Borneo Empurau Farm — farming for the future

The empurau are omnivorous and live on a diet of riverine fruits as well as small crustaceans.

Despite its name, Borneo Empurau Farm & Resort Sdn Bhd (BEFRSB) is doing much more than just empurau farming.

Founded on May 7, 2015 and based in Tarat, Serian at the foothills of Mount Sadong, BEFRSB is sprawled over 60 acres of land.

BEFRSB owner Datuk Yong Fook Heng. Photo: Ghazali Bujang

Over the years, the farm has progressively developed towards achieving a modern integrated farming approach, including its successful implementation of modern agricultural systems such as fertigation and aquaponics.

This is in line with the Sarawak government’s aim to transform the state’s agriculture sector towards becoming more productive and modern. 

Thus far, modern agriculture and empurau breeding and research have been BEFRSB’s key focus areas, with even bigger plans in mind for the future.

The farm’s impressive and innovative efforts have prompted visits by various parties, including state leaders, departments, institutions of education, and even the Austrian Embassy.

BEFRSB owner Datuk Yong Fook Heng. Photo: Ghazali Bujang

BEFRSB is certainly on track with its mission of promoting and developing agrotourism or ecotourism in order to augment Sarawak’s tourism industry.

Furthermore, it creates more employment opportunities for the local folk, on top of providing research opportunities through collaborations with universities.

Although BEFRSB is not open to the public just yet, once it opens its doors, it is bound to be another unique and exciting attraction here in Sarawak.

Just recently, New Sarawak Tribune had a chance to tour the farm with BEFRSB owner Datuk Yong Fook Heng and the team in order to gain some on-the-ground insight into their endeavours.

Empurau breeding and research

Yong showing an empurau fish. worth a thousand ringgit.

Empurau, a freshwater fish indigenous to Sarawak, is the most expensive edible fish in Malaysia.

Prized for its taste and texture, this costly fish usually ranges from RM800 to RM1,000 per kilogramme, but can fetch even higher prices depending on the market.

Wild empurau here, being omnivorous, live on a diet of riverine fruits such as engkabang, dabai, ensurai, and kepayang, as well as small crustaceans.

It is widely believed that this diet, particularly engkabang which is often regarded as ‘butter from the rainforest’, contributes to the unique flavour and creamy texture of Sarawak’s wild empurau.

Yong said that in a year, an empurau could achieve a weight of 500g. By the second year, he said, it could weigh 1kg to 1.5kg.

“To harvest the empurau, it requires three years. In that time, it can weigh about 2kg and above,” he said.

He said these fish could live for long periods of time, even reaching 10 to 15 years in age.

“The maximum weight of a wild empurau that I have ever seen is 18kg. It was perhaps around eight to 10 years old,” he said, adding that empurau could be found in the rivers of Limbang, Sibu, Kapit and Baleh, in the interior of Sarawak.

He said these expensive fish were highly valued in countries such as Singapore, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan — and not so much in the local market due to their sky-high prices.

In a year, an empurau could achieve a weight of 500g, and by the second year, it could weigh 1kg to 1.5kg.

However, he said, currently BEFRSB does not sell empurau.

“Here, our empurau are only for breeding as well as research and development (R&D) purposes. All of them have been microchipped so the researchers can come and check on them,” he explained.

The farm presently houses 561 mature parent empurau, excluding the hundreds of fingerlings and fries.

Yong said the juvenile empurau were also directed into contract farming or to rural villages to allow the villagers to care for them and release them back into the rivers. 

New Sarawak Tribune reporter, Tania Lam with an empurau fish.

“We have already sent over tens of thousands of them to the rural villages, usually when they are around two to three inches in length. The survival rate is about 50 percent as they have to fend for themselves against other fish in the river as well,” he said.

BEFRSB assistant farm manager Alethea Jameson Jaya said they had been collaborating with local universities, conducting R&D on empurau.

