before the purchase was temporarily suspended as MPB warehouses were full),” said Liew.

The purchase activity has resumed last week. MPB warehouses in major towns have a combined capacity to stock up about 3,000 tonnes at one time. Liew expects the selling activities by farmers to ease soon as the harvest of the current new crop is expected to be over by next month. He said the purchased pepper was processed and exported to countries including Japan, Taiwan and Korea. Liew recommends farmers to venture into cultivating organic pepper which fetches a price premium in the niche market.

“We are now competing with other pepper producing countries in producing the same types of pepper. Why not we venture into planting chemical-free or organic pepper? “There is demand for organic pepper,and that is one way to fight dropping pepper prices,” Liew said, adding that he had asked the MPB researchers to come up with guidelines for the cultivation of organic pepper.