KUALA LUMPUR - With the right investments in technology to boost crop yield and more overseas marketing, the "King of Fruits" has the potential to become the next cash crop for Malaysia.
The fruit generated a sales volume of RM1.97 billion (S$648 million) last year (2016) from the 66,038ha of land used for durian plantations, reported New Straits Times.
Durian is planted on nearly half the land used for the cultivation of fruits last year, according to the country's Agriculture Department.
Durian growers produced 302,000 tonnes of the fruit, said the article published on Sunday (Dec 3).
Given the high price it now fetches, the "King of Fruits" has all the impetus for growth, according to New Straits Times.
In 2013, the average retail price for the renowned Musang King, or Mao Shan Wang durian, was RM36.50 per kg, but the price had shot up by 42 per cent to an average price of RM90 per kg this year.
Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek said during a trade fair in August that the export value of durian was RM74 million last year.
The earnings are expected to increase by 10 per cent this year, with durian prices buoyed mainly by demand from China, where the Musang King had acquired a legion of fans.
The crop can provide an alternative to diversify Malaysia's agricultural industry, experts told the newspaper.
"It is clear that durian is the most lucrative cash crop from a value per acre perspective," said durian entrepreneur Simon Chin, urging the Malaysian government to take the lead.
Farmers on the ground have caught a whiff of the fruit's money-making potential.
"Many farmers have been planting more durian trees in recent years, but it will take at least six years for the trees to start bearing fruit, and a further three to four years for the trees to reach their prime age for fruit production," said 43-year-old durian expert Lim Chin Khee.
The agriculture science graduate from Universiti Putra Malaysia had spent more than 20 years sharing with farmers his knowledge on how to set up durian farms, crop husbandry, as well as the common mistakes that affect the quality of the fruit.
Mr Lim, a key speaker at the International Durian Conference in Melaka recently, said the conditions for increasing production of durian crops were very favourable in the country.
For a start, Malaysia is blessed with ample land suitable for durian farming with favourable terrain for good durian cultivation.
"Yet, at the same time, many attempts at large-scale durian farming had been largely unsuccessful," said Mr Lim.
"Compared with oil palm, for example, durian has its very own specific water and fertiliser requirements."
Newer and more popular durian varieties, such as Musang King and Musang Queen, are more demanding in their crop husbandry, said Mr Lim.
NEW DURIAN SPECIES
The current high demand and prices for the 'King of Fruits' have been made worse by changing weather patterns, which affect the harvest.
The Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi), which has produced three notable durian species MDUR 78, MDUR 79 and MDUR 88, is introducing new species that are able to bear fruit at different times of the year so as to ensure a continuous year-long supply.
"This can be achieved by planting durian at various ecological zones in combination with the various durian species designed to bear fruit either at the beginning, middle or end of the year," said Ms Pauziah Muda, the director for Horticulture Research Centre at Mardi.
"At the same time, Mardi is continuing research on the best horticulture practices for durian farming, such as fertilising, water supply, stemming and the use of flower inducing hormone," she was quoted as saying by New Straits Times.
The new species will also be more resistant to disease, such as the stem canker caused by the fungus Phytophthora palmivora, she said.
Mr Lim adds that with advanced horticulture practices, "we can make the durian husk thicker or thinner, or the flesh sweeter, bitter or creamier".
"This is necessary as the market places much emphasis on the texture and flavour," he told New Straits Times.
Mardi also developed a "minimally-processed" technology to extend the shelf life of ready-to-eat fresh durian pulp.
The new technology that comes with odour-free packing can extend the shelf life of durian pulp by up to three weeks, reported New Straits Times.
"It can also reduce the cost of shipping as, on average, only 30 to 35 per cent of the whole durian fruit is edible," said Ms Pauziah.
LARGE-SCALE COMMERCIAL FARMS
Apart from research into hardier species and better horticultural practices, Mr Chin, the founder of D'King, which manufactures durian downstream products, such as pastries, desserts and confectionery, calls for large-scale commercial farming of durians similar to the Federal Land Development Authority planting scheme.
"We need systematic cultivation of durian and scientific management of its plantation," he said, adding that the industry which is currently dominated by Chinese players needs greater involvement from Bumiputera entrepreneurs.
Mr Lim said the industry was too fragmented with many individual farmers, although multinational corporations and government-linked companies were foraying into durian farming.
He estimates that it would be another 10 years before durian became more affordable for Malaysians, when the higher number of durian trees planted by farmers in recent years reach their prime.
"What the durian industry needs is a government agency responsible for the promotion and development of the industry in Malaysia, balancing domestic needs with challenges in export growth," Mr Lim said.
He said the agency could help put in place policies and priorities to protect the interests of the durian industry, such as setting the direction of research to improve the fruit quality and harvest size.
The agency can also help farmers manage their farms, such as in dealing with diseases such as Phytophthora, the most dreaded disease which affects different parts of the durian tree in all stages of development.