“We do this because we want to prevent the extinction of empurau since fishing activities have resulted in a reduction in their population,” she remarked.

BEFRSB has already achieved Malaysian Good Agricultural Practices (MyGAP) certification for their empurau. It is the first empurau hatchery in Sarawak to receive this certification.

Aside from empurau, the farm also cultivates selected breed tilapia. When the tilapia are still in the juvenile stage, they are sold to other companies to be fully reared.

“We sell them from between 20 cents and 80 cents, depending on the size of the juvenile fish,” said Yong.

An organised fertigation system

Taking a stroll around the farm, in several zones, rows upon rows of plants grown in reused plastic paint buckets can be seen.

Upon closer inspection, there are pipes running along each row, with finer tubes connecting from the pipes into the planting medium.

This is the fertigation system at BEFRSB.

Alethea explained that fertigation involves the incorporation of fertilisers into the irrigation water, which is applied to the planting medium via a drip system.

Fertigation system at BEFRSB.

“Through this method, the efficiency is increased. The crops which we have been planting using the fertigation system include eggplants, Japanese cucumbers, chillies, terung asam, rockmelon, and so on,” she said.

Yong pointed out that they reused plastic paint buckets to contain each individual plant. In each paint bucket, the planting medium used is coco peat.

“By having each plant in an individual container rather than planted together in the ground or in a shared planting medium, it helps to prevent the spread of disease.

“Furthermore, reusing these paint buckets is more environmentally friendly,” he said.

Aquaponics

An aquaponic system combines aquaculture, such as fish, and hydroponics without using soil as a medium — creating a self-contained symbiotic ecosystem.

In essence, the nutrient-dense aquaculture water is channelled to nourish and fertilise hydroponically-grown plants, while the plants filter and clean the water for the fish.

In an aquaponic system, no chemicals or fertilisers need to be added for the plants to thrive.

At BEFRSB, a large greenhouse has been set up to accommodate their aquaponic system.

In one section, vegetables are planted in large trays, with the aquaculture water flowing through from adjacent fish ponds containing tilapia.

Yong shows a vegetable that is grown through the hydroponic method. Photos: Ghazali Bujang

In another section, they have a vertical aquaponic system with vegetables planted on upright pipes with the aquaculture water running through.

In some of the trays, LECA — which stands for lightweight expanded clay aggregate — is used. These are essentially baked clay balls which can be used as a growing medium in place of soil.

“Our aquaponic system can be said to be 100 percent organic,” remarked Yong.

BEFRSB is aiming to achieve MyGAP certification for their fertigation and aquaponic systems.

Aside from both of these systems, the farm also houses a fruit orchard, where local fruits such as jambu, kedondong, passionfruit, longan and more can be found.

Involving younger generation

Yong said BEFRSB hoped to promote modern agriculture to the younger generation and give them the opportunity to delve into this sector.

As such, the farm provides a platform with many opportunities for the youth to get involved. They have an internship and training programme, which has received many local university students.

“Here, we have a place for them to learn. If you just study from books, it is not enough. It is experience which is most important, and at our farm they can gain this experience. Then, you can add in your ideas and create something new,” he said.

Sharing his advice for those interested in venturing into agriculture, his recommendation is to expand one’s opportunities by targeting crops for export purposes.

A large greenhouse has been set up to accommodate their aquaponic system.

He explained that doing so would be more worthwhile as the local market in Sarawak is very small.

“Another suitable option is opting for crops which can be turned into added-value products. For instance, pineapples can be made into pineapple juice and so on for export,” he said.

In order to succeed in the agricultural sector, Yong stressed that hard work is crucial.

“If you are not hardworking, no matter what you do you will not be able to succeed. If you just sit in the office and do not go to the ground to monitor and update yourself on what is going on there, you will not be able to improve and move forward,” he advised.

He said the farm also has plans to hold courses to teach members of the public who are interested in learning how to plant their own vegetables at home.