Thorny times for durian orchards in Malaysia

Constant rain since the Chinese New Year has made it hard for durian trees to bear fruit, and farms are struggling to keep up with rising demand amid limited supply. Prices have spiked as a result, with the popular Mao Shan Wang selling at a record R
Constant rain since the Chinese New Year has made it hard for durian trees to bear fruit, and farms are struggling to keep up with rising demand amid limited supply. Prices have spiked as a result, with the popular Mao Shan Wang selling at a record RM100 (S$32) per kg.PHOTO: FOTOBERNAMA

Durian orchards in Malaysia, hit by unpredictable weather this year, are seeing a drop of up to 90 per cent in their harvests of the fruit. And this is occurring amid soaring demand, including from China.

Prices have spiked as a result, with the popular Musang King variety, also known as Mao Shan Wang, sold at a record high price of RM100 (S$32) per kg.

Constant rain since the Chinese New Year this year has made it difficult for durian trees to bear fruit, as farms struggle to keep up with rising demand amid limited supply.

Malaysian plantations, which usually see two durian seasons annually, in July to August as well as October to November, will likely have only one harvest this year.

The wet weather has made it hard for durian trees to bear flowers, as they need dry weather of at least a month to do so. Since January, the country's Meteorological Department reported that nationwide rainfall ranged from average to heavy.

"There hasn't been a prolonged dry spell," said farmer Ng Swee Pen, whose orchard in Pahang is full of green leaves but no durians.

 
 

Malaysia's durian production, which latest data shows amounted to 400,000 tonnes in 2015, is likely to be hit.

The plunge in the supply of durians from Malaysia comes amid growing demand for the fruit.

Most of the country's durians are consumed locally. But in recent years, durian tours, which typically involve a feast of the fruit, have become a hit with tourists, especially with those from China.

The export value of durian exports from Malaysia has doubled from US$8.8 million in 2011 to almost US$18 million (S$25,000) last year.

Last year, Malaysia exported over 19,000 tonnes of durians, mostly to Singapore, according to United Nations Commodity Trade data.

Elsewhere, the world's most populous country has become a growing market for durians. Over the last decade, China's imports of durians have tripled from 2007 to almost 300,000 tonnes last year, according to data from the UN.

Malaysia is second only to Thailand in durian exports to China, though it trails behind. Together, the two countries exported 299,000 tonnes of durians to China in 2015, excluding durian paste and other durian products. But Thailand produces many more durians, with Malaysia accounting for only a fraction of these exports.

Durian plantation owners in Malaysia are trying to find ways to grow more of the spiky fruit. More Malaysians have started durian farms; one company claimed to have produced durian seedlings that can start bearing fruit in three years instead of the usual five.

Commercial plantations also commonly use chemicals to induce growth of the fruit, some farmers told The Sunday Times.

"But even then, commercial farms that resort to chemicals can't win against the weather," said Ms Tham Siew Kean, whose durian farm in Penang saw a 90 per cent drop in crops this year.

Another Penang orchard owner, Mr Chang Teik Seng, agreed. "Chemicals only induce flowering but when heavy rain hits, the flowers would still drop. Organic farms ensure (that) trees are healthier, so it can bear more fruit," he said.

With no sure solution to this year's bad harvest in sight, many orchard owners say they can only look to the sky.

"The Chinese have a saying: We have to look to the heavens. If we're lucky, we'll get more durians," said Ms Tham.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 09, 2017, with the headline 'Thorny times for orchards in Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe