I met a man by the side of the road. Let’s call him Mr P.

I was working in a bean patch at the Liew’s farm and he came over to talk. He told me he was an organic farmer. Grows broccoli mainly. Naturally I asked him for his phone number.

I asked Mr Liew about him later- Did he know this organic farmer? And if yes, why didn’t I? It is a small world for organic growers in the Cameron Highlands.

Mr Liew laughed. He says it’s a question that all boils down to “what is organic”?

In Malaysia, apparently, not all organics are created equally. Some farmers encapsulate what we identify the word to mean- natural, ecologically aware, minimal impact. Others use the fresh-faced word to help score a few more hundred ringgit a month, in what they call “Grade 2 Organics”.

Stepping back for a little perspective: Guidelines for organics according to the United States Department of Agriculture are vastly different from Australia’s own government department, who house one of the stricter set of regulations. In USDA, for example, boric acid is allowed. The Aussies say no way.

In Malaysia, the rules are medium relaxed- but even they wouldn’t approve of Mr P or “Grade 2”, who thinks being organic means to “spray pesticides but stop a few weeks before harvest”. A common practice in the Cameron Highlands, apparently, and throughout Malaysia for that matter.

When we first started growing vegetables in the Cameron Highlands, Mr Fung stipulated that we would never participate in the organic certified charade. Granted, he already had one from the Malaysian government, but he saw the rules of organics bent so far backwards that he refused to participate. Not to mention the costs of getting an international stamp of approval- which run at around SG$30,000 a year. Instead, we kept an open-door policy, welcoming anybody wishing to test the produce, test a farmer’s knowledge or rummage through the sheds.

“Organic” had become a by-word. A word used by big supermarket chains who somehow manage to grow hectares of monocrop organic veg all free from insect holes. A marketing tool, a PR buzz word, a load of bullshit. We didn’t want to participate- but we did want people to know what lengths we went to grow everything naturally and with full traceability.

As the years rolled on, I developed more confidence in the government system, if not as the holy grail, than just as a method for recognition and separating what we do from Mr P and the farmers who also claim to be organic but pour on the synthetic enhancers and pesticides anyway.

We are now in the process of obtaining certificates… Thanks Mr P for showing me the way.